Misconception 1: "Africa is overpopulated."
This statement is not true. Back in history for a moment. In 1500, the population density of Africa (excluding the Sahara) was only 3 inhabitants per km2, compared to 6 in Europe (including European Russia), 11 in China and 33 in India. This was a result of low natural soil fertility and therefore low food production, as well as the Arab slave trade to North Africa, the Middle East and India. In subsequent centuries, population growth lagged far behind growth in Western Europe, India and China, mainly due to the European slave trade in the 17th through 19th centuries. This transatlantic slave trade involved at least 9.3 million people shipped.1 After that, population growth accelerated, mainly because mortality rates fell much faster. But by 2021, SSA's population density of 52 inhabitants per km2 was still lower than that of Europe (incl. Russia minus Siberia) at 79, much lower than that of East and Southeast Asia at 150, and still much lower than that of Central and South Asia at 350 inhabitants per km2.2

Overpopulation, by the way, is a relative term. It is often related to whether the population produces enough food to feed itself. This touches on the second misunderstanding.

Misconception 2. "Explosive population growth is a time bomb that is going to lead to mass hunger, poverty and emigration."
This statement is half true. The term "time bomb" is misplaced simply because both population growth and its consequences are gradual processes. However, the risks mentioned are real. In 2021, before the Ukraine war, 27% of SSA's population was already suffering from regular food shortages, and rapid population growth could make that problem worse.3 However, that risk is manageable to some extent. The problem need not get worse as long as agricultural production keeps pace with population growth. Figure 1 shows that since 1961, SSA's total grain production and population growth have more or less kept pace, but that does not guarantee the region's food security. A good measure for this is grain equivalents, meaning the total possible grain production that the region could achieve if all agricultural land were used for grain production and the average current national yield per hectare were obtained.4 Figure 1 shows that this indicator has lagged significantly behind population growth over the past 60 years. While the population increased fivefold, grain production in terms of grain equivalents increased only by a factor of 3.5. Thereby, the increase in production per hectare and the expansion of agricultural land carried about equal weight.

Opportunities do exist for further increasing grain production. This can be achieved by further expansion of the agricultural area, but that will be at the expense of nature and climate. It can also be done by increasing the yield per hectare. In the past, this increase in Sub-Saharan Africa has lagged far behind that of the rest of the world, where average yields per hectare have more than tripled in the same time span. Nevertheless, a doubling is possible in the future, through soil improvement and use of fertilizers and better seeds. However, that will take time and effective policies. Climate change will make it more difficult.

Of course, countries also have the option of importing more food from the world market but many countries in SSA can hardly afford to do so, even less because of the war in Ukraine, which has made food much more expensive. In addition, fertilizer prices have also risen sharply, inhibiting domestic food production. In short, SSA has become too dependent on the world market. Consequently, a Pan-African Food Summit in January 2023 in Senegal focused not merely on food security, but on increasing domestic food production to achieve greater "food sovereignty".

Figure 1 Index population, total cereal production, yield in cereal equivalents, yield per hectare and area of agricultural land in SSA (excluding South Africa) (1961=100).
Figure 1. Index population, total cereal production, yield in cereal equivalents, yield per hectare and area of agricultural land in SSA (excluding South Africa) (1961=100).

But if the goal is to increase not only food security but also prosperity, it is not enough if food production keeps up with population growth. For that to happen, productivity, which is production per hectare and per person employed in agriculture, will have to grow faster than the population. With higher productivity, production costs per kilogram of food will fall and consumers can keep more money for other spending. Also, wages (which are higher than those in, say, India and Vietnam!) can be moderated, creating better opportunities for industrial development. But Figure 1 shows that productivity growth still lags behind population growth. In this respect, food security is declining rather than increasing, which reduces prosperity.

