Thoughts about Africa can fall into cliches. There’s the romanticized image of endless natural beauty - waterfalls, rainforests, golden savannahs dotted by elephants and lions. And then there’s this idea of Africa as a perpetual humanitarian tragedy - famine, epidemics, violent coups and bitter tribal conflicts. Yes, Africa has all of these. But the problem with cliches is that they often make you miss the real story.
And the real story is that the world itself is becoming more African. Fast.
Projections show that by 2050, Africa’s current population of 1.4 billion will double. That means that one out of every four people on Earth might be African just thirty years from now.
Throughout this vast continent, country after country is undergoing an enormous youth bulge. In several, more than half the population would not be old enough to buy alcohol in the United States. In Uganda the median age is 15.
Some see a future in which this massive, youthful population propels African nations onto the global stage in a way that could mirror the rise of China. But other experts say that without massive new job opportunities, this rapid growth is a recipe for poverty, radicalization, and violent conflict.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra, and this is Why It Matters. Today, the world’s African future.
DW AFRICA: 0:39 “Africa’s population is growing fast.” https://youtu.be/41NvhzYwUVo?t=39
CNBC INTERNATIONAL: 0:09 “This population boom will be dominated by one continent, Africa.” https://youtu.be/eysBKdLmhIE?t=9
BBC WORLD NEWS: 0:18 “While the boom in numbers brings opportunities, there are also many challenges like all those extra mouths to feed.” https://youtu.be/hrc-2tCbMBY?t=18
TED: 12:30 “We have to unleash the genius of our young people. Get out of their way. Support them to create and innovate, and lead the way.” https://www.ted.com/talks/ngozi_okonjo_iweala_how_africa_can_keep_rising#t-753783
John GITHONGO: I always tell people, the trains run on time in Switzerland, but I've not heard of notable thriller writers from Switzerland. The thrillers are coming out of places that are developing, where everything is changing, it's funky, it's difficult. And I think that really Africa's future is in its youth.
My name is John Githongo, I am CEO of Inuka Kenya and publisher of The Elephant. I've been involved in anti-corruption work and media for 33 years, around the world.
John is an activist and a journalist who fled Kenya after exposing government corruption, and returned in 2008. He spoke with us over zoom from his home in Nairobi.
SIERRA: So, is that your kids we hear in the background?
GITHONGO: Well, you know, I live in an apartment block. And with the COVID pandemic, the poor guys. You know, they're out there all day and sometimes late into the night. They play out in the front here, so.
SIERRA: Wow, that's lovely.
GITHONGO: Yes, absolutely.
One of the sad things that has happened in Africa is because Africa is so rich in terms of natural resources and remains the world's richest continent in terms of, you know, looking for gold, or the minerals used to make mobile phones, solar panels, they come out of Africa, this has been a curse for us. Our primary resource is our people.
Africa is the world's youngest continent, most rapidly growing population, as a net contributor to the world's population as the other continents sort of are slowing down or shrinking in terms of population. We had 1.2 billion people on this continent in 2016, and will be, you know, 2.5 billion by 2050. And that trajectory is going to continue like that, I think. And so yes, people call it you know, it's a youth bulge. So this new young generation of Africans are very worldly, very precocious, and much better informed, the best informed generation we’ve ever had. Citizens of the world.
It’s important to note that in this episode we’re going to be talking about Sub-Saharan Africa. Forty-six of Africa’s fifty-four nations lie entirely or at least partially below the Sahara desert. The world of international relations tends to think of these forty-six nations as a group, whereas the six nations of North Africa, all members of the League of Arab States, are usually thought of as being part of the Arab world. There are problems with this model, but it is widely used.
Michelle GAVIN: In most African countries, 70% or more of the population is under the age of 30. So there the whole demographic profile looks really, really different.
Hi, I'm Michelle Gavin. I'm a senior fellow for Africa, at the Council on Foreign Relations.
From 2011 to 2014, Michelle was the United States ambassador to Botswana and served as the United States representative to the Southern African Development Community.
