Africa’s population boom does not spell an economic dividend

Small families are not intrinsically good but they do reflect economic progress

A few years ago, John Magufuli, the late former president of Tanzania, exhorted women to “throw their contraceptives away” and “keep reproducing” to make their country strong.

Magufuli, a Covid denier, is now dead – of Covid. But his views live on. The idea of limiting population growth in Africa is controversial, often for good reason. It is hard to disentangle telling people not to have babies from a tawdry history of forced sterilisation, racism and eugenics.

Many African leaders – 53 out of 54 of whom are men – believe it is none of anyone’s business how many children their people choose to have. Population densities in most African countries are not high. The continent is nine times as big as India with a slightly smaller population.

Jimi Wanjigi, a Kenyan businessman and political strategist, wants his nation’s women to have more children so Kenya has “bargaining power like other populous countries”. If more people is the goal, Kenyans are doing well. Based on UN Development Programme projections, Kenya’s population will be 90 million by 2050, nearly double that of today and 15 times the 1950 level.


Kenyan women on average have 3.4 children. That is above the 2.1 at which a population stabilises, but well below the African average of 4.4. Nations with much higher fertility rates include Magafuli’s Tanzania (4.9 children), the Democratic Republic of Congo (6) and Niger (7). Nigeria will surpass 400 million people by 2050, overtaking the US as the world’s third most populous country.

If Africa’s population is booming, much of the world is going in the opposite direction. In Europe, the Americas and many parts of Asia, the fertility rate has fallen below 2.1, presaging population decline. In Japan, the population is falling by one person a minute. Where Japan goes, China and Europe will follow.

Two extremes

For the foreseeable future, most of the world’s population increase will be in Africa. In 1980, one in 10 of the world’s population was African, writes Edward Paice, author of a new book, Youthquake, and director of the Africa Research Institute. By 2050 that will be one in four. By then a third of the world’s working-age population, defined as 15- to 64-year-olds, will be African, though by no means all of them will be in work. If raw numbers count, as Jimi Wanjigi insists, then Africa, often regarded as peripheral, will become more central in world affairs.

For others, these trends are calamitous, promising more hunger, more conflict and more environmental ruin. True, demographic alarmists have been crying wolf for decades. Even if climate change and biodiversity collapse are evidence that the doomsayers were right, Africans are hardly to blame. The continent’s per-capita carbon emissions are tiny. Africa contains much of what remains of the world’s wilderness.

Yet, in one respect, both Magufuli and Wanjigi have it wildly wrong. Like many, they regard a fast-growing population as a demographic dividend. Africa is the youngest continent, with a median age of 19.7 against 42.5 in Europe. But youth is not to be confused with the demographic motor that powered east Asia’s economic take-off from the 1970s. That was predicated on a sharp fall in the fertility rate, which increased the proportion of the working age population relative to dependants. In Africa, that dynamic is absent.

Female education

The demographic conundrum is this. Do fertility rates fall as countries get richer? Or do countries get richer as women have fewer babies? In truth, it works both ways.

The best predictor of births is how many years girls stay in school. A demographer’s rule of thumb is that women who have completed nine years of education have fewer than three children. In much of Africa, where patriarchies are entrenched and where leaders like Magufuli happily tell women to “set their ovaries free”, women have insufficient agency over their lives.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAids, rightly equates development with women’s rights. She recently praised Bangladesh, a recent economic success, for reducing its fertility rate from seven in the 1990s to 2.2 today.

Small families are not intrinsically good. But they do reflect economic progress. In countries where women are well represented both in politics and in the workplace, falling birth rates and rising living standards have tended to go hand in hand.

The picture in Africa’s 54 countries is not uniform. The fertility rate in north Africa (3.3) and southern Africa (2.5) has fallen sharply. But too many African women remain subject to the whims of men. If African countries are to beat the poverty trap, women need more power over their lives. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021