Get ready! Africa's relentless population growth will put it at the centre of world affairs

Sometime in April 2023, India overtook China to become the most populous country in the world. Naturally, this change received copious amounts of press around the world. The two giants will fundamentally reorder global geopolitics in this century, and their demography is one of the most significant reasons behind this.

Lost in the reporting, however, was the perhaps more incredible development that Africa’s population, which overtook India’s last year, also overtook China’s early this year, sometime in February, for the first time in millennia, to become the first continent (other than Asia) with more people than either country.

As of this writing, Africa already has 30 million more people than India, and the gap is widening at a dizzying pace. With a birth rate of 44 million children per year and rising, Africa will almost single-handedly drive global population growth for the rest of this century. By 2050, according to projections by the UNDP, the continent will have as many people as India and China combined.

In an expansion whose rapidity is unprecedented, a continent that had only 230 million people in 1950 is set to grow almost 11 times in a century, to 2.5 billion. For context, in the same century, the global population will have grown less than four times, from 2.5 billion to 9.7 billion. By 2100, Africans, by then likely numbering over 4 billion, will make up nearly 40 percent of the global population.

Against the tide

Africa’s population is the global oddball, bucking the trend in the rest of the world towards below-replacement fertility and inverted dependency ratios. It has so far defied all predictions and expectations of demographic transition. Unlike in most of the rest of the world, where the transition has been mostly complete for decades, Africa’s population has expanded relentlessly, since the first half of the 20th century, and is poised to continue doing so throughout the 21st.

Crucially, none of the main influences behind the demographic transition in the rest of the world, like the secondary education of women combined with wider access to modern contraceptives, seem to be as potent in Africa so far. Both have expanded tremendously across the continent over the last few decades, but haven’t had much of an impact arresting the growth. Even in areas where fertility has fallen, surveys reveal that desired family sizes remain quite high, often one or two children above prevalent fertility.

Not even in the 1960s and 1970s, when African countries generally registered stronger economic growth, and higher scores on these socio-economic indicators, than their Asian counterparts, did fertility follow suit. During this period, while the fertility of most Asian countries plummeted towards, and then below, replacement, Africans kept on multiplying and filling the earth.


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The story is not uniform across the continent, of course. Some African countries, like South Africa, now have near-replacement fertility, at 2.34 children per woman, while just across the border, in Mozambique, the average woman gets 4.71 children. Africa has the world’s most fertile country, Niger, whose women can expect to have nearly 7 children each, and one of the least fertile, Mauritius, whose 1.35 child per woman fertility is nearly as bad as greying Japan’s 1.26.

The main drivers of Africa’s continuing growth will be its medium- and large-sized high-fertility countries, like Nigeria, the DRC and Tanzania. Nigeria alone is expected to add nearly as many people as it currently has (almost 220 million), to have nearly 410 million by 2050, making it the world’s third-most populous country. By 2100, it might very well have more people than either China or India.

Myopic media

Unfortunately, Africa’s seemingly runaway population growth has not received much nuanced reporting around the world. As we noted in the opening, there were no headlines when the continent overtook China. Much of the little coverage it does receive, especially in the West, tends to focus on the need for its sky-high fertility to be brought down to earth, lest it gives rise to a potential catastrophe.

Never mind that Africa has nearly ten times the landmass of India, and 65 percent of the world’s stock of uncultivated arable land; and that the African land that is cultivated is hardly as productive as it could be. The continent, in short, has the capacity to feed and clothe orders of magnitude more human beings than it currently has, perhaps even the whole planet.

Other coverage, like an April piece from The Economist, desperately clutches at any indications, however faint, that the growth might be flagging. Never mind that this has happened multiple times in the past, like in the mid-2000s, when demographers celebrated the appearance of transitions afoot in parts of the continent, only for their hopes to be dashed when the pace picked right up again. It’s unlikely that this will be the last time.

All the while, Africa’s population growth train chugs along energetically, heedless of global trends, cementing, with each new baby and delayed death, its central place in the near-term future of the human race. And while the growth may very well let up over the coming decades, that still wouldn’t take away the continent’s momentum for the rest of the century. Africans were once the only humans on earth; they seem set to be the majority once again.

What effects this growth will have on concerns of global import, like geopolitics, international trade and climate change, remain to be seen. There are too many factors up in the air for an erudite conclusion to be drawn just yet. What isn’t in question is that Africa will play a central role in the planet’s trajectory over this century. The rest of the world cannot afford to ignore the continent any longer.

“Sheer weight of numbers must bring about a reimagining of African countries and their populations,” notes Edward Paice, director of the Africa Research Institute, in an article for The Guardian. Mr Paice is the author of Youthquake – Why African Demography Should Matter to the World, from which most of the insights in this article were drawn.

It is definitely worth your time.


Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image: Pexels

Showing 8 reactions

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  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2023-09-17 08:36:39 +1000
    You think contraception is genocide? Talk about religious delusion. You’ve been completely taken in by religious lies.

    Contraception is about preventing pregnancy. It has nothing to do with abortion.
  • Maryse Usher
    commented 2023-09-17 08:29:17 +1000
    Mrs Cracker, I have long admired your faith-filled and reasoned comments across the Catholicsphere. I concur with the new springtime prophesies, but before that happens, Im sure the squillionare merchants of death will bring about a mighty chastisement (covid tyranny was a sure rehearsal). The world first must be cleansed of the genocide of contraception and abortion.
    Remember the angelic exhortation. "Penance! Penance! Penance!
    Mankind has to be gagging on corn husks before we turn back to God.
    Perhaps we’re headng into the Parousia…
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2023-09-16 22:37:45 +1000
    Unfortunately for you, mrscrackers, we’re spreading our reasonable anti-natalist ideology quite well. We don’t need to have children to spread it. We just need to educate people about the global consequences of large families.

    And it’s quite easy to do that online. We’ve got more support than you might think.
  • mrscracker
    This sort of good news cheers me up also.
    One outcome of antinatilism is that those who promote it the best reproduce themselves the least. And in that way do not continue their ideology into another generation.
    Eventually, those who have hope in the future and have had children and grandchildren will prevail.
  • Maryse Usher
    commented 2023-09-16 20:20:30 +1000
    Thank God! Reading this story has cheered me up immensely after discussing with a a friend earlier today the terribly depressing anti-natalist character of most nations on earth, consequently deteriorating in every other metric which contribute to a peaceful, happy and prosperous society.
    Mankind generally is heading over a cliff by killing its offspring in unprecenteld and holocaust proportions in conforming to the zealots of a culture of death.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2023-09-13 11:37:38 +1000
    This article also reveals the illogical approach Africa is taking regarding its population growth. It would make more sense to cultivate the available land before letting the population grow rampantly.

    Then again, the more the population grows, the less land will be available for cultivation. So everyone benefits from a lower population (except the ultra-rich, who want more cheap labor to exploit).
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2023-09-12 21:19:02 +1000
    How depressing. We can’t keep building roads and houses forever. We’re going to run out of space.

    And since half of the Earth’s habitable land is already being used for food production, we should’ve stopped growing our population four decades ago.
  • mrscracker
    Good for Africa and may God continue to bless African families.