GAVIN: These are youth-dominated societies and that has all kinds of really interesting implications for politics and economics. We live in an interdependent world and Africa is going to be able to sort of assert itself on a global stage and the concerns of those young Africans whose numbers are vast, whose backgrounds are incredibly varied, whose circumstances are incredibly varied, but their concerns are going to find expression in African foreign policy and in African engagements at international institutions. And both with these demographic numbers where so much of the world is going to be African, and the fact that it is 54 countries, which means a lot of votes in international forae. Things aren't going to get done without African help and important US priorities aren't going to be addressed if there's massive African resistance.
SIERRA: Okay, a whole lot to unpack there! But maybe a good way is to start local. What does it even look like to walk around in a place where just everyone is so young?
GAVIN: Yeah, I think, sometimes at least, there's a certain kind of reporting from the continent that unfortunately, always seems to start off with, you know, as I stared out the window of my taxi, I noticed groups of young men, you know, on the street corner. I felt a sense of unease. And it's problematic in lots of ways. Right? But, I think it springs from just people being unfamiliar with societies that look so incredibly young. There's no time you're going to be walking out on the street when you don't notice a lot of groups of young people, because people are very young.
The median age in India is around 27. In the United States it’s closer to 38. In Canada it’s around 40. And in Japan, it’s closer to 50. Compare that to the median age in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, which is 18.
Every country has its own demographic concerns. Japan is facing a dwindling population that could endanger its status as one of the world’s most powerful economies. Africa’s outlook is the opposite, and the scale of the trend is off the charts.
SIERRA: So why did this boom happen? Is there a reason that this is happening now?
GAVIN: Well, so, most of the world has gone through sort of a demographic transition, but there are sort of generalizations one can make where societies tend to have higher birth rates at a certain era and usually at the same time, there's also very high mortality rates. So basically, families have lots of children, and many, many families lose children as well. And then over time, and there's lots of factors that contribute to this, women's education being a huge one, access to family planning. Over time, people tend to choose smaller families and sort of the population pyramid, if you can picture it, with kind of children at the bottom and your most elderly members of society at a point at the top. Over time that pyramid starts to, instead of being really wide at the base, you know, sort of get taller and pointier. And Africa is sort of at a stage where there’s still pretty high birth rates, large families, but there have been huge advances in health, and people are living longer, children are surviving.
According to the World Bank, in 2018 Sub-Saharan Africa had an average fertility rate of 4.6 births per woman. This has gone down significantly since the middle of the 20th century, but remains far higher than in many other parts of the world. At the same time infant mortality has plummeted and life expectancy has shot up. To put it simply, far more Africans are being born than dying.
GAVIN: This is something that happened in East Asia right back at the time of their massive economic expansion, and it was something called the demographic dividend. The idea being, suddenly these societies had a huge number of working age in their prime people. And were able to kind of harness that amazing potential to make these huge economic development gains. There's innovation all over the continent. And this is one of the things that doesn't get enough attention, right? You know, just like any other part of the world, there's good news and bad, but there are, you know, amazing tech entrepreneurs in Nigeria, in Kenya, there's incredible scientific research that gets done in Dakar in Senegal. There's a lot. But is there any place that's got a, you know, clear roadmap for how to generate the jobs of the future, that is definitively going to be successful? No, because, you know, there's a host of unknowns.
You know, most African societies do deal with pretty high rates of unemployment that, that's a little misleading, in that the informal sector is incredibly robust in a lot of African countries. And sometimes, what looks like a bunch of society being unemployed just means that employment’s happening in an informal sector. But there too when you think about the kind of infrastructure and educational needs for these vast growing societies, eventually, you're going to have to formalize that sector if you're going to do the sort of revenue generation that's required. So there's a lot there. But, you know, different societies, again, of course, look different, right? Nigeria, with its incredibly large population, or Ethiopia, with its huge population look very different than a Botswana with, you know, about 2 million people in a country the size of France.
There are a range of projections for where Africa’s population boom is headed, and the most common ones tend to be pretty grim.
