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Will the 21st Century Be African? Part 2 – Social Changes

October 10, 2018

In the first blog of this series, I set out a quick overview of the factors that might make Africa the most important continent by the end of this century. In this blog I look at the social and demographic change that will underpin the transformation of Africa as a key player in global politics and trade.


By the end of the 21st Century, Africa’s population is projected to be over 4.1 billion (as I write it is 1.2 billion).  It will be the most populous continent on earth.  By 2050, the African population will be 2.4 billion, and, more strikingly, one third of the world’s youth population will be African, according to a report prepared for the EU Institute for Security Studies (ISS).  This growth will be greatest in West, Central and East Africa.

Today 60% of Africa’s population is rural.  This century’s massive population growth will see the rise of African megacities.  According to projections by Canada’s Global Cities Institute, by the end of the century, 13 of the world’s 20 biggest megacities will be African.  The three biggest cities in the world will be – in reverse order – Dar es Salaam (70 million), Kinshasa (83 million) and biggest of all, Lagos (88 million).

To put those populations into perspective, the largest city today is Tokyo (37.5 million).  100 years ago it was London (4.7 million).

Africa will see a century-long surge in its human potential.  The growing population will mean a massive growth in GDP and in Africa’s international importance.  It is reasonable to assume that global youth culture will have an increasingly African flavour, and an African team will finally lift the World Football Cup – which will itself mark Africa’s “arrival” at the global top table.

But whether Africa’s baby boom will prove to be an undiluted boon, a mixed blessing, or a curse will depend on a number of key variables.  Some are – at least at this point in the century – outside the direct control of Africa and its governments.

  • Technological developments will present the challenges and opportunities – the trajectory to modernity, education and skills for Africa’s young and burgeoning population.
  • Climate change will define the challenges to be overcome in terms of food production and access to water to support the population.
  • Global economic developments will mark out the terms of trade as Africa seeks to provide growth and opportunities for its people, and secure access to investment to underpin a path to self-sustaining development.
  • The world’s current major economic powers will all seek to trade with Africa, but the state of relations between those powers will affect the terms of trade – whether there is an attempted reversion to the Cold War, where the power blocs backed African “strong men” in order to seek exclusive influence, or whether there is a more peaceable globalised economic system.

We will look at each of these in the rest of this series.  But in order to make the rising population into as great an opportunity as possible, African nations themselves will need to address a number of issues including:

  • Health and health care: immunisation and vaccination, utilising technology to empower people to manage their own health and easily and quickly to access health advice and diagnostics
  • Nutrition: growing the food and providing access to clean water to support a well-nourished and healthy population
  • Education: allowing the booming young population access to the knowledge and skills they will need to become players in the world that the 4thIndustrial Revolution is bringing into being; and in particular, educating women to allow them to achieve their full economic potential, and control the sizes of their families in the future
  • Governance: tackling corruption and providing the effective governance that the African megacities will need in order to prosper and be habitable, and effective education and health care.

The risks Africa faces are obvious, but none the less real and significant for that.

  • The “baby boom” in Africa – assuming it is followed by a reduction in birth rates, as has happened elsewhere in the world as women become better educated – will lead to the problem of an aging population towards the end of the century
  • Poverty & unemployment will be massive, if the African economies fail to develop in a way that allows them to utilise the huge increase in human capital at their disposal
  • African megacities may experience slum conditions unprecedented, even in the world’s current developing megacities (or in Dickensian London) leading to squalor and the risk of pandemic diseases. It is likely that they will do so at some time, given the rate at which they will grow.  A major test of African governance will be how City and national governments match up to the task of developing an infrastructure to support megacities, their populations and economies and alleviate the slum problems
  • The drift into megacities from a predominantly rural population may destroy important social and familial structures, leading to an inability to provide the social care and multigenerational care necessary in a rapidly changing society
  • Africa could be vulnerable to conflicts – whether tribal, cultural or religious, especially if there is widespread unemployment, meaning large numbers of young men with no means of making a living
  • There may be a “brain drain” both within Africa and beyond, as the brightest and best of Africa’s young people seek to make a better life for themselves and their families. If the other risks listed above come into play, the brain drain effect will be even greater.

Watch This Space

In the next blog in this series I will look at technology, and the risks and challenges it presents for Africa as it grows.

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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