When compared with other continents, Africa’s fertility rates of 4.5 children per woman in 2017 seem high. Indeed, it’s the highest in the world. But that figure is low compared with Africa's birthrates of previous decades. It stood at an average of 6.6 children per woman in 1980.
And these rates has been falling across the continent. In the Sahel, for example, the region with the highest fertility rates, the number of children per woman has dropped from 7 to 5.7 since 1980. The most spectacular drop has been in North Africa, where the rate was cut in half in 37 years, from 6 children per woman to 3.
There is an ongoing demographic transition in Southern Africa and the countries of the Indian Ocean, where the current fertility rate is 4 children per woman, and the rate is trending downward.
While African population growth is higher than in the rest of the world, a decrease in the demographic growth rate – the rate at which the population is rising – has already begun. In other words, population growth has slowed in Africa, a trend already well established elsewhere.
Further Reading: “Worldwide demographic change: new horizons for development”
Analysis by Serge Rabier, Research Fellow in Demographics and Gender at AFD:
This is a downward trend that other continents have been experiencing for the last two centuries. It can be explained by several factors. First, an increase in the proportion of the population living in cities. City dwellers have fewer children because they live in smaller housing units, they have more of a consumer lifestyle and are less able to rely on the community than in the country.
Then there is the development of women’s employment. They increasingly work in places where they cannot bring their children along with them, unlike in the field, for example. There is also improved education for girls. Educated girls have a better understanding of their rights in the area of contraception and of what that can mean for their financial and social independence. Lastly, there is the reduction in the age difference between spouses. This entails a greater sharing of modern values and therefore less of a desire to have many children.
In North Africa, the lower birthrate is also due to proactive family planning policies along with reforms in private family law such as expanded women’s rights and divorce, which have led to greater independence in women’s reproductive choices.
Having said that, the reduction in the number of children per woman does not keep the population from continuing to rise in Africa because fertility rates remain high.
The question now is whether it is possible to speed up the reduction in fertility. It would be unacceptable to forcibly limit the number of children per woman, as was the case of China’s one-child policy, or in an authoritarian manner, like the mass sterilizations seen in India.
So two sorts of trends are unfolding: on the one hand, norms and standards regarding the bearing and rearing of children are evolving. And there is improved access to information about contraception, as well as to products and services.
All these factors should contribute to (further) slowing the continent’s demographic growth.