Misconception 1: "There are no solutions. Africans simply want more children"
This is a half-truth and often a cliché. In the first article, we saw that the birth rate in SSA has already declined significantly since 1980. Between 2010 and 2019, the decline - even compared to the rest of the world - was rapid in Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Uganda.1 Nevertheless, at 4.7 children per woman, the average fertility is still almost twice the global average of 2.4. Only in South Africa has fertility already fallen to that average – which is close to the replacement level of 2.1, where the population does not grow overall.

High fertility has numerous causes. Importantly, the comparatively low incomes and inadequate social security in SSA mean that children are also viewed as an old-age benefit. The high infant mortality rate traditionally made it especially important to have many children. Recent research also shows that introducing a pension system alleviates the need to have many children.2 In the previous article, we mentioned that since 1960 socioeconomic development in SSA has been considerably slower than in Southeast Asia, partly due to weak agricultural, rural and poverty policies.

Traditionally, land use rights in villages were often allocated in proportion to family size
But that is not the whole story, as fertility also appears to be high in SSA compared to countries with similar levels of wealth,3 suggesting something like an "Africa factor." One important component of this is the relatively high desire to have children. Controlling for national wealth, the average child desire in SSA nations appears to be one child greater than in other low-income countries. And, as we have seen, this is historically explainable. SSA has relatively low natural soil fertility and therefore traditionally limited food production per hectare. As a result, labour was generally scarce but land was plentiful. Cultivation of that land required a lot of labour, so extra hands were welcome. One other factor that contributed to the scarcity of labour were the many centuries of slave trade.

Renowned anthropologist Ester Boserup in 1985 also pointed out a related cultural factor.4 Traditionally, land use rights in villages were often allocated in proportion to family size. More children and multiple wives thus provided the man with more land and status. Today's relatively large desire for children may be a cultural relic of this. It may also help explain why this desire is more prevalent among men than women, and more prevalent in rural than urban areas.

Misconception 2: "Advocating for slowing population growth in Africa is hypocritical, racist and neo-colonial. And also misguided in terms of sustainability, because our Western footprint is much larger. So let's have fewer children ourselves first"
This is partly true but can also be a clincher. True, demands for decreased fertility are commonly, and correctly, seen as racist and neocolonial, particularly when they originate in Europe or the U.S. This, too, is historically well explained.

As for the footprint, that difference is indeed huge. Some telling figures for CO2 emissions per capita in 2016: Niger 0.1; Kenya 0.33; South Africa 6.95; China 7.4; Germany 9.4 and the U.S. 15.5.5 So the average American emits 155 times as much CO2 as the average Niger resident. And only the average South African comes close to the Chinese and the German.

For Africans, it is rather the opposite: they are entitled to more wealth, and thus to a larger share of the “available environmental space" on the planet, thus also to a larger footprint
But why is it sometimes a clincher? Because the birth rate has already declined drastically in most developed nations, including China, and is already below the replacement level in an increasing number of countries, leading the population to shrink. An even further reduction would lead to far-reaching ageing that could disrupt society socially and economically. So it is neither necessary nor reasonable to ask rich countries to reduce their birth rate even further. Instead, there is every reason to ask them to reduce and green their consumption and production, especially of energy and raw materials.

For Africans, it is rather the opposite: they are entitled to more wealth, and thus to a larger share of the “available environmental space" on the planet, thus also to a larger footprint. For them, therefore, it is rather reasonable to reduce fertility. This is primarily in their own interest, because already at the current rate of population growth, they will find it increasingly difficult to secure their food security and sovereignty. Moreover, as we saw, lowering fertility can contribute to their prosperity simply by leaving parents with more money to send their children to school longer (which in turn has the side effect of further reducing fertility). This creates better opportunities for a real demographic dividend. Besides, it also benefits the planet, because the current rapid population growth puts more and more pressure on the clearing of forests and savannas. This is not only to the detriment of biodiversity, but also to the climate, as deforestation releases a lot of stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

That doesn't change that recommendations from Europeans to lower reproduction in SSA are frequently met with understandable suspicion and frustration, particularly when emigration and sustainability are used as justifications. But there are also strong arguments in the interest of SSA itself: food security and sovereignty, demographic dividend, better opportunities for education and development, and the right of women not to have more children than they wish. These arguments deserve more attention in the Netherlands and Europe as well.

Misconception 3: "Decline in fertility is only possible because of welfare growth."
This is a half-truth. Yes, welfare growth has led to lower birth rates almost everywhere in the world. However, "only" is not accurate because there are other strategies available. These are needed in SSA anyway because welfare growth will be limited in most countries for the time being and will also have a delayed effect on fertility. Other possibly effective measures are longer education for more children (especially girls), women's empowerment and strengthening women's rights.