FINANCIAL TIMES: 0:00 “The population of Africa is set to almost double by 2050, raising fears that progress in fighting poverty and disease will be reversed.” https://youtu.be/0MMifQvuN08
CNBC INTERNATIONAL: 3:13 “According to recent research, between 18 and 20 million jobs will need to be created across the continent over the next 25 years. And if that doesn’t happen, millions of unemployed young people will become a perfect recruiting environment for both militant Islamist group, Boko Haram, and human traffickers selling dreams of a better life in Europe." https://youtu.be/eysBKdLmhIE?t=193
CGTN AFRICA 0:57 "In 2011, Kenya had a population of about 40 million. 68 percent of that figure were between the ages of 15 and 35 years. 70 percent of these youth are currently unemployed." https://youtu.be/zoJ2q9WVcNg?t=57
SIERRA: Are there jobs for all these young people? I mean, competition must be off the charts.
GITHONGO: No, economies haven't been able to create the jobs. But we also recognize that the traditional economy is dead anyway. That the economy that you train to become an accountant and get hired into a firm and you’re apprenticed, and then, you know, develop etc. and stay in that profession–that the very nature of work is changing. And so the most adaptable and creative young people are or are doing that are very much on top of global trends. And therefore, there are many who are struggling but there are also many who are who are thriving in this very fluid context.
The traditional career models that many Africans expected to pursue as they grew up are out of reach. It’s a problem that’s probably familiar to many American young people as well. The difference is that in Africa these young people make up a far larger percentage of the population.
Given this difference in scale, many experts are reluctant to share John’s optimism. Some think that even with innovation, the rate of population growth will inevitably outpace job creation, and that part of the solution has to be to curb population, perhaps through initiatives that fund women’s education and access to birth control. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the most prominent proponents of this strategy.
BILL GATES: 0:57 “They’re faced with an almost impossible problem. Northern Nigeria, Yemen, Chad. And so, what we need to do is take this a-generosity and this innovation and go into those places. Offer the women better tools where they want to, space birthing, or -or have a smaller family size, and improve health. Because it’s, amazingly as children survive, parents feel like they’ll have enough kids to support them in their old age, and so they choose to have less children." https://youtu.be/ozlbeXrb_5A?t=57
GITHONGO: You know, Bill Gates talks about it a lot and all that, that really irritates Africans. I mean, okay, very clever guy, very good-hearted guy, he wants to do the right thing. But this is really none of his business about the population. We have, we have enough space. Our problem is not population in Africa, it's governance. It's the fact that we have corrupt leadership, and poor systems.
GAVIN: When I think about all the challenges kind of inherent in the demographics of the continent, I don't think that bringing birth rates down is at the top of the list. Right? I don't necessarily see the situation, and again, it's different in each place. It’s not that, “oh, my goodness, there's a problem to be solved here and it's high birth rates.” Right? It's much more, you know, how does a society move forward in a way that's sustainable given you know, that there are enough resources for all and where people can have opportunity. I think there's no way to sort of get through that without increasing access to education for women and girls, then birth rates end up falling out at the size of a family, you know, adult women choose to have. So I don't think one needs to kind of have an idea in mind of where they'd like to see fertility rates plateau out to. Women sort that out all by themselves when they have some choices.
We’re going to take a quick break, but when we get back, is Africa’s population boom a blessing or a curse? And how are other countries responding to it?
SIERRA: When I was doing research for this episode, it seemed like a lot of pieces, were examining this youth population boom, and breaking it into two buckets, either, an opportunity, or they called it a ticking time bomb. So it felt like they were very much putting it into these very specific categories, a blessing or a curse. Do you think you could sort of break that down for me?
GAVIN: It does tend to be this really binary read on this. So there's a school of thought that suggests that, all these young people without a clear path of economic opportunity, right, are ripe for radicalization, that there's likely to be violence. And, is that one possible scenario? Well, sure, absolutely it is. I don't think that necessarily happens organically, right? But if there are actors out there trying to radicalize or trying to mobilize southerners against northerners, or what have you, it does create maybe fertile ground for that kind of destabilizing sort of societal mobilization.
