Syndicate content

Can rapid population growth be good for economic development?

Wolfgang Fengler's picture

Our generation is experiencing the most profound demographic transition ever and Africa is at the center of it.

Africa’s population is rising rapidly and will most likely double its population by 2050. Depending on the source of data, Africa will soon pass 1 billion people (and it may already have) and could reach up to 2 billion people by 2050 [ I am using the UN’s 2009 World Population Prospects, which projects Africa to exceed 1.7 billion by 2050 based on sharply declining fertility rates]. This makes it the fastest growing continent and Africa’s rapid growth will also shift the global population balance.

By 2050, Africa will be home to more than 20% of the world’s population.  When some of us were born in 1970, there were two Europeans for every African; by the time we may retire in 2030, there will be two Africans for every European.
Kenya mirrors Africa’s population growth. The population has doubled over the last 25 years, to about 40 million people, and rapid population growth is set to continue. Kenya’s population will grow by around 1 million per year – 3,000 people every day – over the next 40 years and will reach about 85 million by 2050.

Many think this is a big problem. There are three reasons why I am less certain that the rapid population growth in Africa, especially in Kenya, is the fundamental development challenge:

First, despite Africa’s rapid population growth and Europe’s stagnation (even decline in few countries) the old continent remains much more densely populated than Africa. If we look at Western Europe – where I come from – there are on average 170 people living on each square km. In Sub-Saharan Africa there are only 70 today. This gap will narrow in the next decades but even by 2050, Western Europe is expected to be more densely populated than Africa. I am following the population debates in Europe, especially in my (densely populated) home country Germany. I have never heard anyone argue that there are too many people in Europe.

Second, while the speed of population growth remains unchanged, its sources are different. In the past, population growth was driven by increasing numbers of children.  Today, and in the future, it is driven by longer life expectance and the “base effect” of the previous population boom. There are just many more young families which have children. However, they have fewer of them.  In Kenya, the number of children per family has fallen sharply, from 8.1 children in 1978 to 4.6 children in 2008, and by 2050 it may reach 2.4. As a result, the fastest growing group in Kenya’s population is not anymore young children – but adults which will almost triple in size from 21 million today to about 60 million in 2050. (see figure 1).

Figure 1 - Kenya today (2010) and tomorrow (2050) – Double the population but not many more children

















Source: World Bank computations based on United Nations, 2009, World Population Prospects

Third, population growth and urbanization go together, and economic development is closely correlated with urbanization. Rich countries are urban countries.  No country has ever reached high income levels with low urbanization. Population growth increases density and, together with rural-urban migration, creates higher urban agglomeration.  And this is critical for achieving sustained growth because large urban centers allow for innovation and increase economies of scale. Companies can produce goods in larger numbers and more cheaply, serving a larger number of low-income customers. Kenya has companies which have been benefitting from increasing population growth and density in targeting the large numbers of lower and lower-middle income groups – the “bottom of the pyramid”. Their business model is viable because they can serve a multi-million customer base, which has increased by 25% over the last 10 years and which continues to grow rapidly.

Are we thus ahead of golden age of development in Africa? It is possible but there is no guarantee. This will depend on many other factors as well. As the last decades have shown larger population and increased population density are no guarantee of success. However, it seems that the current pattern of population growth is not the main constraint to Africa’s development anymore and can even be a positive force.

Any views?


Your very interesting piece appears to share the increasingly positive; and as it were, alternative thinking, to the mainstream of western perception of Africa and its future. Being a journalist, my interactions in the last three five years or so with different opinion builders and decision makers on the continent have informed my acceptance of your conclusion that Africa's increased population is likely to be an asset and not a liability; markets will come into existence and grow; urbanization will deepen the points for large scale development and bigger economic growth. Africa of today is not Africa of 10 years ago and will certainly not be the same Africa 20 years from now. Despite its problems, an increasing number of educated class and a widening middle class is bound to impact positively on the continent. You got the points on dot. Permit me also to re-publish this piece in Baobab Africa People & Economy magazine.

Submitted by Rober2D2 on
Nobody told you that we are too many in Europe? Then I will tell: We are too many. We have problems in energy supply, problems to find an affordable home to live, traffic jams, unemployment.... We would be much better with half of our current population. I agree that urbanization is good for echonomical growth, but there is no need of population growth to achieve that. Countries like Sweeden have very low population densities, but they are urbanized and prosperous countries. Urbanization comes when beter agricultural techniques are used, and less people is needed to produce food. England for example became more urban because of industrial revolution, not because of an spectacular population growth.

