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How Booming Population Is Challenging Africa

Happily vaccinated.

Happily vaccinated.

Photographer: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

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The world’s developed economies are facing a decline in fertility so pronounced that some will see their populations -- and economies -- shrink in years ahead. Sub-Saharan Africa faces the opposite situation: Its population has more than doubled in the past three decades and is expected to triple again by the end of this century. While the growing number of young, working-age people creates economic opportunities, it’s not clear how governments will manage the boom and whether the path to prosperity followed by other developing regions -- shifting into manufacturing -- is still available. Will the benefits of a more crowded Africa outweigh the drawbacks, or are its problems too dire and its governance too weak?

Population growth in sub-Saharan Africa owes primarily to better medical care, which has slashed infant and child mortality and raised average life expectancy from 50 to 61 since 2000. The population has soared to about 1.1 billion and it could hit 4 billion by 2100, says the United Nations. Nigeria alone is predicted to double to 400 million people by the middle of the century, making it the world’s third-most populous country after China and India. Sub-Saharan Africa’s per-capita gross domestic product has climbed 40% since the start of the century to $1,652, compared with $1,987 in India. However, oil and mineral riches mean a handful of nations are 10 or more times wealthier than a score of others that remain desperately poor.