The baby’s name and nationality are not known. The child will grow up innocent of having a place in history. But somewhere, last year, that child became the billionth person in Africa, the continent with the fastest growing population in the world.
Climbing from 110 million in 1850, Africa’s headcount reached this threshold last year, the UN says, although patchy census data in many countries means that no one can say where or when.
By 2050, the population is projected to almost double, to 1.9 billion. Pessimists predict a human tide that will put an unbearable burden on food, jobs, schools, housing and healthcare. Yet optimists sense an opportunity to follow billion-strong China and India in pursuing economic growth.
“It’s not a problem,” said Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born British entrepreneur. “Africa is underpopulated. We have 20 percent of the world’s landmass and 13 percent of its population. We have a bulge of young people and that brings to the marketplace a huge workforce, whereas Europe’s population is ageing. We need to focus on education and training.”
Africans born today are likely to live not in a village but in a “mega-city,” since the continent’s rate of urbanization is the fastest the world has yet seen. Deaths from smoking or car crashes will be a factor as much as the more familiar health issues of malnutrition, malaria and AIDS. These citizens will also be vulnerable to droughts, floods and desertification caused by climate change.
But the children of last year will also have opportunities undreamed of by their ancestors. They will almost certainly own a mobile phone, or perhaps two and eventually get regular Internet access. They may be better off — Africa has the fastest economic growth this year outside China and India. They will have tentative grounds to hope for better governance and fewer wars. If, that is, they can stay alive beyond infancy.
Richmond Tiemoko, population and development adviser for the Africa regional office of the UN population fund (UNFPA), said: “The first challenge for the baby ... is to survive because, although it’s declining, child mortality is still high. For the young people coming, the challenge is to get a good education so they are fully incorporated in modern society. That depends on government investment in them and their mother, and also in health services to ensure they survive and are healthy.”
Africa’s population has doubled in the past 27 years, with Nigeria’s and Uganda’s climbing the fastest. Whereas in 1950 there were two Europeans for every African, by 2050 there will be two Africans for every European. Even China’s projected population of 1.4 billion in 40 years will be shrinking, while India will be adding only 3 million a year to its 1.6 billion people. Women in Africa still bear more children than in other regions. The US-based Population Reference Bureau reported this year that, while the average woman worldwide has 2.6 children, in sub-Saharan Africa the figure is 5.3. The world’s highest fertility rate is in Niger, where women have on average 7.4 children.
Africa’s population continues to rise because of low life expectancy, Tiemoko said.
“Traditionally in all societies, when mortality is high, fertility tends to be high. When people are dying the population tries to offset that by having more children to make sure the survival rate is acceptable. Mortality has largely declined on the continent but is still high,” he said.
Whereas globally 62 percent of married women of childbearing age use contraception, in Africa the figure is 28 percent.
“Women’s access to reproductive health services is still limited because of under-development, poverty and sometimes limited education or resources. There’s still a demographic momentum ... Population will continue to grow for some time, that’s why investment in young people, women, vulnerable populations, is crucial.”
Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s most youthful population “and is projected to stay that way for decades,” the bureau said.
In 2050 the continent is expected to have 349 million people aged 15 to 24, or 29 percent of the world’s total, compared with 9 percent in 1950. This could pay off as a “demographic dividend” of people of working age.
But access to quality healthcare and education remains the biggest challenge, says Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at the London-based thinktank Chatham House.
“These services remain poor for the majority of Africans and these are one for the greatest impediments for African growth,” Vines said.
A momentous shift from the countryside is starting, leading to the rapacious expansion of cities such as Lagos and Cairo. But with it comes urban poverty in slums such as those of Kibera in Kenya, and the Cape Flats in South Africa.
“Africa will become increasingly urbanized, with global mega-cities. This will raise significant logistical and governance and supply challenges, including for international development practitioners such as DfID [the UK Department for International Development] that has tended to focus its expertise on rural poverty reduction,” Vines said.
Urbanization has other unwanted consequences. The continent has the most lethal roads in the world: it is predicted that by 2020 more people will die in traffic accidents than from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.
Heart attacks, strokes, cancers, diabetes, asthma and other chronic diseases caused by smoking tobacco are expected to account for 46 percent of deaths in Africa by 2030, up from 25 percent in 2004.
Africa is also already experiencing climate change. By 2020, up to 250 million people on the continent could be exposed to water stress, the UN says, with agricultural yields halved in some countries. The International Food Policy Research Institute predicts that an additional 15 million children will be malnourished. Diseases such as malaria are expected to spread. Population growth could pile more pressure on scarce resources and hinder development.
A report by the UNFPA says: “Twenty years of almost 3% annual population growth has outpaced economic gains, leaving Africans, on average, 22% poorer than they were in the mid-1970s.”
Analysts say the continent must consolidate its patchwork of small countries and 30 overlapping trade blocs into a single huge market. Today, intra-regional trade accounts for just 9 percent of Africa’s total commerce, compared with nearly 50 percent for emerging Asia.
Ibrahim, who heads the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, said: “In Africa we have 53 mini-states with bad communication, bad roads, bad markets. That’s the road to disaster ... that’s why I put the economic integration of Africa top of the agenda.”
There are signs of promise. Africans are buying mobile phones at a world record rate, with take-up soaring by 550 percent in five years. The Internet has empowered civil society to hold governments accountable as never before. Renewable energy technologies, including wind and solar power, rainwater tanks and biofuel cookers, promise to transform lives in rural areas.
“I’m optimistic,” Ibrahim said. “We have seen the rise of civil society in Africa and it’s no longer feasible to have bad governance all over the place. I envy the billionth baby. I’m sure he or she will live through a much better Africa than the one we’ve known.”
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