According to the UN, the world’s human population will reach ten billion by the year 2055. Much of this growth will happen in low- and middle-income countries, where fertility rates (the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime) are high. Most African governments are already struggling to provide basic services for the current populations. The projected population growth is unsustainable for African economies, not to mention for natural resources and the environment. Both policymakers and researchers – including ourselves – are paying closer attention to the factors underlying these trends.

Nearly 13% of the world’s population lives in sub-Saharan Africa. Projections show that by 2055, this population will be more than 2.3 times the current population of under 1.1 billion. Between 2017 and 2050, the projected increase in the population is as high as 219.7 million in Nigeria, 134.4 million in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 94.7 million in Tanzania and 85.9 million in Ethiopia. The youth population in Africa as a whole is projected to increase from 20% to 35% during the same period.

Low levels of socioeconomic development, low female education, poor access to health services and weak family planning programmes are the major factors that have delayed the transition to low fertility rates in Africa. But it is not all gloom. With increases in modern contraceptive use, fertility rates have started falling in most parts of Africa, with the exception of central and western regions.

It has been shown that where child mortality is high, couples adopt “insurance” or “replacement” strategies to compensate for child losses. When child mortality rates start falling, couples adjust their fertility downwards. A number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa have registered significant falls in child mortality since 1990. Countries that have made progress in lowering birth rates have done so by significantly improving child survival, as well as by empowering women through education and participation in the wage labor market. However, the average under-five mortality rate for the region is still very high with an estimated 82 deaths per 1,000 live births, according to demographic and health surveys.

Low female education is also a key factor in the slow pace of Africa’s fertility transition. Female education delays entry into marriage, and increases chances of participation in wage employment, which lowers fertility. Evidence from 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa shows that increasing women’s education across different socioeconomic groups is very effective in reducing overall fertility levels. While the economically privileged attain higher education and have less children, the effects gradually trickle down to the less privileged through diffusion of ideas, such as smaller family size, and social development. However, numerous demographic studies have shown that a few years of schooling are not sufficient for meaningful fertility reduction since such couples abandon traditional forms of child spacing, such as postpartum abstinence, without adopting the use of modern methods of contraception consistently.

Programmes looking to change behavior and attitude towards socially constructed practices are important. Cultural norms and preferences for large families are still prevalent in Africa, but these attitudes diminish with female education and empowerment. Adolescent childbearing is also rooted in cultural beliefs in some communities in Africa. High teenage childbearing and child marriages, that is before 18 years, ultimately lead to high fertility. There is need for policymakers and stakeholders to focus on an integrated investment framework with particular focus on universal access to contraceptives, longer periods in school, as well as girls’ and women’s empowerment.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by the global community in 2015 could have a great impact toward achieving sustained fertility reduction. In particular, if significant progress is made in SDG 1 (no poverty); SDG 2 (good health and wellbeing); SDG 4 (quality education); and SDG 5 (gender equality), including target 5.6 to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, then many of the factors described above will be addressed.

Put simply, investing in girls’ education, ending poverty, achieving gender equality, investing in good health services to lower child mortality, and ensuring that all who need access to contraception receive good quality services will go a long way to addressing rapid growth of the human population.

The authors of this guest article are Sabu Padmadas, Professor in Demography and Global Health, University of Southampton, UK and Nyovani Madise, Professor in Demography and Global Health, African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP).

The African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) helps to bridge the gaps between research, policy and practice in development efforts in Africa. We analyze, synthesize, and translate evidence (i.e. data and research) and use it to generate or strengthen political commitment, inform resource allocation, programme design and implementation. The aim is to contribute to the realization of sustainable development by enabling the formulation of sound policies and programme interventions. Our work is categorized in four areas. One of these areas is strengthening capacities to use evidence in policymaking spaces. This is a cross-cutting area of our work that spans development sectors. We use three development sectors to provide direct support to policymakers in enabling evidence use: population change and sustainable development; reproductive, maternal, newborn child, and adolescent health; and education and skills development.