Declan Walsh, New York Times, October 28, 2023
Astonishing change is underway in Africa, where the population is projected to nearly double to 2.5 billion over the next quarter-century — an era that will not only transform many African countries, experts say, but also radically reshape their relationship with the rest of the world.
Birthrates are tumbling in richer nations, creating anxiety about how to care for, and pay for, their aging societies. But Africa’s baby boom continues apace, fueling the youngest, fastest growing population on earth.
In 1950, Africans made up 8 percent of the world’s people. A century later, they will account for one-quarter of humanity, and at least one-third of all young people aged 15 to 24, according to United Nations forecasts.
The median age on the African continent is 19. In India, the world’s most populous country, it is 28. In China and the United States, it is 38.
The implications of this “youthquake,” as some call it, are immense yet uncertain, and likely to vary greatly across Africa, a continent of myriad cultures and some 54 countries that covers an area larger than China, Europe, India and the United States combined. But its first signs are already here.
It reverberates in the bustle and thrum of the continent’s ballooning cities, their hectic streets jammed with new arrivals, that make Africa the most rapidly urbanizing continent on earth.
It pulses in the packed stadiums of London or New York, where African musicians are storming the world of pop, and in the heaving megachurches of West Africa, where the future of Christianity is being shaped.
And it shows in the glow of Africa’s 670 million cellphones, one for every second person on the continent — the dominant internet device used to move money, launch revolutions, stoke frustrations and feed dreams.
“It feels like the opportunities are unlimited for us right now,” said Jean-Patrick Niambé, a 24-year-old hip-hop artist from Ivory Coast who uses the stage name Dofy, as he rode in a taxi to a concert in the capital, Abidjan, this year.
Africa’s political reach is growing, too. Its leaders are courted at flashy summits by foreign powers that covet their huge reserves of the minerals needed to make electric cars and solar panels.
With a growing choice of eager allies, including Russia, China, the United States, Turkey and Gulf petrostates, African leaders are spurning the image of victim and demanding a bigger say. In September, the African Union joined the Group of 20, the premier forum for international economic cooperation, taking a seat at the same table as the European Union.
Businesses are chasing Africa’s tens of millions of new consumers emerging every year, representing untapped markets for cosmetics, organic foods, even champagne. Hilton plans to open 65 new hotels on the continent within five years. Its population of millionaires, the fastest growing on earth, is expected to double to 768,000 by 2027, the bank Credit Suisse estimates.
Dinner at Sushi Mitsuki, a new restaurant in a neighborhood with a rising skyline in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, starts at $200 per person.
“Africa is entering a period of truly staggering change,” said Edward Paice, the director of the Africa Research Institute in London and the author of “Youthquake: Why African Demography Should Matter to the World.”
In many countries, historically low birthrates are creating older, smaller populations. Caregivers in Italy, which is expected to have 12 percent fewer people by 2050, are experimenting with robots to look after the aged. The prime minister of Japan, where the median age is 48, warned in January that his society was “on the verge” of dysfunction.
Africa’s challenge is to manage unbridled growth. It has always been a young continent — only two decades ago the median age was 17 — but never on such a scale. Within the next decade, Africa will have the world’s largest work force, surpassing China and India. By the 2040s, it will account for two out of every five children born on the planet.
Experts say this approaching tide of humanity will push Africa to the fore of the most pressing concerns of our age, like climate change, the energy transition and migration.
But it has also exposed the continent’s gaping vulnerabilities.
PERIL AND POTENTIAL
Africa’s soaring population is partly a result of remarkable progress. Africans eat better and live longer than ever, on average. Infant mortality has been halved since 2000; calorie intake has soared.
But while a handful of African countries are poised to ride the demographic wave, others risk being swamped by it.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is already deeply stressed: Nearly two-thirds of its 213 million people live on less than $2 a day; extremist violence and banditry are rife; and life expectancy is just 53, nine years below the African average.
Yet Nigeria adds another five million people every year, and by 2050 is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s third most populous country.
Young Africans are better educated and more connected than ever: 44 percent graduated from high school in 2020, up from 27 percent in 2000, and about 570 million people use the internet. But finding a good job, or any job, is another matter.
Up to one million Africans enter the labor market every month, but fewer than one in four get a formal job, the World Bank says. Unemployment in South Africa, the continent’s most industrialized nation, runs at a crushing 35 percent.
Frustration feeds desperation.
In countries like Somalia, Mozambique and Mali, opportunity-starved youths pick up guns to fight for jihad, or for money. In Gabon and Niger, youngsters fed up with sham politics crowd streets and stadiums to yell slogans in favor of military coups.
On the high seas, smugglers’ boats make perilous journeys to Europe and the Middle East, carrying desperate young Africans and their dreams of a better future. At least 28,000 have died on the Mediterranean since 2014, the United Nations says.
Forecasting population trends is a fraught and contentious business, with a history of flawed predictions. In the 1970s, books like “The Population Bomb” by Paul R. Ehrlich popularized fears that an overcrowded planet would lead to mass starvation and societal collapse.