Incidentally, there are also countries that can achieve prosperity growth from sources other than agriculture, especially those with substantial energy and other resource reserves. But most countries in SSA remain predominantly dependent on their agricultural development. For them, at the current rate of development, prosperity will decrease rather than increase. As a result, more emigration is to be expected, largely within SSA, but also increasingly to Europe, where by no means all migrants are welcome.5 More on this in a moment.

Misconception 3: "Africa is the unhealthiest continent"
This is a half-truth. It is true if you look at life expectancy, which in 2020 was 60.8 years in SSA, significantly lower than the global average of 72.3 years. However, at the same time nowhere is life expectancy increasing as fast as in Africa. Recall that in 1998 it was only 50 years, so it has been increasing at an average rate of half a life year per year! This is mainly due to more than halving infant mortality (from 165 per 1,000 births in 1998 to 72 in 2021)6 and to the successful fight against HIV; in short, to an improvement in public health.

Incidentally, the decline in infant mortality also has an effect on the number of children per woman. If infant mortality is high, then you need many children to ensure that enough children survive to provide for your old age - a pure necessity in many developing countries.

Here a foray into the so-called "demographic transition" is appropriate. That is the transition from high mortality and birth rates to low mortality and birth rates. See Textbox.

The demographic transition
The demographic transition is a universal pattern of a population's development over time:
  • In the first stage of development, both mortality and birth are high, so the population barely grows.
  • In the second stage, mortality declines due to better nutrition, hygiene and improvement in medical care, but births still remain high. This is the phase of rapid population growth.
  • In phase three, the birth rate also declines and population growth begins to level off.
  • In stage four, both mortality and birth are low, and growth gradually comes to a halt.
  • In stage five, the birth rate is even lower than the death rate, causing the population to shrink.

The transition is driven by the process of modernization (education, economic development, urbanization, health care). Many European countries are in phase four or five, while SSA countries are still in phase two or three.

Figure 2 Life expectancy (LE) and fertility (TFR) in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia 1950-2021. Source: UN DESA
Figure 2. Life expectancy (LE) and fertility (TFR) in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia 1950-2021. Source: UN DESA

In SSA, the process started later than in Asia and South America, and also proceeded more slowly. Figure 2 shows that since the 1950s life expectancy has been increasing in both SSA and Asia, in line with the pattern of the demographic transition. In Asia, this was followed by a sharp decline in the total fertility rate (TFR) from the mid-1960s, from 6 children per woman to 2 by 2021. In SSA, the decline in fertility only started from the second half of the 1970s, and also proceeded at a slower pace than in Asia. As a result, population growth in Africa has been much stronger in recent decades than in a comparable region such as Central and South Asia, and this continues to this day.

We emphasize that there is wide variation within SSA. In 2021, the range of the number of children per woman ran from 2.4 in South Africa to 6.8 in Niger.

What are the underlying causes of the slower decline in fertility in SSA compared to Southeast Asia? One of the causes was slower socioeconomic development. We have almost forgotten: around 1960, Southeast Asia was poorer than SSA. But since then, the economy and prosperity in Southeast Asia started growing rapidly, but SSA kept falling behind. As a result, fertility in SSA also declined significantly less.

Why was prosperity growth lagging behind? Several explanations have been suggested. One is the weak agricultural, rural and poverty policies in SSA. The colonial powers in both regions had given little priority to agricultural development except for export crops. After decolonization, governments in Southeast Asia gave agricultural, rural and poverty policies high priority, laying the foundation for the stormy development of their industries. Thus the Asian tigers were born. In contrast, governments in SSA mostly prioritized import-substituting industries, with little success. The result: less prosperity growth and a slower decline in fertility.7

One additional explanation for the difference in fertility is that Indonesia and some other Asian countries began a program of family planning as early as the 1960s.