Longer, including secondary education has been shown to be effective globally in reducing women's fertility.6 In SSA, that requires a sharp increase in the decreased (!) expenditures on education as a percentage of government spending. Rich countries would be wise to financially support such policies where desired and appropriate.

One bottleneck may remain, however: as long as there are no jobs for the better-educated young women, longer education will do not much more than delay the first pregnancy. It may even cause frustration for those women if after a better education they still cannot find a job. Thus, more education will be most effective when combined with growth in wealth and employment.

More education and contraception would increase the population in SSA not to 3.1 billion people but only to 1.6 billion
In terms of women's empowerment and strengthening their rights, the so-called Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), among others, are important. These give girls and women the opportunity to choose when and with whom they want to marry, when to have children and not to have more children than they wish. In low- and middle-income countries, an estimated 217 million of women of childbearing age (15-49) want to avoid pregnancy but fail to do so due to lack of access to contraceptives. Almost half of pregnancies in these countries are unintended.7 In SSA, this would be true for an estimated 20% of women.

A study by the University of Washington8 calculated the likely effect of combining more education with meeting unmet contraceptive needs of women in SSA, in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The outcome: that combination would lead to a sharp decline in fertility from an average of 4.6 children per woman in 2017 to 1.5 children per woman in 2100. (Recall that while the use of modern contraceptives in SSA has been rising for half a century, it was still much lower than in Asia from 2005 to 2015: 23% versus 44%).9 That, in turn, would lead to SSA's population growing not from 1 to 3.1 billion, as in the reference scenario, but only to 1.6 billion. Although such a spectacular reduction in birth rates seems unrealistic, it is clear that there are great opportunities here.10 Therefore, in conclusion, some misconceptions about family planning.

Misconception 4: "Family planning will suffice"
First, a disclaimer: it is problematic to advocate for family planning with the primary purpose of regulating population increase since it tends to use women as instruments and to limit their right to have as many children as they wish. Instead, it should be about extended rights for them. And about the health and well-being of women and children.

Family planning can help prevent unwanted pregnancies and create longer intervals between successive pregnancies (birth spacing), but the effect on fertility is not unequivocal. Kenya was the first country in SSA to start a program of family planning in 1967, and many other countries followed; some of them - including Nigeria - also did so with the explicit goal of slowing population growth. This is also advocated by some African authors. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) plays a supporting role.

Some authors report that family planning has been less effective in Africa than in other continents. One possible explanation would be insufficient male involvement.11 Family planning, therefore, is certainly not enough, but it can be made more effective, especially in combination with the aforementioned drivers: income growth, more school years and strengthening women's rights. The relationship is reciprocal: family planning contributes to lower fertility and higher incomes, which in turn have a moderating effect on fertility.

Rwanda has clearly demonstrated this, although the decline has been somewhat slower in recent years. From 1988 to 2023, the average number of births per woman dropped from 7.6 to 3.7. The government has encouraged lower fertility to achieve a demographic dividend.12

Family planning is especially effective in combination with income growth, more school years and women’s rights policy
Elsewhere, including Indonesia since the late 1960s, family planning, as a complementary measure alongside strong agricultural, rural and pro-poor policies, has also proven effective in reducing fertility and has indirectly also contributed to economic growth.13

Misconception 5: "Family planning means degradation of human rights, think China"
Not at all necessarily. Yes, China's 1-child policy, launched in 1979 after Mao's death, was horror, with many millions of abortions, vanished girl babies and a skewed male/female ratio.14 But today hardly anyone advocates such coercion. China itself abolished the policy in 2015, when fears of overpopulation had turned over into fears of shrinkage and ageing. Today the government now encourages two or three children per family.

In other countries, such as India and Indonesia, there has been no coercion, though sometimes strong pressure.15 Ethically, family planning is defensible only if it takes place on a strictly voluntary basis, as demonstrated by Rwanda16 and Malawi.

Misconception 6: "Churches and Islam are obstructive."
This, too, is a half-truth. The obstruction was evident in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, where the Vatican and conservative Islamic countries joined forces in opposing women's sexual and reproductive rights. Today, this is less clear. Yes, Christian churches are still often obstructive, and not just when it comes to abortion. For example, the Roman Catholic Church in SSA does advocate "natural" fertility control (such as periodic abstinence), but purely for maternal and child health, not to reduce family size. Yet a survey in rural Malawi - a forerunner on family planning - found that a quarter of Catholic women engaged in modern family planning, as much as some Protestant churches. This appeared to depend heavily on the local pastor. Among members of Pentecostal churches and Muslims, the percentage was somewhat lower. By contrast, elsewhere in Africa, some Protestant churches are actually actively cooperating. The United Methodist Church promotes family planning worldwide. In Liberia in 2011, it even offered family planning in its own hospital, with the goal of maternal and child health. That quickly had an effect.

