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With over 1 billion people in 2010, Africa’s population is expected to reach 1.6 billion in 2030 and 2.4 billion in 2050. This is as fertility declines from 4.8 children on average per woman of childbearing age in 2010 to 3.8 in 2030 and 3.1 in 2050.

The continent’s economic growth prospects have remained strong since 2000, with an average of 5 per cent per year and a number of countries ranking among the fastest growing in the world.

Five countries in the East and Southern Africa (ESA) region were among the 11 top performers with a remarkable growth above 7 per cent (Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Rwanda).

Window of opportunity

Substantial progress has been made in areas such as poverty reduction, gender parity, representation of women in parliament, and health. However, many challenges remain, especially in translating economic growth into the creation of decent job opportunities for the continent’s youthful population, eradication of poverty and conflicts, the need to increase access to basic services, the need to empower Africa’s women and young people, and the need to address income, gender and spatial inequalities. If these challenges are not properly addressed, the continent will not be able to take full advantage of its demographic dividend and achieve its development potential during the decades to come.

To open the window of opportunity to harness this dividend, countries need to facilitate a rapid decline in fertility to create a youth bulge and unleash the potential for economic take-off among the subsequent age structure dominated by productive workers. But the window of opportunity to harness the demographic dividend is limited. If the change in age structure resulting in the youth bulge occurs in the absence of adequate investments in the other four pillars of demographic dividend – health, education, economic reforms and job creation, and governance and accountability – then countries are unlikely to earn a substantial dividend. 

In the 23 countries of the ESA region, adolescents and young people (aged 10-24 years) were estimated at almost 169 million in 2014, representing nearly 33 per cent of the total population. This number is expected to reach 282 million by the year 2050, with their proportion decreasing to 23 per cent in Southern Africa and 29 per cent in East Africa. There is therefore great potential for a demographic dividend in the region.

Four countries in the ESA region with low fertility – Botswana, Mauritius, Seychelles and South Africa, which report an average of 2.3 children per woman of reproductive age – currently face a potential demographic dividend. These countries need to invest in meeting their respective contraceptive demands, improving quality of education and ensuring a match between skills taught and skills in demand, supporting the creation of jobs in high value sectors, and investing in infrastructure.

Fertility has started decreasing in six countries in the ESA region (Ethiopia, Lesotho, Namibia, Rwanda, Swaziland and Zimbabwe), with an average of 4.1 children per woman of reproductive age. For these countries, the window of opportunity for a demographic dividend will open when the youth bulge enters into the working-age population around 2030. To facilitate this process, investments must continue to focus on expanding and improving sexual and reproductive health (SRH)/family planning outreach, meeting contraceptive demand and promoting later marriage. Governments must promote expansion of school enrolment and attainment, vocational training and target female education. They must also invest in infrastructure, create productive jobs and ensure gender equity practices.

However, fertility is still high in the remaining 13 countries[1], with an average of 5.5 children per woman. These countries must not only invest in sectoral priorities, but also put greater emphasis on expanding access to and improving the quality of social services, such as health and education, and ensure that investments yield improved outcomes for the poor. In the health sector in particular, they must invest in maternal and child health, expand/improve reproductive health and family planning including through involvement of civil society organizations (CSOs) and the private sector, promote later marriage, and generate and meet contraceptive demand.

Wherever the number of children grows faster than the capacity to provide the younger generation with the necessary schools, health institutions or food, and the ability to provide jobs for young people is lacking, the situation of the entire country deteriorates. This leads to a vicious cycle of poverty, high infant mortality and high fertility rates, from which there is no easy escape because the population will continue to grow as the large youth cohort enters reproductive age. Anticipatory meaningful action is therefore needed in the areas of health – including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), family planning and HIV – as well as education and employment, to make the demographic dividend work for economic growth and development transformation in the region.


[1] Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Comoros, Eritrea, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.