Africa is known for abounding natural resources, tenacious tribalism, endemic corruption, and unrelenting intrigue. A land of poverty and plenty. While that may sound like any number of places, it is in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where extremes are the norm. There is vast wealth, practically no middle class, and abject poverty everywhere. 

Colonialism came to Africa in the 1600s. By the early 1900s, Western powers ruled almost the entire continent. While PC presentism (morally judging the past through a modernist prism) “racializes” and condemns colonialism on principle, history is obviously more nuanced. Colonialism brought Christianity to Africa. Colonial governments working hand-in-glove with missionary organizations vastly improved public health, decreased infant mortality and increased life expectancy. Schools and clinics were built. Consequently, Africa’s population rapidly increased. That continues today. The trans-Atlantic African slave trade spawned a huge African diaspora in the New World.

Global population passed 8 billion in November 2022. But it is SSA’s demographics that yield astonishing projections and confounding contradictions:

  • SSA’s total fertility rate (TFR) is 4.67, well over twice that of replacement level (2.1). Yet that represents a 12 percent decrease in ten years.
  • Today over 75 percent of world population under 35 is in Africa. Only 3 percent of those over 65 live there.
  • In 2021 10 percent of global births were to mothers under 20. Half of those (6.65 million) were in SSA.
  • SSA’s population will double by 2050.
  • Over 50 percent of global population increase through 2050 will be in Africa.

According to the United Nations:

Sub-Saharan Africa will account for most of the growth of the world’s population over the coming decades, while several other regions will begin to experience decreasing population numbers. Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to become the most populous of the eight geographic regions in the late 2060s, surpassing both Eastern and South-Eastern Asia and Central and Southern Asia in size (figure III.2), and it could see its population reach 3.44 billion by the end of the century.

Other projections have SSA’s population as high as 4.2 billion by 2100.

SSA is the world’s most rapidly urbanizing region. By 2050, 20 percent of the world’s urban residents will live there.

The highest TFRs on the planet are in SSA: Niger is the most prolific at 6.7, followed by Somalia at 6.0, DR Congo 5.8, Mali 5.8, and Chad 5.6. Nigeria is projected to be the world’s third most populous country by century’s end, behind India and China. Today over 43 percent of Nigerians are under 15. However, SSA fertility is falling:

In Nigeria… average fertility has fallen in just five years from 5.8 children per woman to 4.6 children [20% decline]… Nigeria is by no means an isolated case… Mali saw average women’s fertility drop from 6.3 to 5.7 children in six years, Senegal “lost” one child per woman in a decade, and Ghana fell from 4.2 to 3.8 in just three years.

An April 5 article in The Economist quotes Jose Rimon II of Johns Hopkins University, “We have been underestimating what is happening in terms of fertility change in Africa. Africa will probably undergo the same kind of rapid changes as east Asia did.” The Economist continues:

In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni used to tell students: “Your job is to produce children.” Now he tells Ugandan women that lots of pregnancies will “weaken your bodies and many children are not easy to manage and nurture.” President Mohamed Bazoum of Niger made the “fight on demography” the core of his election campaign. In Nigeria, funding for family planning is low but President Muhammadu Buhari recently created a National Council on Population Management, underscoring “the urgency to address Nigeria’s sustained high fertility rate, through expanding access to modern family planning”.  

TFR decline is exceeding projections almost everywhere, especially in SSA. Education and urbanization are cited as causes. A significant contributing factor is the widespread use of contraception:

More and more women are using modern contraceptives. According to the latest Family Planning 2020 (FP2020) report, the number has increased by 66% since 2012 — from 40 million to more than 66 million women and girls.  

When governments, UN agencies and private foundations launched the initiative eight years ago, they set an ambitious goal: to get 120 million more people in the world’s 69 lowest-income countries to use modern contraceptives by 2020. 

The number stands at about 60 million more. In Central and West Africa, the number of female users has doubled, according to FP2020. In eastern and southern Africa, it has increased by as much as 70%…  

“Contraceptive supply chains to clinics or community centers have been expanded,” [FP2020 Director Beth] Schlachter said.

Favored contraceptives are birth control pills, condoms, and hormone injections. There is also abortion. According to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute:

Among women who become pregnant without intending to be, an estimated 37% terminate the pregnancy.  

From 1990–1994 to 2015–2019, the share of unintended pregnancies resolved through abortion increased by 26% in Middle Africa, by 44% in both Eastern and Western Africa and by 72% in Southern Africa.

Falling fertility means the working age share of SSA’s population (ages 21 to 64) is increasing. That usually brings on the fabled “demographic dividend,” a period of robust economic growth. However, no such luck. The region struggles with debilitating poverty, crippling corruption, and unending social chaos unlike any other. This impedes economic progress and encourages out-migration.

To poor Africans the Global North beckons, fueling mass migration. Those deadly Mediterranean shipwrecks are a harbinger of things to come.

Further complicating matters is that mass African immigration is problematic for Europe. Concerns that Europe will be swamped by people not sharing similar religious, cultural or social values are now mainstream, no longer the exclusive preserve of so-called “right-wing” nationalists.

These sentiments emerged 50 years ago with the appearance of Frenchman Jean Raspail’s prophetic novel The Camp of the Saints, a literary masterpiece that hit a nerve. It is a work of demographic science fiction: as a gargantuan flotilla from the Indian subcontinent prepares to disembark on French shores, French reaction exposes deep fissures within the host society. Raspail’s unabashed advocacy of traditional French culture over something more diverse evoked the ire of globalist cheap-labor advocates, who—of course—charged “Racism!” Raspail gave voice to those who understand that opposing mass immigration is about more than economics and who refuse to monetize their Catholic French culture.

And there is another complication: Africa’s brain drain. Some of the more educated come to America and often do well, leading to tension with American Blacks. (This tension emerged in Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign when Black leaders accused him of not being “down for the struggle,” given his overseas origin and upbringing.) In Europe, Black Africans tend to do more poorly, and large African migrant enclaves are plagued with poverty and crime, breeding social discord.

What does this mean for SSA? China’s experience might be instructive. Their one-child policy sacrificed a generation on the altar of economic development. From a strictly economic standpoint, it worked. Abundant cheap labor, constructive engagement with the West and business-savvy government led to a decades-long economic boom. Now China’s population is falling and the society is rapidly aging. With plunging fertility and no end in sight, could such a scenario eventually play out in SSA?

Don’t bet on it. China was the world’s largest economy prior to the Industrial Revolution, and East Asia has an endemic work ethic. SSA does not and lacks the infrastructure to become a global economic powerhouse.

With a rapidly increasing population, fast falling fertility, lightning-fast urbanization and accelerating out-migration, there is scant hope that Sub-Saharan Africa will ever attain Global North-level prosperity.  The history of the region, despite its resources, argues otherwise.

Louis T. March

Louis T. March has a background in government, business and philanthropy. A former talk show host, author and public speaker, he is a dedicated student of history and genealogy. Louis lives with his family...