As you might have heard, the next few decades are going to see large population growth in Africa. Indeed, most of the world’s population growth is going to come from that continent. So rapid will this growth be that many have described it as an “explosion”. But, as a recent report from Unicef notes, the population growth should be viewed as an opportunity and a testimony to public health success than simply a scare story in the Ehrlich-mode.

There are currently almost 600 million children in Africa. In 38 years, it is predicted that there will be one billion. Much of this growth is due to advances in medical care. 30 years ago, one in six children died before their fifth birthday. In the intervening period mortality rates have more than halved. Huge improvements have been shown in education, health and child mortality services throughout the continent. For example, according to New Zealand’s Stuff news website:

“…Rwanda – a country wracked by crises just two decades ago – put its poorest citizens at the centre of approaches to strengthen their health systems and reduce under-five mortality. By expanding community health services, training rural health workers, increasing salaries and performance incentives, and ramping up efforts to encourage women to give birth in health facilities, Rwanda was able to achieve rapid progress on child mortality.”

Although the rapidly growing child population has the potential to be a disaster (mass deprivation, unemployment, scarcity and an unstable and insecure continent) it is encouraging to see Unicef point to the potential that this population growth represents. As the Unicef’s director for West and Central Africa asks: “Imagine the potential of one billion children”. The agency’s regional communications chief, James Elder notes that:

“If the young children of today – who will be entering the labour force in just a decade and a half – are skilled, dynamic and entrepreneurial, and can be productively and fully employed, Africa, and the world, will reap the reward.”

So why will this occur? Because Africa as a whole is entering into a time when its population structure will be skewed towards working-aged people with few elderly or young dependents. This is known as the “demographic dividend”, something that East Asian nations (including China) reaped during the latter part of the twentieth century. These greater numbers of workers have greater disposable income, meaning greater consumption, production and investment and greater economic growth. But that requires the jobs to be there for these young workers to move into, and education systems that can provide the necessary skills. If the right policies and investments are made, then Unicef predicts that Africa can increase its per capita income fourfold by the middle of the century. A target that is lofty, but not unachievable.

But where are all these people going to live? Well, it is perhaps useful to remember that Africa is not currently that densely populated. Europe has twice Africa’s population density, while Asia is three times as densely populated. And perhaps the Unicef report should remind us that tales of burgeoning population numbers in Africa should be looked upon with less fear and more hope. It should remind us that young people are potential developers, entrepreneurs, producers, resources…humans in fact. And not just faceless, mindless consumers.

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...