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How to make population growth work for Africa

A crowded market in Dhaka, Bangaldesh. Photo: <a href=""> IFPRI</a>
A crowded market in Dhaka, Bangaldesh. Photo: IFPRI

Sub-Saharan Africa is getting bigger. But despite warnings from neo-Malthusian alarmists, population growth—if managed correctly—could be the key to unlocking Africa’s economic potential.

Even as fertility rates continue to decline across the developing world, sub-Saharan Africa leads the world in population growth. Stunning growth in countries, such as Nigeria, whose population is expected to nearly double over the next two decades to an estimated 300 million people, has revived old debates over the link between population and economic prosperity.

A New York Times article published last week paints a grim picture for the future of Africa. Cities like Lagos, the Nigerian capital, have swelled to more than twice the size of New York City, straining infrastructure and basic services like water and electricity.

Across Asia and Latin America, fertility rates have dropped even as economic growth has soared, prompting some to argue that the key to economic development is to control ballooning populations. But this argument confuses cause and effect, says Tate Watkins in an article responding to the New York Times for the web magazine GOOD: It’s economic development that leads to lower fertility rates, not the other way around.

So how can Africans spur economic growth while accommodating a rapidly expanding population? Contrary to popular wisdom, population growth may actually help to drive economic growth on the continent, given the right mix of policies.

The economies of sub-Saharan Africa remain heavily dependent on agriculture, with smallholder farmers making up the bulk of agricultural activity. Therefore, experts have argued, agricultural development is the key to overall economic development in the region.

Unlike large, mechanized farms, small farms are extremely labor intensive, meaning that producing higher yields per acre depends on an abundance of labor. Because African agriculture is composed mainly of small farms, high population growth should provide the labor necessary to produce more food and spur rural development.

Low population density in rural areas has also been blamed for a lack of infrastructure and market access. In theory, as rural populations grow and become more productive, they demand more services, like roads, and are better integrated into national markets.

But the "urban bias" in government investment has forced growing populations to migrate to urban centers. When governments neglect investments in agriculture and rural infrastructure, there are few opportunities for rural employment, leading younger generations to move to cities in search of jobs. As urbanization increases, cities become more crowded and can struggle to absorb new migrants.

Southeast Nigeria provides an example of how poor rural infrastructure contributes to migration. Each year, soil erosion and heavy rains in the region render roads impassable. As a result, small farmers take a loss by selling their goods locally, or abandon their farms altogether to find work in the city.

High population growth, combined with the right investments in agriculture and the rural economy, has the potential to break the cycle of poverty in Africa. By investing in agricultural technologies and infrastructure, small farmers will be able to take advantage of abundant labor to increase productivity and sell for a higher price on non-local markets. As rural households earn higher incomes, they increase their demand for consumer goods, thereby spurring growth in the manufacturing sector. Finally, a larger urban manufacturing sector absorbs excess rural labor and boosts demand for agricultural produce, once again lifting rural incomes.

Of course, competition for scarce resources continues to be a concern. But the biggest obstacle to access to land, water and other resources is inequality, not scarcity. Too often, poor land rights and government support for plantation-style, mechanized agriculture are responsible for vulnerable rural populations being denied access to resources.

"Small families are basically a luxury," writes Watkins. "When people achieve a certain level of income, they can afford to worry about having fewer kids." If we want to see population growth stabilize in Africa, we need to spur economic development. And economic development in Africa begins with investments in agriculture.

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