Misconception 4: "Population growth is not a problem; on the contrary, it offers opportunities for economic growth because it provides a large labour force - a demographic dividend."
This view can be heard among African governments and opinion leaders, for example, most recently in the African Union's Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want8. In 2021 two researchers even spoke of "Africa's biggest resource: its youth". Even U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris recently spoke cheerfully in Ghana about Africa's low median age.9

There may indeed be a dividend, but only if job growth keeps pace with population growth and if the young population has vocational training. But in most SSA countries, neither is the case. According to the World Bank, industry growth has been stagnant in recent years, partly due to wage growth, while public spending on education from 2005 to 2020 actually declined in relative terms from 18.3% to 14.4% of total spending.10 As noted above, the fact that the birth rate in Southeast Asia declined much faster during the Green Revolution was partly because prosperity and employment grew faster there. In SSA, economic growth lagged behind the growth of school leavers. Rapid industrial growth cannot be expected in the coming decades either, because wages there are on average not as low as in, say, India and Vietnam. Add to this the fact that many modern industries are highly automated or robotized. So, as far as industries will come to SSA, it may lead to jobless growth.

However, we must see this from a historical perspective. SSA has traditionally had relatively low natural soil fertility, i.e. low production per hectare as long as irrigation and fertilizer were not applied. As a result, population density remained low and this was reinforced by centuries of slave trade to Asia and the Americas. That put a brake on economic development. When the neoliberal era arrived around 1980, SSA was at a disadvantage and had to compete on the world market with European and Asian countries that had been able to develop their agriculture and industry behind secure tariff walls - an unequal struggle. As a result, SSA could hardly benefit economically from its rapid population growth.

On the contrary, while the "green pressure" - the number of young people aged 0 to 20 per capita in the working age group (20-65) - at 42% is already a burden on the economy, the additional burden of unemployment will make the economic outlook even more unfavorable. Furthermore, high unemployment rates, particularly among young people, might cause societal discontent and unrest.

As for the emigration of young people, a growing labour shortage in Europe will indeed increase the opportunities for this. In addition, if emigrants are successful, they can remit money to their families. The total volume of those remittances to low- and middle-income countries is even greater than the flow of foreign investment and development aid. But this emigration accounts for only a small percentage of Africa's total population growth, and thus will not have a major effect on the continent's development opportunities.

Demographic dividend
Demographic dividend refers to a favorable age distribution that promotes a country's economic growth. It can occur when the size of the population in the working age group (usually determined as the 20-65 age group) is larger than the population in the non-working age groups (young plus old). Since a large proportion of the population is able to participate in the labour force, this can spur economic growth, savings and investment.

However, a demographic dividend is not an automatic one based solely on age distribution. Availability of jobs and appropriate education levels are also important factors - things that are not sufficiently available in most SSA countries.

In his book Youthquake - Why African Demography Should Matter to the World (2022), science journalist Edward Paice even suggests that the dividend can only be realized if ALL the conditions for job creation are met.

Rather, it is the opposite: precisely lowering birth rates could provide many SSA countries with a demographic dividend. Indeed, it lowers the "green pressure". This is also reflected in studies by African authors.11 South African political scientist Jakkie Cilliers wrote:

    "Africa can accelerate population-driven economic growth by reducing its fertility rate through interventions in education, infrastructure, human capital and, most importantly, women's empowerment."12

Two researchers from Togo also argued for women's empowerment in this regard:

    "More empowered women desire significantly fewer children compared with their less empowered counterparts. The first step to having fewer children is formulating programs to improve economic empowerment of women."13

That empowerment is first and foremost about employment.

