Population Growth and Gender Equality in Africa; Two Sides of the Development Coin


Students attend a class at a public school in Taliko, Bamako.

The founder of the African Leadership Academy (ALA) and African Leadership College (ALC), Fred Swaniker, articulates the vision for these educational institutions as being hinged on the enormous potential of Africa’s young people. 62% of Africa’s population is below the age of 25 – Swaniker describes these young minds as the continent’s greatest resource. Investments towards absorbing Africa’s bulging youth population in its labour markets will largely determine the extent to which the continent will yield positive outcomes from population growth. This will also inevitably determine how well poised the continent will be to address some of its greatest development challenges in the coming decades. Tanzania for instance records an annual population growth of 2.7% – almost half of this population is below the age of 15. Nearly one million young Tanzanians enter the labour market each year whereas the youth comprise only 28% of the labour force in the country (Haji, 2015).

Population growth in Africa is projected to double to 2.4 billion by 2050 and the continent will contribute over half of the world’s population increase by 2100.  Africa has a high fertility rate with an average number of 4.7 children per woman compared to the global average of 2.5 children per woman. Be that as it may, is rapid population growth inherently problematic or does it point to an underlying and more fundamental problem of under-development? By the same token, is Africa poor because it has too many people or does Africa have too many people because its people are poor? It has been proffered that poverty causes high birth rates rather than the reverse.  The dimension from which the ‘population problem’ is couched is instructive owing to the fact that “the use of the term overpopulation portrays a certain bias” which derives from solely focusing on statistics rather than people’s state of development. Low income countries are generally inclined to record higher fertility rates; Niger is a case in point with an average of 7.6 children per woman.  

Providing women access to birth control methods has been the most popular means of curbing population growth (Pillai & Wang, 1999). However, family planning programs that are solely focused on birth control are criticized for their failure to address systemic issues relating to women’s reproductive rights. French President Emmanuel Macron’s depiction of Africa’s demographics as a “civilizational” problem came under sharp criticism for its racist undertone said to be “reminiscent of the mission civilisatrice, the civilizing mission of French colonialism.” The Danish Minister for Development Cooperation while announcing increase of foreign aid on contraception to Africa alluded to this aid as constituting a prerequisite to forestall the influx of African migrants to Europe, betraying a patently prejudiced premise for the foreign aid. Such objectionable and neocolonial views undergirding foreign assistance to ostensibly ‘save Africa’ should be unequivocally challenged. In the same vein, a western funded population control project in Kenya described as preventing “reckless” procreation portrays a disconcerting and erroneous view which presupposes that all women have the agency to exercise reproductive choices. Moreover, it illuminates the pitfall of a paternalistic approach to providing women contraceptives without addressing the systemic inhibitions to their reproductive health. Inequality remains a major impediment in Africa as the benefits of economic growth are not evenly distributed thereby limiting access to health and education (Buvinic & Casabonne, 2009)  . An exploration of a nuanced and perhaps decolonial approach to re-framing the ‘overpopulation’ discourse in Africa seems worthwhile.

Rapid population growth has been arithmetically proven to reduce per capita investment in public services, shrink job opportunities and consequently slow down poverty reduction. The upside is leveraging of the “demographic dividend” which is defined as “accelerated economic growth that may result from a decline in a country’s mortality and fertility and the subsequent change in the age structure of the population” (Gribble & Bremner, 2012).  Capitalizing on the demographic dividend requires early investments in education, health and expansion of job opportunities. From the mid 1960’s to the early 90’s East Asian countries made these investments and tripled per capita income due to ”their ability to harness the demographic shifts to advantage.” The pattern of sharp declines in fertility rates in Asia and Latin America recorded in the 1970s has not been replicated in Africa despite investments in family planning programmes. Factors attributed to this include patriarchal societies that stifle women’s access to contraceptives, prohibitive religious and social norms as well as myths on the side effects of contraception.