Then there's the, look at this incredible potential, look at this vast amount of human capital, right? All this kind of latent potential that just needs to be sort of harnessed to a set of economic projects and goals and, and then you have the incredible, you know, manpower of Africa, finding expression in economic development and growth.
And all of it’s true, right? At the same time. You have all of it, it just really depends on what specifically one is talking about.
GITHONGO: You know, life is complicated. That's the nature of life, and it's full of contradictions. So, it’s a bit of both. In countries where the governance systems and the leadership is weak, or corrupt, or incompetent, then it becomes a curse because you're unable to provide for, you know, for this younger generation that want jobs, that want an income, that want health, that want education, and that frustration boils over and causes instability. But I'd like to think it's a blessing, because with youth comes energy, comes idealism and that's what a society needs to develop. And the pace of development is quite unprecedented across the continent. I mean, I visit a country and then go there five years later, and just the level of development in terms of infrastructure, and just what young people are doing and how they're doing it.
GAVIN: So in addition to being the youngest part of the world, Africa is also the most rapidly urbanizing part of the world. And that, you know, again, a host of things flow from that, some exciting, some really challenging. So there's lots of issues around affordable housing, urban infrastructure, water, transportation, etc. It also has really interesting political implications because it is easier for young people, particularly young adults to organize in an urban environment, it's easier to share information, it's easier to engage in the kind of activism that tends to demand a response from authorities. And so we have seen a huge uptick in demonstrations, in peaceful demonstrations in a host of different African societies.
GITHONGO: And in the next 20 or so years, some of the world's largest cities will be in Africa. Lagos, Dar es Salaam, etc, will be giant megacities with 10s of millions of people living in them. But across the rest of the country, we have gigantic cities that are growing very quickly, organically, and a lot of the trade is increasingly within Africa.
And as Africa continues to urbanize, goods and services are not the only thing flowing across borders.
SIERRA: Truly the one thing that jumped in my mind first, when I heard just about a continent full of very young people is that the art, the music, the literature, the culture, it must be so incredible.
GAVIN: There's so much going on. Absolutely. The filmmaking, the literature. Yeah, there's a lot coming from Africa that I feel like we're starting to get more of a taste of in our own kind of cultural diet. But there's a lot we're missing, too.
GITHONGO: And for this young generation of Africans keep in mind, they are borderless. This young generation is very connected to the African American community to the afro-Brazilian community. Combine the fact that, you know, especially in the arts and culture and language, this is one community, and increasingly think like that. And so there's a new sort of, African sensibility and sense of Africanness. And they're able to connect into global movements and zeitgeists with great ease and quite seamlessly than the previous generations.
And of course, shifting cultural views is just one part of what these new generations care about.
SIERRA: I mean, do you foresee big political shifts? As you know, these young people demand more say?
GAVIN: Absolutely. I think, as young, particularly urban Africans, demand more from their government. So more accountability, more service delivery, and more of a sense of voice and agency in where their government’s going. I think it changes the nature of politics in a really interesting way. And I think that it comes, you know, at a time where, in part because of its demographic might, we're seeing African countries be more assertive on the world stage anyway. So I think this sort of idea of African agency, both at the domestic level in Africa's many democracies, and at an international level in terms of African engagement with international institutions, I think this is kind of the big trend that's coming, that everybody's going to have to reckon with.
And what we’re seeing in this borderless interconnected world of arts, culture, and politics, is that some countries are rushing in to invest. Of these outside investors, the largest is China.
GAVIN: You know, if you fly into an African airport, the chances are pretty good that it was built by the Chinese, that the road you're driving on was built by the Chinese, that the port you pass is built by the Chinese. There's been tremendous investments in infrastructure, and particularly very kind of tangible and visible infrastructure and, you know, parliamentary buildings, the things that everyone can see. So the Chinese have been engaged throughout the continent for a very, very long time, they're the most important trading partner to the African continent. They provide financing for a lot of these big projects. They used to provide a lot of the labor, that is less true as there's been pushback from African societies. And the Chinese are tremendously engaged in seeking political influence on the continent and present themselves very specifically as a contrast to Western partners. There's a big emphasis still, on non-interference in, in others political affairs, and they point to their own, you know, dramatic economic growth, and their impressive development story as sort of one to be emulated. And, you know, it comes with this other package of political values.
