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Will the 21st Century Be African?

September 21, 2018


By the end of this century the world will be transformed.  Technological changes will have reshaped the way we live, work and communicate.  We will (we hope) have access to abundant and cheap clean, renewable energy.

But humanity will look different as well.  It will be a lot more African.  Current UN demographic projections suggest that Africa’s population will double from just under 1 Billion at the start of the present century, to over 2.4 Billion at its mid-point, and possibly 4.1 Billion at its end, which would make Africa the most populous of all the continents.  If current trends continue, by 2050 there will be more people in Nigeria than in the USA. What started as an Asian Century may end as an African one.

It has been easy for western analysts to overlook Africa – or at least to see it as a continent to which things are done, rather than one which could be a world leader in itself, or could contain countries which will become world leaders. We wanted to examine this in more detail from a futures and strategy perspective. It seems to us that there is a “tipping point” coming, and that any global scenario planning needs to take Africa much more seriously, and consider its potential and its possible impact on the course of global social and economic progress.

This blog series therefore examines Africa’s future. We hope it provides a useful guide, and perhaps sparks thoughts about opportunities and risks which may help all those concerned with the continent’s future.

A STEEP Ascent

We intend to approach the question using the STEEP methodology. Initially, we can see the following trends, each of which we will look at more closely in turn in future articles:

Social – the very fact of such a fast-growing population will catapult Africa to the top of the agenda as a potential economic powerhouse, as a market and a producer of goods and services, and a source of young minds and bodies in an ageing global population.  At its best Africa could become the most dynamic and creative of the continents.  In a worst-case scenario, the teeming population will be impoverished, discontented and prey to disease, malnourishment and exploitation.

Technological – there are emerging signals already of Africans using technology as a springboard for economic progress, access to finance and primary and preventive medical care. In a positive scenario, Africa is ready to grasp the opportunities of new technologies, unencumbered by an infrastructure reliant on old ones.  In a worst case, the traditional route out of poverty will no longer be available as automation destroys the market for unskilled and semi-skilled workers to progress up the social and economic ladder.

Environmental – rapid and massive population growth will mean many more mouths to feed, increasing demand for water, productive agriculture etc, and potentially placing new pressures on Africa’s unique natural environments.  Climate change will have a significant impact. In a positive scenario, Africa will emerge as a leader in innovation, using new technologies to promote flexibility and sustainability.  In a worst case, there will be an environmental calamity, leading to conflict, mass-migrations and impoverishment.

Economic – a young and growing population, allied with Africa’s great wealth of natural resources, offers the opportunity for Africa to become a global powerhouse, better able to harness its own resources for its own benefit, and able to mobilise, educate and reward its billions of young working-age people.  Cities like Kinshasa and Lagos will compete with Shanghai and Tokyo as the great megacities of the late 21st century.  At worst, the population growth will become too much, too rapidly. There will not be enough opportunities to go round, and the great cities of Africa will become giant slums.

Political – a growing and confident Africa will become less dependent on the rest of the world.  It will trade with other countries on an equal basis, and its young, increasingly educated and tech-savvy population will be envied. A rising middle-class will demand, and get, better governance.  Demands from civic society will continue exert downward pressure on the endemic corruption which plagues modern African government. Working together, African nations will collaborate closely to take advantage of the opportunities and deal with the challenges ahead.  They will articulate an Afrocentric world view to challenge those of the West and East.  In a worst case, corrupt governments and large numbers of disaffected young people will spell trouble – with rising crime, and no shortage of recruits for armed forces and insurgencies.  Other countries will exploit these weaknesses to their own benefit.

Watch This Space

In this series of articles, we will look in turn at the prospects for Africa through each of the five STEEP lenses.  After that, we will bring them together to identify a set of scenarios for Africa as it reaches the middle of this century.  In doing so, we will give food for thought for people in government, in finance and trade, who will need to take increasing account of the rise and the sheer growth in human terms, of the African continent.

Written by David Lye, SAMI Fellow and Director and Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

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