Gender inequality inhibits gains that may emerge from improved demographic conditions. This implies that the benefits from reduced population growth remain tenuous under prevailing gender inequalities. Women’s education has been proven to have a strong correlation with fertility rate- the higher a woman’s education, the more likely that she will opt to have a smaller family, consequently slowing down population growth. The question as to whether “education is the best contraceptive” places the issue of gender inequality and reproductive rights into perspective. Investing in women’s education and providing access to family planning methods are not diametrically opposed. The latter has immediate effects while the former has a long term impact. Educating women therefore needs to be done in tandem with providing women access to family planning and reducing barriers of accessing contraception (Jiang & Hardee, 2014).

Lily article graph

The graph above illustrates a comparative analysis of three countries- Mauritius, Kenya and Niger ranked as high, medium and low human development states respectively in the 2016 Human Development Report (HDR) which acknowledges that gender equality and empowerment of women are “fundamental dimensions of human development ” (UNDP, 2016) According to the Gender Inequality Index– a component of the HDR report, between 2010 and 2015, 57% of the female population above 25 had attained secondary education in Mauritius compared to 27.8% in Kenya and 3.6% in Niger. Conversely in 2015, Niger recorded the highest fertility rate of 7.3 children per woman compared to 3.9 in Kenya and 1.4 in Mauritius according to World Bank data. This analysis corroborates the view that gender equality is inversely related to fertility rate as it impacts women’s choice on the number and spacing of their children. Additionally, increased participation of women in the labour force contributes towards demographic dividend. Given the strong correlation between gender equality and reproductive rights, the upshot is that a multifaceted approach to curbing population growth in Africa is pivotal with respect to both financial investments and policy actions.

Why is this discourse relevant for ALC? ALC is grooming the next generation of ethical African leaders who will transform the continent’s development. This transformation can only be realized if these leaders have the gravitas to apply themselves to the onerous task of addressing structural inequalities which have incessantly stymied the continent’s development. Achieving this will inexorably demand reassessment of Africa’s challenges through a nuanced prism. The discourse on population growth is emblematic of the underlying dimensions that ought to inform approaches to effectively addressing other development challenges. The ALC Social Science faculty is nurturing its students to be custodians of decolonial thought and practice which will be indispensable to engendering a multi-pronged approach to solving Africa’s greatest challenges as these leaders embark on their careers.


2016 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Report http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/2016_human_development_report.pdf


Buvinic, M. Gupta, M.D. and Casabonne, C.  (2009) Gender, Poverty and Demography: An Overview. The World Bank Economic Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 347-369


Gribble, J and Bremner, J. (2012) The Challenge of Attaining the Demographic Dividend. Policy Brief, Population Reference Bureau http://www.prb.org/pdf12/demographic-dividend.pdf


Haji, M (2015) Youth employment in Tanzania: Taking stock of the evidence and knowledge gaps, International Development Research Center  (ICDRC) https://www.idrc.ca/sites/default/files/sp/Documents%20EN/Youth_Employment_TANZANIA_REPORT_web-FINAL.pdf

Jiang, L and Hardee, K (2014) Women’s Education, Family Planning, or Both? Application of Multistate Demographic Projections in India. International Journal of Population Research, Article ID 940509 http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/940509

Pillai, V. K. and Wang, G (1999) Social Structural Model of Women’s Reproductive Rights: A Cross-National Study of Developing Countries. The Canadian Journal of Sociology, Vol. 24, No. 2, pp. 255-281


Lily photo

Lily Mburu, former ALU Fellow: Lily is a lawyer and advocate of social justice. She holds an LLM in International Development Law and Human Rights from the University of Warwick. She is an Adjunct Lecturer at Riara University and has extensive experience working with civil society in the East & Horn of Africa region on advancing democracy and protection of human rights defenders. Her research interest is centered on the nexus between governance  and socio-economic development, gender and decoloniality. E: wmburu@gmail.com   

