Population boom: Is it Africa’s turn for a two-child limit policy?

Africa has one of the highest birth rates in the world, with the average number of children per woman standing at five.

Photo credit: SHUTTERSTOCK

What you need to know:

  • The continent has one of the highest birth rates in the world, with the average number of children per woman standing at five

Earth is a finite place. The more people who inhabit it, the more they must compete for its resources. Yet Africa’s population continues to expand rapidly — the continent has the world’s highest fertility rates.

And thus the big question lingers — are African nations ready to pursue policies to lower birth rates?

During the recently concluded 9th African Population Conference in Malawi, participants engaged in in-depth discussions on whether it’s time for African countries to reduce their fertility rates to 2.1 children per woman, the so-called replacement fertility level.

Replacement fertility level is the average number of children born per woman at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next, without migration. This rate is roughly 2.1 children per woman in several developed countries.

The concept of replacement fertility goes back to 1929. At the time, birth rates in the United States and other developed countries had fallen. This, according to American demographer Warren Thompson, was because the countries had industrialised and people gained access to better medicine and sanitation as well as safer drinking water, leading to a sharp drop in death rates.

With more children surviving to adulthood, people eventually started having fewer children. In the final stage of this demographic transition, Thompson proposed that the fertility rate would settle at just about replacement level; with one baby born for every adult dying.

With the decline in America’s fertility rate, policymakers feared that the ballooning population of older adults would overburden the nation’s dwindling workforce.

But, are African nations ready to pursue policies to lower birth rates to replacement levels? Or should they embrace their growing populations as an economic asset?

With the continent experiencing rapid population growth alongside diverse economic and social challenges, scientists and policymakers who gave their thoughts on the debate during the population conference indicated that the timing and implications of pursuing such direction would disrespect family status.

Others argued that the continent has a high population that it cannot support.

Others lauded family planning services, linking them to lower levels of fertility in some parts of the continent. They added that Africa should be left to continue towards that direction until it reaches the replacement fertility levels. Others said it will take us more decades to be where we want and something needs to be done.

Compared with other continents, Africa’s fertility rate of five children per woman is high. Indeed, it’s the highest in the world. On average, women in Africa have about five children over their reproductive lifetime, compared to a global average of 2.5 children, according to research from the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP)

The study shows that the demographic transition, the name for the change from high death and fertility rates to lower death and eventually lower fertility rates, has moved from Africa to other regions in the developing world.

According to the study, although most countries in Africa have four or more children per woman, a few are near replacement fertility levels, including Mauritius (1.5), Seychelles (2.3), South Africa (2.4), and Cape Verde (2.4). Countries like Rwanda and Kenya have recorded fertility decline in recent years. The fertility rate in Rwanda declined by about two children between 2005 and 2014.

 “Fertility rates matter beyond population growth. Persistently high fertility rates have been associated with poor economic development, low living standards, low educational attainment and high disease burden in all areas in which Sub-Saharan African countries generally lag behind the rest of the world,” says the study.

Resistance to fertility decline in Africa, according to the World Bank, has mostly been pegged on traditions and religion, which meant that the younger generations assisted the older generations to an extent that to the males, high fertility ultimately brought substantial economic returns.

“The emphasis on descent meant that high fertility was morally correct and that childlessness or rearing few children was evil, whether it was the result of barrenness or the death of all or most children, especially in circumstances where fertility had been irresponsibly controlled,” states World Bank.

Also, for the African set-up, there is strength and safety in numbers.

A man’s physical safety was determined by the number of his relatives achieved through fatherhood, marriage, or marriages of his children and by the territories they controlled.

Politicians believed that with family planning, there was little demand for fertility control and they did not want to be associated with failure in African culture.

However, with the growing familiarity with family planning programmes, African governments are looking to a slackening of population growth. Access to family planning helps manage rapid population growth by preventing unintended pregnancies while reducing maternal and child mortality, and improving the health and economic well-being of families and communities.. When countries develop as their fertility rates decline, the proportion of women earning wages rises and their children have greater chances of success.