Africans are rightfully cautious of foreigners lecturing on the subject of family size. In the West, racists and right-wing nationalists stoke fears of African population growth to justify hatred, or even violence.
But experts say these demographic predictions are reliable, and that an epochal shift is underway. The forecasts for 2050 are sound because most of the women who will have children in the next few decades have already been born. Barring an unforeseeable upset, the momentum is unstoppable.
“It’s the mother of all megatrends,” said Carlos Lopes, an economist from Guinea-Bissau who formerly headed the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa.
Many others agree. The economic rise of China and India were the first great shocks of this century, they say. Africa’s youthful tide will most likely drive the next seismic shift.
Its first tremors are already being felt, and nowhere more than in global culture.
Not long ago, technology was the big idea for enabling Africa to leapfrog its way out of poverty.
Start-ups sprouted in countries like Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco. Innovative technologies, like M-Pesa, brought mobile banking to tens of millions of people. Women-only coding schools emerged. Microsoft and Google established major centers in Kenya, the self-styled “Silicon Savannah” of East Africa. Optimists spoke of an “Africa rising.”
But while technology brought billions in investment, it failed dismally on one crucial front: creating jobs.
“That’s a problem,” said Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-born telecommunications tycoon and philanthropist.
It is also a problem for the world, said Aubrey Hruby, an investor in Africa and an author of “The Next Africa.” She said, “After climate change, Africa’s jobs crisis will be a defining challenge of our era.”
Elsewhere, the answer was industrialization. In the 1970s and 1980s, when China, South Korea and Japan were the engines of population growth, their factories were filled with young people producing clothes, cars and TVs. It made them rich and lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.
Africa is poorly positioned to repeat that feat. Other than South Africa and a handful of countries in North Africa, most of the continent has failed to industrialize. In fact, it is losing ground: Africa’s share of global manufacturing is smaller today than it was in 1980.
Infrastructure is an obstacle. Six hundred million Africans, or four in 10, lack electricity. An average American refrigerator consumes more power in a year than a typical person in Africa. Major roads and railways often lead to the coasts, a legacy of extractive colonialism, which inhibits trade between countries.
And the baby boom endures, smothering economic growth.
Other regions, like East Asia, prospered only after their birthrates had fallen substantially and a majority of their people had joined the work force — a phenomenon known as the “demographic transition” that has long driven global growth. Britain’s transition took two centuries, from the 1740s to the 1940s. Thailand did it in about 40 years.
But in Africa, where birthrates remain stubbornly high — nearly twice the global average — that transition has proved elusive.
The picture changes greatly from one country to another. In South Africa, women have two children on average, while in Niger they have seven. Some smaller economies, like those of Rwanda and Ivory Coast, are among the world’s fastest growing. But on the whole, the continent cannot keep pace with its swelling population.
Adjusted for population size, Africa’s economy has grown by 1 percent annually since 1990, according to the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Over the same period, India’s grew 5 percent per year and China’s grew 9 percent.
Despite making up 18 percent of the global population, Africa accounts for just 3 percent of all trade.
For legions of jobless and frustrated young Africans, that leaves only one good option: Get out. Every year, tens of thousands of doctors, nurses, academics and other skilled migrants flee the continent. (At least one million Africans from south of the Sahara have moved to Europe since 2010, according to the Pew Research Center.) Migration is such a feature of life in Nigeria that young people have a name for it — “japa,” Yoruba slang that means “to run away.”
And the countries they leave behind depend on them to survive. In 2021, African migrants sent home $96 billion in remittances, three times more than the sum of all foreign aid, according to the African Development Bank.
“The African diaspora has become the largest financier of Africa,” said Akinwumi Adesina, the bank’s head.
In fact, the majority of young migrants do not even leave the continent, moving instead to other countries in Africa. But the plight of those who gamble their lives to travel further — left to die in sinking boats by the Greek Coast Guard, gunned down by Saudi border police or even stumbling through Central American jungle to reach the United States — has become a potent emblem of generational desperation.
THE FUTURE IS ALREADY HERE
It could be that Africa will undergo transformations that are hard to see now.
When the economist Ha-Joon Chang was growing up in South Korea in the 1960s, his country was subjected to the same condescension and racism leveled at many African nations today, he said. It was poor, had just emerged from war, and was seen by American officials as a basket case.
“Nobody took us seriously,” said Mr. Chang, now a professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
That South Korea has become one of the world’s largest economies shows how success can strike in the most unlikely places, Mr. Chang added: “With time and effort, remarkable transformations are possible.”
A young population was a big part of South Korea’s success, Mr. Chang said. But it took other ingredients, too: visionary leaders, wise policies and education, as well as intangibles like drive, innovation and sheer good fortune, he said. “A lot of things have to work together.”
Could Africa’s youth boom portend a similar miracle?
This year’s surging turmoil — new crises, new wars and new economic slumps — would give pause to the greatest of optimists. Yet there are also reasons to hope.
“I tell my friends in England that the time will come when they will put out a red carpet for those guys now coming in boats,” said Mr. Ibrahim, the philanthropist.