In a report releases in August this year, UNICEF shook up much of the global health community by estimating that by 2050, 40% of the children under five in the world will be African. The total population of the African continent, currently around 1.1 billion, is projected to increase to 4.2 billion by 2100. Those numbers are staggering considering that Africa, the second largest continent on the planet, only has 15% of the world’s current population and roughly 25% of the world’s children under five. There are both opportunities and potential problems with this population growth. If investments are made in the health and future of the youngest generations, this population boom has the potential to bring a substantial portion of the 60% of Africans that live on less than $2 a day out of poverty. If nothing is done to face the future, the sheer increase in the numbers of humans may have devastating effects on the shaky efforts of many countries to decrease the burden of both infectious and chronic diseases.

Population growth is not inherently a problem, even a population growth as large as the one Africa is experiencing. Many countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas have already experienced this boom, and have used their increased population to bolster development in their respective countries. In Mexico, for example, the population has hugely increased during the second half of the 20th century from 38 million in 1960 to 103 million in 2000. The increased labour market and consumer base was one of the factors that allowed Mexico to increase their Gross Domestic Product per capita. According to the World Bank, it increased from $337.57 in 1960 when the population growth took off, to $6666.65 in 2000 when it arguably started to slow down again. Although GDP is never a perfect indicator of a national output, it can give us an estimate of overall trends in development. The same is possible in every country in Africa and the necessary investments in education, health, and infrastructure should be made so as to capitalize upon the nascent growth.

In Uganda, where I work for a public health NGO called the Uganda Village Project, the population has already experienced the beginning of the demographic transition that will occur across the continent. According the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey, approximately 50% of the population is under the age of 15. The large number of women in reproductive age is one of the major driving factors behind the projected growth of Uganda, combined with large family sizes. According to UNICEF, Uganda has the ninth highest number of children per women in Africa, at 5.7. From 2015 to 2050 the population is expected to grow from 40 million to 104 million, an increase of 160%. This population growth will correlate with an increase in urban populations, which according to the World Bank, only held around 14% of the country’s population in 2010.

Increased urbanization leads to a slew of problems, but also leads to more opportunity for many people. Resources such as health clinics, schools, and government facilities are much more accessible while living in a city when compared to some of the villages that I visit for my work. Currently, the roads are not accessible to the majority of the villages north of Iganga because of torrential rainfall. Without the roads, someone needing access to any sort of intensive medical care, or a child needing to travel long distances for education, would not be able to do so until the roads have been reconstructed. The days of a Uganda where the majority of the population is engaged in small family farms appear to be limited in their number.

The changes needed will not be comfortable, easy, or even politically logical. However, I am slowly starting to understand that they must be made to support the future of the people and the continent. Working in global health and as a GHC Fellow, I can only look with anticipation towards the rising future of Africa. Huge changes are coming to the continent and the world, and I cannot wait to be supporting the way forward in any way I can.

By Orrin Tiberi

Orrin was born in Bermuda and raised in Helena, Montana. He became interested in public health at a young age, making it to the state science competition with his experiment on the effect of second-hand smoke on houseflies. During high school he was active with the county health department and helped shoot, edit, and publicize PSAs about the dangers of teen smoking. He attended the University of Montana and graduated with a degree in cultural anthropology and a minor in international development studies. Orrin received his master's degree in international public health from the University of Pittsburgh, focusing on underserved populations. As part of his degree he served in the Peace Corps for two years in Riobamba, Ecuador, where he worked with local communities to address pressing health needs and empower marginalized populations. Prior to joining GHC, Orrin worked in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a research assistant for the POWER Project, a surveillance study of HIV risk and social support among African American men.