Is population growth in Africa a curse or a potential dividend? On the face of it the figures look daunting and even scary.
The global fertility rate is now 2.5 per woman and Africa’s is 4.7 per woman.Whilst the latter is projected to decline it will do so only slowly to 3.9 by 2030 and to 3.1 by 2050 although a Covid 19 instigated baby boom could adjust these projections.
KENYA’S ‘YOUTH BULGE’
In terms of population growth the number of Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 will double to 450 million by 2050.
This translates into a massive youth bulge. Over 60% of the continent’s population is below the age of 25. This in turn has resulted in gargantuan challenges both past, present and future that could yet prove to be a boon or a curse depending on how we manage the challenge.
One fifth of children between 6-11 years are out of school. A third of the children between 12 and 14 years do not attend school.
Healthcare provision and availability is patchy and weak. It is estimated between US$25bn to US$30bn needs to be invested in healthcare in Africa in the next decade alone just to get to basic healthcare provisions.
THE UNEMPLOYMENT CHALLENGE
Over 20 million young Africans join the workforce every year trying to seek gainful opportunity or employment. Many fail or only partially succeed.
An additional challenge is to tie education and training of skills to the demands of and openings in the workforce.
Often schools have a system and curriculum that does not match the employment realities on the ground. For example there are too many people expecting white collar jobs and finding there are just not enough of them. Conversely there is a shortage of people in a number of skilled and vocational areas such as nursing.
The answer and hence resultant challenge is to turn the population bomb curse into a population dividend that boosts our economy and in turn our living standards.
One way to do this is by improved access to family planning and children spacing so that parents can afford a better life for themselves and the children they have.
This gives them the opportunity to have children at a time which is more suitable for them.To put it another way we need to enable the working population to support their dependents.
Then there is greater opportunity to make better provisions for health care and education. This, in turn, enables those children to stand a better chance in job attainment.
At present over 40% of pregnancies are unplanned and when couples cannot plan their families this often leads to parents struggling just to provide basic needs for those children.
At present over 40% of pregnancies are unintended. This often leads to parents struggling to provide the basic needs for those children.
Family planning can result in cost savings which in turn can be used on public services such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation.
ECONOMIC TRANSFORMATION AND THE ‘DEMOGRAPHIC DIVIDEND’
The key therefore to rapid economic transformation is to have a working population which can support its dependents.
No country in the last 50 years has achieved the Demographic Dividend of transforming from a low income country to a middle income country without first giving their people the ability to have children at a time suitable to them.
One third of East Asia’s impressive economic growth from 1965 to 1990 is attributable to the Demographic Dividend including investments in reproductive health and in turn reducing child mortality and increasing family planning.
A study in Bangladesh found that women who were given the choice of planning for the number of children they wanted and when to have them had earnings 40% higher than women who did not have the same opportunity.
In short this is the key to attaining the Demographic Dividend which in turn leads to a country prospering faster and reaching middle income status.
If Kenya is not able to maximize the economic potential of its people it will attain only 20% to 30% of the progress on the relevant development indicators that it needs to equal African and Asian benchmark countries such as Mauritius and Malaysia.
Kenya has made impressive progress in the past decade or so. In 2008/09 modern contraceptive use by married women was in the region of 39%. It increased to 53% by 2014 and it has surpassed its target of 58% by 20%.The aim is to reach 66% use by 2030.
The challenge now is to expand and deepen the outreach countrywide. This requires a multipronged strategy.
First and foremost it requires dedicated political will both from national government and from County Governments.
The second is increased finances that are allocated and spent transparently again both at the national and regional levels. This involves tapping donor funding for family planning projects.
Coupled with this must be the training and build up in human and medical resources to carry out this continuous outreach. Again this is vital at the County level.
Last but not least there must be continuous education of the benefits of and modalities of family planning so that greater demand for it is created.
Robert Foster is an economic and public policy analyst