By Samir KC, IIASA World Population Program (Originally published on the Globalist)

Africa is rising fast, at least demographically. Today, the continent is home to more than a billion people, of which some 950 million of them living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The UN, for its part, predicts that the continent’s population will double by 2050 — and then double again by the end of this century, to make it a continent of more than 4 billion.

This staggering number – equal to the entire world population as recently as 1980 — may concern many doomsayers, but in reality it contains a lot of good news.

One main reason for the increase is that better living conditions reduce child mortality and create opportunities for longer and healthier lives.

This crucial shift results in a rapidly rising number of adults who are driving the continent’s demographic future.

That development is similar to what occurred in Asia over the last 30 years, which in turn had previously occurred in the Western world.

Barry Aliman, 24 years old, bicycles with her baby to fetch water for her family, Sorobouly village near Boromo, Burkina Faso.   Photo by Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Barry Aliman, 24 years old, bicycles with her baby to fetch water for her family, Sorobouly village near Boromo, Burkina Faso. Photo by Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

UN’s optimistic projections
However, as Wolfgang Fengler and I highlighted recently, in contrast to the UN Population Division’s projections, it is far from certain that Africa will even reach a population totaling 3 billion, and the world 10 billion, by the end of this century.

According to our projections at the Wittgenstein Center, projecting population by age, sex, and educational attainment for almost all countries of the World, Africa’s population may only rise to some 2.6 billion by 2100. That number is only 60% of the 4.4 billion predicted by the UN.

The differences are stark across the biggest African countries. In some countries’ cases, the UN’s forecast is much higher – in fact, even more than double (e.g. Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Niger, Angola and Mozambique, See table).


Data: UN Population Division and The Wittgenstein Center

How is it possible to have such sharp differences in population projections, which are generally known for their accuracy?

The rate of Africa’s future population growth will mostly depend on two factors. First, the number of children per woman and, second, the chance of those children to survive (which is now much higher, thanks to improving living conditions).

Decline in fertility rate
In any projection far into the future, even a small difference in the number of children per woman makes a big difference in total population numbers when its effect is viewed cumulatively over several generations.

At the core of the two vastly different forecasts is this: The UN assumes that fertility will only decline slowly to 3 children per woman by 2050 — and then 2.6 children by 2070.

These projections are based on the observation that, while fertility has stagnated in parts of Africa in the last decade, it will decline more slowly than it had been declining in other parts of the world.

In contrast, the Wittgenstein Center assumes that the patterns that we will come to observe in Africa are not going to be much different from the case in the other regions of the world, as they went through their demographic transitions.

Once countries urbanize and citizens become wealthier, fertility declines, everywhere.

The most important factor is women’s education. Already today, an Ethiopian woman with secondary education has on average only 1.6 children, compared to a woman with no education who has 6 children.

This relationship is true across Africa (see figure).


Source: Demographic and Health Surveys

Similar trend in Asia
We know that access to education is expanding across Africa. There is even talk of an education dividend.

Once all girls go to school and stay there longer, they will have fewer children, especially as they will also be exposed to a more modern lifestyle, be it through TV, the cell phone and the fact that Africa is urbanizing rapidly.

This has also been the experience in Asia. It took about 20 years in Asia for its fertility to decline from more than 5 children per woman during early 1970s to less than 3 children per woman in early 1990s.

Similarly, India took about 20 years for its fertility to decline from 4.7 children per woman in early 1980s to 3.1 by early 2000s.

With new development and the plans for the better future in the making, it won’t be a surprise if the average African family would have only three children as soon as 2035.

If that assumption bears out, then Africa cannot reach 4 billion — and the world would peak this century at below 10 billion.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.