Religion can get in the way of family planning
On the other hand, culturally-conservative Protestant churches in the U.S. and Brazil are making propaganda with increasing success, including in SSA, against women's sexual rights.17 In the U.S., they got President Trump in 2017 that far as to withdraw U.S. financial support for the UN Population Fund - a gap that, by the way, was quickly closed to a large extent at the initiative of the Netherlands. In fact, Evangelical churches and Pentecostals are the fastest growing religion in the world, especially in the Global South and mainly as a result of their high numbers of children and conversions.18 In Nigeria, Pentecostals have built huge churches, up to as many as 100,000 seats.19

Even in Islam, views on family planning are divided. Indonesia, Iran and Bangladesh have pursued active population policies not without success. But the emerged orthodox Islam is often obstructive. A striking example in Mali: under pressure from Islamists, the president halted a child sex education program funded by the Dutch embassy and even issued a press release stating that the Netherlands had an entirely gay population that promoted homophilia around the world.20 So things are not quite subtle.21

Clearly, this culture clash could go on for decades. Its impact on fertility and population growth is uncertain.

Conclusions from the three articles
  1. The high, although declining, fertility in most countries in SSA, is a threat of food security and development. It provides not a positive but a negative "demographic dividend" because a very young population is a burden on the economy.

  2. The high fertility in SSA is not only due to poverty, but also because there is a greater desire for children, especially among men and in rural areas.

  3. Moderating fertility can lead to greater food security and a positive demographic dividend.

  4. In rich countries, citizens have a much larger ecological footprint than in SSA, but their fertility rates are actually much lower. Therefore it seems reasonable to argue for a lower footprint in rich countries but a lower fertility rate in SSA, and to accept a somewhat higher per capita footprint.

  5. Advancing urbanisation will lower fertility rates but not fast enough at national scales. This is just another reason for more active policies for rural areas, starting with promotion of economic development, including intensification of agriculture and improved transportation infrastructure. Meanwhile it may be necessary to protect, at least temporarily, the rural economy from cheap imports of food and other products from overseas that can well be made - although at somewhat higher cost - within SSA, such as textiles.
    Other measures that can benefit development and public health, and in addition can moderate fertility rates more quickly than the abo-mentioned policy are:
    • more school years for girls and young women;
    • women's empowerment, including access to jobs;
    • family planning.

    Especially combining economic development and some of these measures can be very effective, as has been shown in Southeast Asian countries and Rwanda, among others.

  6. Family planning must be organised on a strictly voluntary basis and primarily focused on the health and well-being of women and children. And this planning should include men. Lower fertility rates are then a likely side effect.

  7. Support from religious quarters is of great importance. Both islam and churches are divided. Some imams and churches tolerate family planning, others oppose it. In any case, the strong advance of Pentecostal churches does not seem to help.

What can the Netherlands and the EU contribute?
The question remains as to how the Netherlands and the EU can contribute to these developments. We mention three priorities. Most of these receive little or no attention in the Africa Strategy presented by the Dutch Cabinet in May 2023. Generally speaking, we acknowledge the strategy contains much that makes sense, such as more equal forms of cooperation between Europe and Africa.

1. Put population politics on the agenda
Leave the political taboo on population growth and population politics behind and put it back on the agenda. The Africa Strategy does mention rapid population growth, but not as a risk to food security and economic development. Recognize that in most countries a demographic dividend may become closer if and when fertility is moderated. Two options:
  • Co-finance programs of countries oriented at more school years of more girls and young women, including vocational and higher education;

  • Continue to provide intensive support for gender equality programs, empowerment of girls and women, SRHR programs and family planning. To this end, continue to fully co-finance the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency (UNPFA). This is already an important element of the Africa Strategy but would focus on rural areas in Central and West Africa, where poverty is relatively great and fertility rates are high.

2. Prioritise agriculture and rural areas in development cooperation
Sustainable intensification of agriculture can have a variety of benefits: greater food security, economic development, conservation of forests and the climate and, indirectly, lower fertility and less emigration. In that policy, consider not only knowledge exchange, but also investments in value chains development both within Africa and between Africa and Europe.

3. Award Africa more room for market protection
Break through another taboo: the Africa Strategy still unilaterally targets the neoliberal strategy of export promotion in both the Netherlands and Africa. This hinders countries wishing to protect their farmers and, for example, their textile factories from cheap products from the world market. Advocate in the EU and World Bank that countries be given more leeway to impose tariffs or quotas on such products.22 This may also support African leaders’ pursuit for more food sovereignty.