Rwanda’s government stimulated family planning to better realize a demographic dividend.14

UNFPA wrote about family planning:

    If sub-Saharan African countries are able to repeat the East Asian experience, the region could realize a demographic dividend amounting to as much as $500 billion a year for 30 years.15

This may also trigger a flywheel effect, as economic development in turn has a moderating effect on the number of children per woman. Not for nothing is it said that development is the best contraception. This interaction also helps explain why almost all countries in Africa that are doing relatively well economically have relatively low birth rates.16

Misconception 5. "Don't worry: birth rates will decline sufficiently due to urbanization."
This is half true. In fact, the difference between urban and rural areas in SSA is more than 2 children per woman!"17 Part of the reason for this is the higher cost of living in cities and the higher average number of years of education girls receive there. In addition, city inhabitants rarely cultivate their own food, so they must buy everything. They also have smaller houses, fewer relatives and good neighbours who can watch the children. Combining work and childcare is therefore more difficult than in rural areas, where women often carry children on their backs. Figure 3 shows that fertility in the city is not only lower, but also declines somewhat faster than in the countryside: with an average of 0.4 child per woman per decade compared to 0.33 in the countryside.

Figure 3 Fertility in urban and rural regions in Africa, 1986-2018. Source: DHS, own edit UN DESA. The lines show the trend calculated by linear regression.
Figure 3. Fertility in urban and rural regions in Africa, 1986-2018. Source: DHS, own edit UN DESA. The lines show the trend calculated by linear regression.

But is that effect of urbanization enough? If this trend continues, fertility in cities could eventually reach about 2 children per woman by 2050, the current global average, but women in rural areas will still have about 4 children. There is, however, migration to cities. Whilst in 2000 31% of the SSA population lived in an urban region, that proportion is expected to increase to 58% by 2050. Although this urbanization is proceeding faster than elsewhere in the world, national averages of the number of children per woman will remain high for the time being. This may lead not only to increasing poverty and malnutrition, especially in rural areas, but also to stagnation of agricultural development. Because when the farmer dies, even small farms are often further divided among the children. By then these farms will be way too small to leave money to increase production, e.g. through the purchase of better seeds and fertilizer.18 Such fragmentation was one of the causes of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

In principle, one beneficial side effect of rural poverty could be that it accelerates migration to cities. In cities, incomes, employment and amenities are on average much better, children receive education 2.4 to 4 years longer, and more residents have access to electricity and a bank account. Also, dependency ratios are more favourable there, offering macroeconomic advantages.19 However, urbanization as a means of escaping poverty often leads to slums, where hygiene is poor, mortality is high (particularly among children), and poverty is widespread.

In short, urbanization has several benefits, including lower birth rates, but does not always lead to better income and health. There is no simple linear relationship between urbanization and economic growth or between city size and productivity. It takes more than that, such as investment in infrastructure and well-developed institutions. In short: supportive and coordinating public policies.20

Conclusions from this and the previous article:

  1. Africa is not overpopulated.

  2. SSA's population has nearly doubled since 2000 (from 0.67 to 1.2 billion) and is likely to grow further to 2.1 billion by 2050. For the second half of the century, projections range widely from 2.4 to 4.7 billion residents by 2100. Uncertain factors include prosperity growth, the rate and effects of urbanization, and climate change.

  3. Population growth is not explosive, but even the low scenarios may be associated with reduced food security and prosperity unless countries succeed in accelerating the still ample agricultural growth potential.

  4. Life expectancy in Africa has risen substantially, mainly due to decreased infant mortality. It is still relatively low but has been rising faster than elsewhere since 1995. Fertility, while declining steadily but more slowly than elsewhere, is still relatively high, especially in rural areas.

  5. Urbanization is slowing population growth and will continue to do so, also because it proceeds faster than elsewhere in the world. But again, not so fast that national averages of fertility will fall rapidly.

  6. The oft-cited "demographic dividend" due to the low median age can only occur if and when employment growth keeps pace with that of school leavers. This is not expected for the time being. As a result, unemployment, poverty, social unrest and emigration risk increasing rather than decreasing. Consequently, rapid population growth does pose a major problem.

  7. Emigration will also increase, especially emigration within Africa. Emigration to Europe will be much smaller and will have little effect on African population growth. However, remittances from migrants will make a small or somewhat larger contribution to the economy.

So much for misconceptions and half-truths about the issues. In the third article, we will discuss six misconceptions about solutions.

