Can East Africa empower its young, growing population?


East African populations are among the youngest and fastest growing in the world. Recent studies put population growth at roughly three times the global average and estimates suggest four billion people will be living in Africa by 2100. The concern is over what kind of future they will have in countries where overpopulation is already putting a strain on development.

Mass unemployment, food insecurity, disease outbreaks and energy shortages are merely a few of the dangers African nations can expect to increase alongside its growing populations.

However, some experts see Africa’s rising youth as an opportunity. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is among the organisations that recognise Africa’s youth as a growth potential. However, there are conditions that need to be met if Africa wants to avoid the kind of dangers listed above.

These are the kind of condition the G20 Compact with Africa initiative, which the IMF is actively involved with, aims to overcome. So could East Africa turn its overpopulation problem into a sustainable growth solution?


East Africa is adapting

There’s no doubt East Africa is in a rapid state of change. Ethiopia and Rwanda are the region’s two rising stars and its only members of the Compact with Africa initiative.

Ethiopia is currently the fastest growing economy in the world, generating more than $3 billion of foreign direct investment (FDI) during the 2015/16 financial year. However, it’s also the second most populous country in Africa, making it an ideal representative for the challenges of achieving sustainable development amidst overpopulation.

Source: Federal Ministry of Finance, Germany

Rwanda’s economic rise looks familiar to those who have been watching Ethiopia. Growth is significantly slower in Rwanda but no other country in the world can match Ethiopia in that regard right now. Where Rwanda is significantly ahead of its East African counterpart is overpopulation – and not in the good sense.

Rwanda’s 12 million population might sound modest compared to Ethiopia’s 100 million but that doesn’t tell the full story. Ethiopia has almost a million Km2 to house its people while Rwanda has less than 25,000 kM2. Which means Rwanda is almost five times more densely populated than Ethiopia.

Let’s remember, these are the region’s most promising prospects.


The ‘ticking time bomb’

Africa’s population growth is referred to as a ticking time bomb by many experts and organisations. So where is this opportunity the likes of the IMF and G20 are talking about? Sadly development in Africa doesn’t always mean opportunities for Africans – and this is the crux of the issue.

As the African Economic Outlook report pointed out in 2012:

The story of Africa’s worrisome youth unemployment is often told alongside the story of the continent’s fast and steady economic growth. While six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa, the unemployment rate for that region is 6%, according to the AfDB. Compared to the world average of about 5%, its rate may not seem that high. But the problem is that in most African countries, youth unemployment “occurs at a rate more than twice that for adults.

Too little of Africa’s development is resulting in stable employment for its rapidly growing populations. Some experts suggest African nations need to prioritise manufacturing as a means of creating jobs. Agriculture remains the most important industry for most countries in the region but people are increasingly moving to the cities in search of work.

There’s another problem, too – one that will affect both manufacturing and agriculture sectors. As African populations increase, more technology designed to replace humans in the workplace is being created. By the time Africa is home to four billion people in 2100, will this kind of work even exist for humans at all?


Eyes on education

The obvious answer for many is education. First of all, educate people about the dangers of overpopulation – and we’ve already seen this in Uganda and other countries where youth unemployment is a major problem.

Source: UN Africa Renewal

It’s not simply a question of educating people about overpopulation but also educating them for the future workplace. This brings the education sectors of each country into question, which are also struggling to cope with the growing numbers – a conundrum in itself.

Many African countries are still trying to bring education to the masses. Providing those pupils with the kind of skills employers are actually looking for is something else entirely. One thing most experts agree on is that African governments need to tackle unemployment as the main symptom of overpopulation to minimise the other negative impacts it has.

By creating the right kind of jobs and an education system that provides the necessary skills, each one of Africa’s employed citizens becomes an asset to development. Each one who doesn’t becomes another victim of unsustainable development.


Featured image: UN Africa Renewal

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.