What stories will be told of the 21st century? Will we recognise them for their familiar, well-worn paths; or for the courageous, lifegiving choices that we made?
This is the African century. What we decide to do will leave its mark on history, and it begins with understanding where we are now.
We are growing. The number of people on our continent is predicted to double by 2050, and then double again by 2100, to over four billion people. By the end of this century, two out of every five people in the world will be African. Many of them will live in the largest mega cities ever built. By 2100, 13 of the 20 biggest cities in the world are likely to be in Africa, with Lagos, Kinshasa and Dar Es Salaam taking the top three spots. Lagos alone is predicted to have close to 90 million inhabitants.
We are young. Africa is becoming the world’s youngest continent. Populations of young people on all other continents have peaked while ours continues to grow. Our youth population is expected to have doubled by 2055 to around 450 million.4 Africa will be bursting with youthful energy and innovation.
We are blessed. Africa holds 65% of the world’s arable land; 30% of its mineral reserves, including around 90% of the chromium and platinum in the world; 12% of the world’s oil reserves; and 40% of the world’s gold. Africa is also home to the largest reserves of cobalt, diamonds and uranium on the planet. Africa is the richest continent.
We are in a technical revolution. Africa’s rapid population growth is happening in the context of the fourth industrial revolution. New smart technologies are disrupting ways of working; traditional understanding of which skills are required to be successful; and the barriers to entry into
previously elite industries. This has the potential to rapidly amplify innovation and change, for good or bad.
As Africa grows and innovates, so we will shape the wider world.
Some of the world’s most unequal countries are in Africa. Masaki, one of Dar es Salaam’s wealthiest suburbs, is a mix of precisely organised streets, neatly cut trees and swimming pools. On the other side of the road is the chaotic clutter of tin roofs that make up sasani, a less affluent part of the city. Children growing up on either side of the divide have vastly different opportunities. Credit: Johnny Miller. http://thecitizentz.storylab.africa/divided-histories-divided-opportunities/
But we also face multiple crises.
Africa is cursed by poverty. After centuries of exploitation and underdevelopment, half of the world’s 750 million people stuck in poverty live in Africa, mainly in war zones and ungoverned spaces, where the ascent out of poverty is an enormous challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic has fuelled the first ever Africa-wide economic recession, which is expected to push a further 50 million people into extreme poverty by the end of 2021.6 If present trends continue, by 2030 around 90% of all people living in extreme poverty will live in Africa.
We don’t meet challenges on an equal footing. Five of the six most unequal countries in the world are in Africa. Inequality prices the poor out of markets, slows economic growth, raises the potential for crime and conflict, and exacerbates inequalities in power and decision making. Women, in particular, are less likely to be able to stay in school or be formally employed. The risk of dying during childbirth or experiencing gender-based violence remains far too high. The world’s richest 22 men own more wealth than all the women in Africa. The greater the inequality in a society, the more likely it is to shift from democracy to plutocracy.
Africa is fragile. We still struggle with poor quality institutions that undermine our development and facilitate instability and corruption. Conflict and instability – legacies of slavery and colonialism – persist in many places and at many levels. Africa is home to six of the eight most fragile nations in the world.
God’s creation is dying. The COVID-19 pandemic is a vanguard of two environmental crises that exacerbate other threats and jeopardise our survival: the climate emergency and a massive loss of biodiversity. The earth is rapidly warming as a consequence of increasing carbon emissions. We are on track for a devastating warming of 3oC by 2100, despite almost universal commitment in the 2015 Paris Agreement to aim to keep warming to 1.5oC. African nations are badly affected by climate change despite most contributing very little to the problem of carbon emissions. Africa is home to around a quarter of the world’s biodiversity – but this rich abundance that all of life relies on is in a steady decline. Between 1970 and 2016, an estimated 65% of Africa’s biodiversity was lost. The speed of changes is rapid and only drastic action will allow us to conserve enough of nature to sustain life – including our own. Viral pandemics, and other environmental and humanitarian crises, will threaten us more frequently if climate change and biodiversity loss are not slowed. This endangers everyone, but especially people living in poverty and future generations.
We cannot rely on traditional economic models. They are founded on a paradox: the more we succeed in economic development, the more we fail our environment. If our environment fails, our economy and life itself will follow. Africa cannot follow Western or Eastern economic models without overstressing the already damaged natural world and endangering the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren’s generations. Economic growth is essential to beat poverty in Africa, but growth needs to be designed so that it is good for both people and the environment.
How do we understand our present and our future?
Some say Africa is rising as the increase in young people joining the workforce drives growth and we replace China as the world’s workshop. Others say that Africa is failing and if nothing changes it could become a major poverty trap, with starvation and migration, that exports instability to the rest of the world. Whichever way it goes, the scale of events on the continent will ensure that this will be the African century. The choices we make in Africa will shape the world.