Thanks are due to Henk Breman, Ken Giller and Henk Rolink (Rutgers) for their comments and suggestions.

Leo van Wissen is professor of Economic Demography at the University of Groningen.
Wouter van der Weijden is an environmental biologist and director of the Center for Agriculture and Environment Foundation.

1. The Arab slave trade began as early as the 7th century and continued locally until the mid-20th century. The total size of that trade has been estimated at more than 10 million people, which is the same order of magnitude as the European trade. See: Austen, R.A. 2010. Trans-Saharan Africa in World History, Oxford University Press, p. 32. Another author came as high as 14 to 15 million. See: Bairoch, P. 1993. Economics and World History. Myths and Paradoxes, Harvester Wheatsheaf.
2. UN DESA for population data and FAO for land area data. Siberia has a very low population density with 33 million inhabitants on 33.1 million km2 and is not counted with Europe but with Central and South Asia.
3. Gustafson, S. 2022. Hunger Levels Continue on the Rise: 2022 Global Hunger Index Released.
4. See Breman, H., A.G.T. Schut and N.G. Seligman 2019. From fed by the world to food security: Accelerating agricultural development in Africa.
5. Incidentally, demographers disagree on the relationship between prosperity and emigration. You can read an insightful article on the discourse here.
6. When determining life expectancy, one usually counts all deaths from birth. Sometimes life expectancy at age 5, or some other age, is also considered.
7. Henley, D. 2015. Asia-Africa Development Divergence – A Question of Intent. Zed Books.
8. African Union: Agenda 2062. The Africa We Want (2015).
9. During her visit to Ghana on March 26, 2023, Harris emphasized the (low) median age in Africa of 19 years and the huge prospects for growth and innovation in Africa and throughout the world. This is particularly noteworthy as one in four global citizens is projected to live in Africa by 2050. You can also watch this video about Harris's visit.
This trend is influenced by the fact that two-thirds of the world's population resides in countries with less than 2.1 births per woman, leading to population decline. An increasing number of countries, including Hungary, France, Italy, Russia and China, are already making efforts to boost their birth rates. Refer to the UNFPA State of World Population report 2023 for more information. Elon Musk, never shy of a controversial statement, even claimed that population collapse due to low birth rates poses a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming. He, personally, has ten children with three women and is also eyeing Mars as a potential "Planet B."
10. Macrotrends.
11. Dosso Ibrahima 2019. The African demographic dividend: how to reach its full potential? Entreprenante Afrique.
Asafu-Adjaye & Brown 2021. Reaping Africa’s demographic dividend. Two scenarios for Africa’s youth.
12. Getting to Africa’s Demographic Dividend.
13. Atake, E.H. & Gnakou Ali, P. 2019. Women’s empowerment and fertility preferences in high fertility countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. BMC Women's Health 19, 54.
14. See here.
15. See here.
16. An apparent exception is Niger, where the GDP per capita, according to the World Bank, has tripled since 2000, but the birth rate has only decreased from 7.7 to 6.8, still the highest in the world. Several explanations for this phenomenon are conceivable: a) despite economic growth, most people remain poor. However, the Gini Index (a commonly used measure of income inequality) is not very high for Niger, b) the birth rate responds relatively slowly to economic prosperity, c) child mortality is still relatively high, d) urbanization is progressing relatively slowly, and e) orthodox and radical Islam have a relatively significant influence.
17. Tesfa, D. et al. 2023. The pooled estimate of the total fertility rate in sub-Saharan Africa using recent (2010–2018). Demographic and Health Survey data. Front. Public Health.
18. Giller, K.E. et al. 2021. Small farms and development in sub-Saharan Africa: Farming for food, for income or for lack of better options? Food Security.
19. Africa’s Urbanisation Dynamics 2022 - The economic power of Africa’s cities.
20. Turok, I. & McGranahan, G. 2013. Urbanization and economic growth: the arguments and evidence for Africa and Asia. Environment and urbanization 25: 465-482.