Demographic shift: Africa heading for population explosion

AfricaAfrica will herald one of the most radical demographic shifts of the century. Latest estimates indicate that by the end of the century, 40% of the world’s people will be Africans. The continent’s population is currently around 1.2 billion but, according to a recent UNICEF Report, it is expected to increase to more than 4 billion by 2100.

The report has also made projections about the growth of child population in Africa and the figures are staggering. Nearly 1.8 billion babies will be born in Africa over the next 35 years, and by 2050, Africa will have almost 1 billion children under the age of 18.

The massive increase in the population requires massive investment in child health care and education. “Unless investment in the continent’s children is prioritised, the sheer burden of population expansion has the potential to undermine attempts to eradicate poverty through economic growth, and worse, could result in rising poverty and marginalisation of many if growth were to falter,” says the UNICEF report.

The population explosion is expected to be the biggest in West Africa, especially in Nigeria.  The report points out that Nigeria alone will account for one-tenth of all births in the world and its total population will reach nearly a billion by the end of the century.

Though the fertility rates are declining in Africa, they still remain quite high compared to other parts of the world. Life expectancy and child survival rates have also improved in recent years, which account for the population boom in the region.  The UNICEF has predicted that in the next two decades the African life expectancy will reach 65 years, compared to the 1950s, when it was less than 40.

Analysts are skeptical of Africa’s capacity to bolster its infrastructure to support the gigantic increase in population. On the other hand, it is also possible that Africa could reap a massive demographic dividend from its bigger labour force and a high percentage of young population. The population growth could also signify opportunity and help transform the continent by getting rid of its endemic poverty and inequality. This means that the African leaders need to make the right policy decisions to build a skilled, dynamic labour force that can grow and add value to the economy. The population growth thus presents both an opportunity and a challenge and it’s for African governments and policy makers to figure out how to harness this demographic bulge.

A report by Population Reference Bureau, a Washington based non-profit group, points out that the women in Sub-Sahara Africa currently average 5.2 children during their lifetime, compared to the average of 1.6 in Europe and 1.9 in North America. In countries like Niger, the birth rate is as high as 7.6 children per woman and in Mali, it is 6.8 children.

The population boom would result in increased urbanisation over the years and it is expected that Africa will hold around 80 people per square kilometer. In light of these projections, the report calls for “courageous and determined action” to face the challenges posed by population explosion in Africa. This will require stronger and effective programmes to improve education of girls and to provide them better healthcare services.

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