Submitted by DaviK on
Comparing living standards between the EU and Africa would be more realistic if you compared ecological footprint per capita between the two. The average European's footprint - or the amount of natural resources that are required to sustain their lifestyle - far exceeds that of the average African, and is not one that the world as a whole, with present technologies and western resources usage rates, could sustain for everyone. And you forget that Europe imports huge quantities of food, metals and other resources from Africa. Were these to be withheld in order to facilitate African use, then presumably the standard of living in the EU would decline. So Europe may well have a denser population and yet still enjoy a high standard of living. But it's because the resource foundation upon which that is based is far outside of Europe's boundaries. A principal benefit, apart from economic efficiencies, of urbanisation is that it draws people off the land and so reduces environmental over exploitation and degradation. Although that only holds true if rural areas are then properly managed, given that those areas still have to feed the urban areas. So it's not 'rapid population growth' that would be good for Africa, as your title suggests, it's the migration of people into urban areas, in a well managed way that avoids slums, and that goes hand in hand with sustainable management of the rural areas to provide food and also preserve ecosystems. Does Africa have the institutional, judicial and financial resources to achieve this as quickly as her population is growing. I suspect that, sadly, she doesn't. It is possible to have too many people. Forget for a moment about averaging populations to such ideas as '4.6 people per football field' or whatever. Economic growth calls for more resources, and more people with higher incomes use more resources. We do happen to share this planet with other creature and ecosystems which are dependent upon us, as we are dependent upon them. Leave them some space. More people may well lead to increased industrial output at lower marginal costs, increasing per unit affordability and raising material standards of living, but remember that this model has traditionally ignored environmental and resource impacts (and sometimes social impacts as well) as 'externalities'. If such costs are 'internalised', a different picture of what constitutes desirable development may emerge. We need a population size that's in balance with resources, not a blind belief that more is better. There is an optimum level. There are also boundaries that can't be transgressed without cost. As Africa emerges, I hope she finds a way to leapfrog the process of industrialisation that has damaged so much of Europe (and Africa), and move to a more sustainable, gentler way of living. Then maybe we in Europe can follow.

Submitted by Oeuvrer .org on
It's realy a very bad vicous cycle if you are too poor you can have a real familly always thinking in money not like and if you have too many children it's the same too many cost, education, medicine etc... we don't have a solution in the XXI century

Submitted by CAA on

Thanks very much for this very interesting article. In a previous blog, you mentioned that the manufacturing sector, that was previously the second largest sector in the economy and is now the fourth, only accounts for 10% of the economy. While urbanisation provides opportunities for innovation,which would mean technology growth, the manufacturing sector also has to expand to take in both the technology as well as the population growth. Perhaps devolution will take care of this. I have to say, the demographic dynamics, that is, increase in life expectancy which means in a few years the working age population grows and this also reduces dependancy, has me very optimistic. Nevertheless, the government statistic of 70% unemployment rate amongst the youth puts a bit of a dumper on this outlook.

Submitted by Florence Kayongo on

I have not had time to look through all the comments above, so perhaps somebody has already contributed my idea. It is refreshing to hear a WB person have a more realistic analysis of the situation, not simply by imagining that what ever is dominant/or different in Africa is negative, or will have negative consequences. I personally have long concluded that the population growth of Africa can be a very good thing for Africa and the world if systems can be adjusted/ developed to support sustainable resource use, knowledge and skills transfer, good governance, and equitable access to social and economic services that will then make a more productive population. That well educated, well skilled population will also be aware of environmental issues, human rights, political and civil rights, will demand accountability from governments and will have higher negotiating power in economics. With all of Africa's natural endowments, She can support her population if helped to have good mechanisms to do so. so let us think human resource development if we want to help Africa, not population growth reduction, that will come naturally as a result of human development just as it did in Europe and else where. I have far less children than my mother, because I am empowered through education and enlightenment, to choose whether to have them or not, when to have them and what I want them to be. If more Africans can take that decision, consciously, then we will say, Yes we have made it.

Submitted by Wolfgang on

Dear Florence,

thanks for your nice contribution. As you illustrate in your own story the key issue is that Africa's population growth will rise rapidly even though today's mothers have fewer children than their mothers (as is your case). As long as children survive long enough to become mothers and fathers and then live much longer lives than their parents, you will rapid population growth because of a rapid rise in adults.


Submitted by bhanu shukla on

i am very sure that education and better governance can utilize growing population in a better way, if we look our past and compare it with our present then definitely our world is more richer and happier than those old days. We have higher wealth today than every before our life is more comfortable due to everyday innovations and we have better life expectancy rate in our countries. All these things happened because of better ideas, ideas which come from people and if we have more people than there will be more ideas. I am very sure we will have more bethowians, einsteens bells queries bill gates mark zukerbers and more steve jobs but naturally our governments should be very very sincere about education and social justice.

Submitted by Babatunde Fagoyinbo on

African countries need to learn from China regarding innovation, research and development. China takes development as priority in recent time as against fertility in the forties, though the present policy might be in the extreme. Its roads have been transformed from carrying millions of bicycles to carrying posh, state-of-the-art cars. Thanks to proper focus. Visit www.motresource for articles relating to innovation, R&D, etc. around the world.

Submitted by Bah Dickson on

in my own view, i do not see population growth in Africa as a problem. the matter is the way in which resources are allocated. if the resources in this continent are well distributed, then population growth will not be any problem. from studies that are being carried out in the continent it is realized that it have enough resources that can support Africa and Asia

Submitted by Wolfgang on

Yes, but these big shifts in the allocation of resources need to happen and let's hope that the emerging African middle class will help to reshape the governance that it is still at the heart of these problems.

Submitted by Max Zwiczk on

While regrettable some face increased headwinds of multi-generational poverty and fragile institutions, such outcomes are unavoidable. While policy plays a (limited) role, it is ultimately culture, class, religion, parental investment & the market that determine human outcomes. If promoting rapid population growth in Africa expands investment opportunities - and productive agents can reap the expected rewards of a growing consumer base + an expanding pool of cheaper labor - what's not to like? So long as there exists a commitment to proactively invest in security, defense and mitigation of migration effects, rapid population growth represents not only the inevitable course of human events, but investment opportunities consistent with the greater good.


Add new comment