Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to skyrocket in population over the next 30 years. What will that mean for the world's youngest continent as the rest of the world is getting older?
Africa is growing—and getting younger.
Figures released earlier this week by the United Nations estimate that by 2050, the number of sub-Saharan Africans will increase by 99%, representing the largest surge in population of any region on Earth.
By 2055 the continent’s youth population, aged 15–24, is expected to be more than double the 2015 total of 226 million, reports the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).
Nearly 50% of women live in countries where fertility is below 2.1 births per woman over a lifetime, compared to sub-Saharan mothers who have more than twice as many children with 4.6 births per woman over a lifetime, according the 2019 World Population Prospects.
The prospects, published by Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), provides essential information about the world’s people: how many we are, how long we live, how many children we have, says Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, assistant secretary-general for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs for UN DESA.
While Africa is growing younger, the rest of the world is growing older. Life expectancy increased from 64.2 years in 1990 to 72.6 years in 2019, the prospects reports. By 2050, the agency projects the age to increase to 77.1 years.
The World Bank reports that the average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is 61: Sierra Leone has the lowest life expectancy at 52, and Mauritius has the highest life expectancy at 75.
“Within little more than a decade, there are likely to be around 8.5 billion people on earth, and almost 10 billion by 2050, compared to 7.7 billion today,” states the prospects. These findings are based on sample surveys and census reports from 235 countries and regions describing the trends in fertility, mortality and international migration, says Spatolisano.
Of the nine countries that will account for more than half of the projected population growth between now and 2050, five of them are on the continent. The countries in order of growth are Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania and Egypt.
In comparison, Oceania, a region that includes Polynesia, is expected to spike in population by 56%. Northern Africa and western Asia is on target to increase by 46%. Australia and New Zealand could see 28% growth. The population in central and southern Asia may rise by 25%, and Latin America and the Caribbean may rise by 18%. Other regions could expect minimal increases: Southeastern Asia with a three percent increase, and Europe and northern America may hold steady with two percent.
Economically distressed nations have the fastest growing populations, according to the prospects, which highlight additional challenges in eradicating poverty, combating hunger, improving education and ensure quality health.
“The growth in Africa continues because births exceeds the number of deaths that occur every year,” said John Wilmoth, director of the population division of UN DESA, explaining that there has been a reduction in mortality with an increase in survival among children and mothers perpetuated by high levels of fertility.
“Increasing levels of education among women and labor force participation urbanization of the population are factors that may motivate people to have smaller families and make larger families more costly, but they need to have access to the means to reduce their family size,” Wilmoth says.
About 25% of women on the continent have expressed a need for contraception but don’t have access to it, Wilmoth says. “It is a policy gap that would lead to further reduction of the birth rate.”
One of the challenges Mohamed Yahya, a regional program coordinator for the UNDP notes is that the median age of Africa’s population is 19 and ½ years old, but the average age of an African president is 62 years old.
“That is the world’s largest age gap between governors and the governed,” Yahya wrote in a 2017 report, Africa’s Defining Challenge, explaining that decision makers may not understand the needs and aspirations of young people.
One insightful recommendation the report makes is for governments in those nations with large working-age populations to invest in education and health for young people to foster sustained economic growth.
The prospects can be used by governments and international organizations to anticipate future demographic trends and to incorporate the information into development policies and programs to achieve sustainable goals so no one is left behind.