In Kenya, for instance, families have been having fewer children. Family planning campaigns saw the country’s fertility rate decline from an estimated eight children per woman in 1963 to around five in the late 1990s, according to Performance Monitoring for Action (PMA) family planning data.

However, this has stalled, with women in some communities still giving birth to seven or eight children yet more women are becoming more learned, more exposed to family planning information, more enlightened and more freed from the demands of their men.

Still, a lot needs to be done, according to PMA. If the trajectory carved by the campaign for independence had continued in its path, Kenyan women would today be having between two and three children on average, but they are still stuck at five, according to PMA.

Family planning, according to scientists, is an essential component of achieving development goals for health, poverty reduction, gender equality, and environmental sustainability.

The World Health Organization believes that better access to family planning is greatly aided by education, and countries that invest in birth control have seen a reduction in the number of children per woman.

As the world celebrates World Population Day this Thursday with the theme ‘Investing in data collection to understand problems, tailoring solutions, and driving progress’, the Healthy Nation sat down with policymakers, researchers and academics to understand Africa’s demographic future.

The majority of those we interviewed opposed the replacement fertility level, saying it is a Western narrative that should not be imposed on Africans.

Dr Bokha Didi, a Member of Parliament and a Health Committee member in Uganda, said Africans should not be pressured with the discussion on the replacement fertility level since we are endowed with mineral resources and freshwater bodies.

“Our problem is not population growth, but how to ensure that Africans are empowered to be able to harness the abundant natural resources that we have. We need to equip people with skills.”

He added: “The concerns about poverty and overpopulation in Africa is a mindset issue. If we start being productive, Africans will be able to take care of themselves.”

He cautioned African nations against getting involved in external discussions on population control, claiming they are influenced by Western countries.

“If you look at the population in the West, they are ageing and are dependent on Africa’s natural resources with an aim of controlling us so that we do not exploit our resources. They want to maintain their economy with our resources,” he said.

He mentioned the existence of fear in Western countries that the high population in Africa is skilled and could potentially take over their economies.

To manage Africa’s population amid a public health crisis, Dr Didi advised African leaders to tame corruption.

“It is corruption that is making us fail to improve our health system, education and infrastructure. If we appropriate and allocate resources to health, education, and infrastructure, we will be good to go. Let’s focus on investment and not the debate on reducing the fertility rate,” he said.

Nominated Senator Catherine Muma (Kenya), who attended the population conference, argued against deliberate measures to reduce fertility in Africa, stating that families should not be directed on the number of children they wish to have.

“Directing women on the number of children to have will be disrespectful to families.”

She said governments should prioritise addressing bad governance and recognise that the continent possesses abundant natural resources. “If managed efficiently, these resources could stimulate the economic growth needed to ensure that the young population is sufficiently skilled to enter the workforce.”

“We will be crossing the line if we try to lower the fertility rate while we are doing nothing in terms of planning for our population.”

Prof Nyovani Madise, director of Development Policy and head of AFIDEP Malawi office, cautioned African countries against pursuing replacement fertility levels.

She said that if the continent cares about development, then the replacement of fertility levels should not be a discussion. This, she said, is because countries that have tried to have targets have gone back to struggling to get a youthful population.

Prof Madise gave an example of Japan, which tried to control its population and reduce its fertility rate. The country’s fertility currently stands at 1.36 below the replacement level. In 2022, Japan’s population shrunk by half a million, forcing them to try anything within their reach to bring back fertility.

And now with the low fertility rate, the country is unable to convince women to start giving birth to many children as they are so empowered and already in the labour force.

“We should not focus on reducing our fertility levels as a continent. Instead, we should focus on education, gender equality and poverty reduction,” Prof Madise said.

She said that should Africa go through the fertility reduction route, it should be worried because there will be no youthful workforce and the elderly will be forced to work for longer years.

She also linked child mortality with fertility. “In Africa, there is a high child mortality rate and with this, we should not restrict the number of children that women give birth to. What if a catastrophe befalls them? So, when we think about restricting fertility, let’s also think about what we are doing about mortality,”  she said.