Thanks to Henk Breman, Ken Giller and Henk Rolink 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. UN DESA 2022.
2. Rossi, P. and Godard, M. 2022. The Old-Age Security Motive for Fertility: Evidence from the Extension of Social Pensions in Namibia. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 14(4): 488-518.
3. Bongaarts, J. & Casterline, J. 2013. Fertility transition: Is sub-Saharan Africa different? Population and Development Review 38 (Suppl.): 153–168.
4. Boserup, E. 1985. Economic and Demographic Interrelationships in sub-Saharan Africa. Population and Development Review 11: 383-397.
5. Source: Worldometer.
6. Bongaarts, J. 2003. Completing the fertility transition in the developing world: The role of educational differences and fertility preferences. Population Studies 57: 321-335.
Axinn, W.G. & Barber, J.S., 2001. Mass education and fertility transition. American Sociological Review 66: 481-505.
7. Sully, E.A. et al., 2019. Adding It Up: Investing in Sexual and Reproductive Health. New York, Guttmacher Institute, 2020.
8. Vollset, S.E. 2020. Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries from 2017 to 2100: a forecasting analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study.
9. Tsui, A.O. 2017. Contraceptive Practice in Sub-Saharan Africa. Popul. Dev. Rev. 43 (Suppl 1): 166–191.
10. Kaneda, T. et al. 2021. Understanding and comparing population projections in Sub-Sahara Africa. PRB.
11. Frade, S. 2022. From post-colonialism to Cairo to now: The (un)changing ideas of reproductive health and family planning in Africa. In: C.O. Odimegwu & Y. Adewoyin, The Routledge Handbook of African demography. Routledge.
12. In this document the Ministry of Health in Rwanda also reported a stagnating contraceptive prevalence rate in 2014-15, citing a wide range of reasons: side effects/health concerns related to family planning (FP) methods: the need to have another child, FP method failure, geographical inaccessibility (i.e., a long distance between the user’s residence and the nearest FP service-delivery point), the need to change the FP method used, rumours in the community about contraceptives, cultural beliefs such as considering many children a sign of wealth, religious beliefs, lack of communication among couples, lack of trained staff to offer long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) and permanent methods of contraception, poor FP counselling, and the inability of CHWs to provide counselling and adequately manage of the side effects of FP methods.
Most of these inhibitions may well be addressed by policy measures but the cultural and religious inhibitions may be more persistent.
13. Henley, D. 2015. Asia-Africa Development Divergence – A Question of Intent. Zed Books.
14. The 1-child policy has recently been defended on the grounds that it would have been unavoidable at the time.
15. Wilson, K. 2017. In the name of reproductive rights: race, neoliberalism and the embodied violence of population policies. New Formations (91): 50-68. ISSN 0950-2378.
16. Schwandt, H.M., Feinberg, S., Akotiah, A. et al. 2018. “Family planning in Rwanda is not seen as population control, but rather as a way to empower the people”: examining Rwanda’s success in family planning from the perspective of public and private stakeholders. Contraception and Reproductive Medicine 3, 18 (2018).
Masiano, S.P, Green, T.L., Dahman, B. & Kimmel, A.D. 2019. The effects of community-based distribution of family planning services on contraceptive use: The case of a national scale-up in Malawi, Social Science & Medicine 238, 112490
17. Rights of gays and the entire LGBTQ community are also challenged. Paradoxical point is abortion: evangelicals are usually strongly against it, but in countries with strong SRHR such as the Netherlands, the number of abortions is actually low. Incidentally, that number is rising again in the Netherlands as an unintended side effect of influencers advocating natural methods, which are less reliable. The conservative propaganda from the U.S. and Brazil can be understood as neocolonialist, but that may be too simplistic. It is effective because it is in part consistent with cultural traditions in Africa itself. By contrast, some African politicians frame Western support for women's and gay rights as neocolonialist.
18. For a comprehensive overview of the growth of religions worldwide, see here.
19. F. Götmark & M. Andersson analysed the relevance of education, religion and other factors affecting fertility in SSA. Human fertility in relation to education, economy, religion, contraception, and family planning programs. BMC Public Health 20, article number 285, 2020.
“Within Sub-Saharan Africa, TFR [total fertility rate] is strikingly negatively correlated with education, GDP and CPR [Contraceptive Prevalence Rate], which all may affect TFR. […]
Religious influence may be one contributing reason for high TFR, and for stalling TFR decline in this region. [..] A related and probably strong influence is persistent patriarchal social structure and gender inequality.”
20. Henk Rolink, Centre of Expertise on Sexuality Rutgers, in email.
21. In SSA, Muslim fertility in 2005-2010 was even higher than that of Christians: 5.8 and 4.6 children per woman, respectively. Therefore, the Muslim population is expected to grow faster than the Christian population through 2050. But this is also because relatively more Muslims live in rural areas. Schuitema, B. 2020. Differences in fertility between rural and urban Nigeria. University of Groningen.
22. A blog on the World Bank website claimed that Africa could create jobs and save a lot of money by importing less food but did not mention import tariffs as a policy tool. That still seems taboo at the World Bank.