GITHONGO: China commercially, is now Africa's most significant partner. And that has grown exponentially of course, they want the raw materials, but they also need a market for what they’re producing. As, you know, the markets in the West become more and more difficult. I mean, there’s trade challenges with the US, for example. So there's a lot more anxiety about China in the West, than there is in Africa. There are problems, people like me who are involved in anti-corruption work are very critical of the fact that yes, they enter into very significant public works contracts. So we've seen a lot of a lot of building of roads, stadiums, schools, has improved infrastructure tremendously. There's been a lot of corruption accompanying it, partly because the contracts are very opaque, and their system doesn't allow any interrogation of how these contracts entered into, of kickbacks with pay, it's very, very difficult to establish. We've acquired a huge amount of commercial debt from China, which is causing us tremendous problems in a number of countries and that that day of reckoning is coming. But I don't think it's a relationship that is going to slow down. We see same thing with India, Turkey, Iran. All of a sudden they're very present in Africa.
SIERRA: You know, I was listening to the countries you were listing there: India, Turkey, Iran, but I did not hear you say the U.S.
GITHONGO: You know, it is- the US is, at once, hugely inspiring. Tremendous soft power, people want to be like the US. Many of the constitutions that have been written in Africa since the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall, resemble the U the US Constitution.
The US’ own political system, which seems to be based on a gridlock kind of approach to politics. So you have multiple checks and balances, which is good, but it means that very often, you know, at the last minute, the government has no funding for the government and the congressmen and senators have to sit down and agree, it seems to have been designed by the founding fathers deliberately to force people to to to sit together and agree and we're seeing that system fraying. Particularly over the last few years, with President Trump being in office and what has happened to the Republican Party and social media, which has shown very startling the treatment of people of color. That has caused a change in consciousness about the US. So for the first time, you know, you have, you know, the dream of every parent is to get your child was to get the child educated in American Ivy League University, not so much anymore. We have a lot more students going off to India, to China, even now to Turkey. So the U.S is still a hugely important partner to Africa, not so much commercially. The commercial relationship between Africa and the US is minor compared to the relationship with India or China.
And how young Africans see the U.S. is important, because they are the ones who are going to make choices about the relationships their countries make with the rest of the world. Whether they will want to reforge a bond with the United States, or continue to embrace the ready investments of China and other countries.
SIERRA: Do you think that the US is doing a good job of forging partnerships in Africa?
GAVIN: So I think that there are many very capable public servants and private citizens doing good work, but no. I think I think that the Trump administration has been kind of disastrous for the US image in Africa. The set of unforced errors, kind of insulting language, dismissive diplomatic approaches. I don't think that the US private sector still is as engaged as makes sense in trying to seize African opportunities. So when I was in government, often hear lots of complaints about, you know, the Chinese are eating our lunch. But sometimes when there were major tenders, major opportunities, you wouldn't even have any American firms bidding. So I don't know how you can complain about the Chinese or pretend that this is all because of corruption, when no one even was in the mix. So there is a tremendous amount of work to be done. And I do think it starts with exactly what this whole conversation’s been about. It starts with Americans getting more aware, more educated.
SIERRA: Because it does seem like this, with this much at play, there are so many strategic and economic opportunities to be a constructive part of Africa's boom.
GAVIN: Absolutely, but it requires, you know, acknowledging kind of what African interests are and looking for that overlap in the Venn diagram with our interests. As opposed to imagining this vast continent as some kind of, you know, gameboard for your geopolitical competition with some other major power, or thinking of Africa as some kind of extra credit altruistic exercise, which is absurd, right, and leads to, you know, some very poorly thought out types of engagements and initiatives.
SIERRA: So do you think that African nations need help from the outside to handle this well? And if so, what type of help? What's the right help?
