According to recent projections by the United Nations Population Division, Africa is on track to quintuple its population in just one hundred years. The Division estimates that the number of people living on the continent will grow from 808 million in 2000 to an astonishing 4.18 billion in 2100. To be sure, Asia is expected to remain the most populated continent by the end of the century. However, Africa is projected to move from having 1 billion to 4 billion people some fifty years faster than Asia did.
In fact, if alongside its remarkable population growth, Africa can maintain its current strong economic performance, then it may be on the verge of a social, economic and geopolitical rise similar to the one that Asia has enjoyed. Of course, there are many factors that will affect Africa’s ability to maintain this performance and meet such expectations.
One factor is whether or not Africa’s population growth will result in a demographic dividend. Due to its falling mortality rate but high fertility rate, about 40% of [Africa’s] population is under 15, and nearly 70% is under 30. As a result, many African countries may see a decline in their dependency ratios— that is, the ratio of non-working age people to working age people— as their young adults reach working age. If those young adults were to be fully employed in productive jobs, then, with more productive workers and fewer dependents, these countries should enjoy a rise in their GDP. The challenge is that it is by no means guaranteed that enough of these jobs will be available.
Indeed, according to Dr. Claire Schaffnit-Chatterjee, senior analyst at the Deutsche Bank, Africa’s economic growth is not creating enough jobs to accommodate Africa’s expanding labor force. She reports, for example, that although Sub-Saharan Africa’s labor force is likely to increase by 70% between 2000 and 2020, the region’s labour market conditions have remained in large part unchanged over the last decade. To improve conditions, Dr. Schaffnit-Chatterjee recommends that the region emphasize its services sector more than manufacturing, bolster its natural resources sector, increase its agricultural productivity and better align its education strategies with its desired employment outcomes.
Without productive employment, the reality of extreme poverty in many African countries will also threaten Africa’s enormous potential. High poverty rates already place considerable strain on many African economies, and some commentators contend that the rapid population growth will only exacerbate this strain. To be sure, Africa’s economic growth should result in a reduction of its poverty rate. After all, it was primarily through its economic growth that China lifted a stunning 680 million people out of extreme poverty. What’s more, in the last twenty years the rate of global poverty has decreased dramatically in large part because of economic growth in developing countries.
Still, at Africa’s current economic growth rate, it is projected that “[25%] of Africans will still be consuming less than USD$1.25 a day in 2030” — an indicator that its poverty rates will remain disproportionately high for some time yet. This is partly explained by the fact that in 2030, many of Africa’s poor will still be living in either fragile or failed states, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia. Given the ongoing armed conflict and weak institutions in such countries, effective employment policies and poverty alleviation strategies will be difficult to implement.
In short, it is far from certain that an African Century is imminent. African countries will require improved governance in order to strengthen their respective labour markets and mitigate poverty rates. If such governance arrives, Africa may indeed be able to leverage its extraordinary population growth to become a dominant social, economic and geopolitical player.