“Unlike in the West, when a child is born, their lives are well planned with a good health care system, where they can access care whenever they get unwell. This increases their survival rate. How about Africa? “If you care about the well-being of women, gender equality, health, development and environment, then we need to invest in them and not worry about reducing fertility, the rest will take care of itself.”

Dr Chiekh Mbacke, an independent consultant and advisor in population and health research and training in sub-Saharan Africa, said: “If we control population, we will have less and less of the working population and this will interfere with the labour force.”

He indicated that should the region decide to go that direction, then it may have to rely on immigrant labour:  “Where are we going to get immigrants who will come to work in Africa?”

He noted that if fertility declines, our population will age, putting additional strain on our already fragile healthcare systems. “If governments are not prepared to care for the increasing number of older people, they will further reduce the quality of life for individuals.”

However, Dr Ben Malunga Phiri, a Member of Parliament in Malawi, and Dr Estelle Monique Sidze, a research scientist and maternal and child health specialist at African Population and Health Research Center, noted that fertility rates are decreasing in most parts of the world..

“Every plan must have a strategy and every problem must have a solution. Show me the strategy for the rapid population growth or for not managing it. Most developed countries do not look at population as a key indicator when they are developing their budget,” Dr Phiri said.

 “In one of the hospitals in my constituency, 55 babies are born daily, and in my area, a classroom accommodates between 40 to 60 children. Even if we have the money, will we build a classroom every day for the pupils and the population to ensure that all the children are not learning under a tree?

He challenged the continent to look at countries with replacement fertility levels including Singapore, North Korea and Hong Kong, and observe their GDP and poverty level.

“Flip that and come to Africa. Nigeria 6.8 children. Look at Somalia and their poverty level and health indicators, the situation is bad. The issue of ageing does not happen in Africa, people die,” Dr Phiri said.

He added: “Let us give birth to children that we can manage and our economy will improve. Do we want quality education for our children in Africa?  Africans are failing to take care of themselves and we have become beggars. When we put our continent in order, we can easily overtake Europe.”

Dr Sidze noted that worldwide, fertility rates are declining. “It has fallen from an average of five births per woman in 1950 to 2.3 births per woman, an indication of the increasing control that individuals, particularly women can exercise over their reproductive health.

“Overall, fertility is projected to fall to 2.1 births per woman by 2050. Women have access to family planning methods and they can control the family sizes,” she said.

According to projections from the United Nations, in 1950, an African woman was giving birth to seven children. This reduced to five children in 2010 and it will decline to three children by 2050.

She added: “Do we know the Africa we want and deserve, do we have the plans? Can we get to a level where our fertility is reducing? If we look at investment in reproductive health for our women, it is reducing. Domestic funding on the investment is reducing. As a continent can we sustain the programmes on our own?

She added: “Talking about China and German, where they have controlled their population, they know how to model the population and can readjust when they want. How about Africa, where we do not even have data and depend on projections to know about our population growth?,” Dr Sidze posed.

The United Nations projects that achieving replacement-level fertility in the region by 2050 could generate several benefits. 

“Reducing fertility rates could also lead to economic benefits through a “demographic dividend.” A country will have fewer children to care for and a greater share of its population in the most economically productive age bracket. 

“Fortunately, the most effective approaches to achieving replacement level fertility are non-coercive, save millions of lives, advance gender equity, give people more control over their lives, and contribute to economic growth. These approaches focus on increasing educational opportunities for girls; increasing access to reproductive health services, including family planning; and reducing infant and child mortality,” says the projection.

The projection indicates  that achieving replacement level fertility of a country is the responsibility of national governments since they control, fund and set policies for education systems and health services.

“Achieving replacement level fertility in Africa and elsewhere by 2050 is a multi-win solution to humanitarian, economic, and environmental challenges, and an important item on the menu for a sustainable food future,” it concludes. 

A study published in The Lancet last year suggests that concerted efforts to fast-track access to modern contraceptives and female education, the two key drivers of fertility, could help accelerate declines in fertility and reduce birth rates in higher-fertility nations.