21st Century Mauritian

21st century Mauritian

I am a British Mauritian citizen primarily of Indian and Chinese descent, living in an African country as part of the Indo-Mauritian majority and Muslim minority. I am also designing and delivering an introductory course to Mauritian Creole for students at the African Leadership College – most of whom are from continental Africa. The irony of this is not lost on me. Never in a million years did I think that the little British girl who moved to Mauritius at the age 9 would someday be teaching classes of Mauritian Creole, which is said to be “a key emblem of a Mauritian nation because its practice transcends ethnic boundaries” (Little India, Eisenlohr, 2006). Nor did I anticipate the immense privilege it would be to help African students recognize elements of their own cultures in ours as well as seeing my Senegalese colleague’s eyes widen with wonder when I told him that Camp Yoloff in Port Louis is named after the native language of his country. But is that not the very essence and beauty of being a Global Mauritian in the 21st century?

Nonetheless, I am not about to make allusions to the carefully manicured illusions of perfection that are so often associated with Mark Twain’s much misquoted heaven-on-earth; we have our fair share of issues which include failing political leadership fuelled by communalism, a toxic culture of nepotism and cronyism, a shrinking middle class and a possible repeat of the Chagos tragedy with 300 Agaléens on the near horizon, but that’s not what this story is about today. It’s no secret that 2018 marks 50-years of independence and I wanted to take a moment to celebrate our nation, not for the personality cults that surround the political dynasties in this country or for the smart cities to come, but for our everyday heroes who will stop what they are doing and come push your car when it breaks down (in my experience people are not so compassionate in certain countries), or a community as a whole that bands together and braves a cyclone to provide hot meals for disaster victims.

We might not always see eye-to-eye but it’s in these small acts of kindness that we define ourselves. I am part of what is arguably one of the most globally hated religious communities in modern history, but I have never felt hated or been made to feel unsafe for my faith in Mauritius. While the pre-independence racial conflict between the Muslim and Creole communities, which is noticeably absent from our national history curriculum, was the first (and hopefully last) of its kind, I would like to think it is/was symptomatic of deeper socio-political undercurrents rather than being solely based on religious and ethnic differences. In the ever so slightly amended words of KAYA, Nu lavi pieger telment li precier (loosely translated: Our life is fragile because it is so precious).

The life that we have in Mauritius is special in ways that I cannot begin to fully describe. It’s not just about the copious amounts of gato la cire (Nian Gao) I received from friends and neighbours for Chinese New Year or the puris that pilgrims performing Maha Shivatri distributed to car passengers as they walked past with their dazzling kawars – gestures the Muslim community tends to reciprocate with generous amounts of biryani! – but the mutual respect with which we choose to treat each other every single day. Perhaps the sheer size of our small island nation has forced us into a more peaceable society in spite of/because of the wealth of diversity that exists across our modest 2050 square kilometres. It could also be because Mauritius did not initially belong to anyone is the reason why it belongs to all of us today, and even though our powerful passports are windows to the world, the Mauritian diaspora have a way of finding each other no matter where we are due to our unique shared culture.

Born in 1993, this year I turn 25. I have lived through exactly half of our half a century of independence. In 2043 I will be 50 years of age and the Republic will be 75 years free, and in 2068 when I am 75 we will be celebrating a 100-years of independence declaration. Sadly, KAYA is not here to commemorate the momentous occasion of 50-years of independence with a song only he could write and his untimely demise has left our nation heart-broken, but in this sort-of love letter to nou ti zil (our little island) I think it is safe to say that KAYA and the collective Mauritian consciousness would agree that in 50, 75 and 100 years of independence what we hope for is to leave this beautiful country a safer and fairer place.

First published by the national newspaper Le Mauricien on Tuesday 6th March 2018

Author: Shaheen Beeharry Social Sciences Curriculum Contextualization & Language Associate at the African Leadership College