GAVIN: I think that, yes, in the sense that there are big challenges that no one country can possibly address alone. What I don't think is that what's required is, you know, a bunch of consultants sort of parachuting in to design jobs programs, or, you know, I love entrepreneurs too, and Africa is full of exciting entrepreneurial stories. But if you look at the sheer numbers of what we're talking about, right, you're not going to entrepreneur your way out of this problem of how to create these jobs, right? Everybody isn’t going to start their own business. That's insane. That's not the kind of numbers we're talking about in terms of the number of people who need work, work that is going to provide enough for them to have a dignified life and provide for their families and afford that. So I think there's a global conversation that people have been having about the future of work that very strangely, rarely seems to include Africa. It's nuts to me that people sit down in Davos to talk about the future of work and nobody's speaking from the point of view of the, the part of the world that's going to have the largest labor force. You know, when there are these pat answers around entrepreneurship, around leapfrogging technologies. Some things can't be lept over, right, like roads, and ports, and sort of the infrastructure that China tends to fund. That is, you know, it's just an essential part of what's going to have to happen. So, you know, that kind of financing that China provides that the rest of the world by and large, does not, is going to continue to be needed.
GITHONGO: The most profound reality facing Africa is demographic. That's why I was keen to participate in this conversation with you, because I think the issue that you've chosen is the defining issue for Africa. Is, what do, you know, is how, what happens to this generation that is so young, and is growing so fast, is going to determine the future of Africa. And it will be determined by what Africans decide they want for themselves, plus, the relationships that are now the old relationships that are being rekindled with the East, etc. and ties with the West that are now sort of just basically, it's not that they're being cut, but it’s simply that other nations are rising. And as the world changes, how we're able to take advantage of that for our own political, economic, and social benefit is key.
Whether this youthful energy is harnessed for innovation and economic progress, or whether it spirals into unrest, poverty and radicalization, remains to be seen. But it’s sheer size will inevitably impact all of us.
Some nations have long since realized this, and are moving quickly to invest in Africa and influence its course. Others, like our own, are moving slowly, and as a result may lose out on forming a fresh bond with a population that could one day make up one third of humanity.
Africa’s power will exert itself economically, it will exert itself with its mass of votes in international bodies like the UN, it will be an essential ally in combating global challenges like epidemics and Climate Change.
Africa’s boom is inevitable. It is already happening. The question is this: will we be part of it?
For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/Whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes.
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Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Jeremy Sherlick, Asher Ross, and me, Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria and our intern is Senniah Mason. Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer.
Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. This episode also featured music by DJ Maphorisa, DJ Raybel. Extra help was provided by Claire Felter and Elena Tchainikova. Special thanks go to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke.
For Why It Matters this is Gabrielle Sierra signing off. See you soon!
In most African countries, 70 percent or more of the population is under the age of thirty, a youth bulge that is projected to accelerate for decades to come. Some experts feel that if properly harnessed, the youth boom could propel the continent to new levels of economic and geopolitical power. Others suggest that without innovation, rapid development, and massive job creation, it could instead lead to worse levels of poverty, unemployment, and conflict. In the meantime, countries such as China are moving quickly to invest in Africa’s future, while the United States and other Western nations have taken more passive roles.
Nigeria and the Nation-State, John Campbell
“China in Africa,” Eleanor Albert
“Ethiopia: East Africa’s Emerging Giant,” Claire Felter
“A Conversation with Dr. K.Y. Amoako on the Future of African Development,” Michelle Gavin
“How to Think About Africa’s ‘Rising Middle Class’ Amid COVID-19,” John Campbell
From John Githongo
“Africa’s Generational War,” Foreign Policy
“Charts of the Week: Africa’s changing demographics,” Brookings Institution
“Youth Empowerment,” United Nations Office of the Special Advisor on Africa
“Africa’s Population Will Double by 2050,” Economist
“Africa 2050: Demographic Truth and Consequences,” Hoover Institution
“Population Facts, December 2019 [PDF],” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs
“Africa’s population boom: burden or opportunity?,” Institute for Security Studies
China Africa Research Initiative, Johns Hopkins University
Watch or Listen
“Yes She Can, with Candice Chirwa,” Africa Matters
“How Will a Population Boom Change Africa?,” BBC’s The Inquiry