photo credit: familyincluded.com

My grandfather had three wives and fourteen children.

In those days, the size of a man’s family was a symbol of fertility, status or wealth. There was practically no limit to the number of children one could have.

However, of all of my grandpa’s children – my dad being one of them – none achieved any form of higher education.

It would have been practically impossible for grandpa to send all those kids to school. The boys were better off working in the fields or learning a trade, while the girls were married off, and rarely educated.

I typically describe this as the “old days.”

It was a time when polygamy was the norm, and women were encouraged to have as many children as they could.

In fact, in my tribe, it was – and still largely is – customary for any woman who bore up to twelve children to have a feast prepared in her favour to honour and celebrate her strength and fertility.

Actually, these are not tales from a distant past. In many parts of Africa, especially in rural areas, large family sizes are still very much the norm today.

Africa currently holds the record for the highest birth and fertility rates in the world.

With an average fertility rate of almost 7 children per woman, Niger is the country with the highest fertility rate in the world followed by Mali, Burundi, Somalia and Uganda.

In fact, all the countries that rank in the top 10 list of highest birth rates in the world are African countries.

Population is power

I am one of those people who are very excited about Africa’s future.

Over the next 30 years, Africa will experience one of the fastest population growth spurts known to man.

Of the 2.4 billion people who are estimated to join the world’s population between 2015 and 2050, over 50 percent of them – or 1.3 billion – will be born in Africa, making ours the youngest population on earth.

A large population comes with significant benefits.

In the 1960s, the Chinese government encouraged families to have as many children as possible because of Mao Zedong’s belief that population growth empowered the country.

Although not entirely, Chairman Mao was right.

A large population favours production and consumption by providing a huge domestic market for goods and services that stimulates and benefits economic growth, job creation and government tax revenues.

A large population, especially one with a high proportion of young people like Africa’s, stands to reap the rewards of a “demographic dividend.”

The demographic dividend – a phrase coined by Harvard University’s David Bloom – refers to benefits conferred on a population by a young labour force that is growing faster than the aging and dependent segments of the population.

In more ways than one, it appears a large population can be a very important and strategic asset.

According to projections by PwC, China (current pop: 1.35 billion) and India (current pop: 1.25 billion) – the world’s two largest populations – will become the biggest economies in the world by 2050, leaving the USA in third place.

But there’s a twist to Africa’s population size

It’s tempting to celebrate the prospects of Africa’s large and fast growing population.

But that would be too naïve.

There’s something quite different about the size and growth prospects of Africa’s population. And this anomaly lies at the heart of the continent’s population growth engine itself: the family.

Imagine a scenario in a social experiment in which you are asked to “organically” increase the population of a small village by 100 people.

Because this growth must be organic, immigration is clearly out of the question.

So, you have a variation of two choices:

You can either ask 50 newly-wed couples to produce two children each, or ask 10 couples to produce ten children each.

Assuming all births are successful, with either option the outcome is the same: 100 children.

But the circumstances that would shape the future of the children in both categories would be dramatically different.

Assuming all families earn a modest income, it would be much harder for the families with more children to cope. And that’s because the economic burden on parents to raise a child increases with the number of children they have.

This economic burden could significantly undermine the quality of nutrition, healthcare, education and general standard of life for children in large families.

And this is exactly the problem with the profile of Africa’s large population and its growth prospects: most of the families at the heart of Africa’s population growth engine consist of poor people.

The economic burden on poor parents to raise a large family perpetuates poverty because these parents are unable to substantially invest in the future of all their children so they can escape the poverty trap.

As a result, African society is plagued by high levels of illiteracy and poverty, and a large – and growing – population of young people who are ill-equipped for the labour force.

The chart below shows a comparison of African countries with the highest birth rates versus the poorest countries in the world.

Can you spot the shocking similarity?

The relationship is clear: there is a firm handshake between poverty and large family sizes.

But China and others have been here before…

After the birth rate spike in the 1960s caused a significant jump in China’s population, the government introduced the one-child policy (also known as the “Family Planning Policy”) in 1979 as a means to alleviate the social, economic and environmental problems caused by the country’s rapidly growing population.

As of 2007, about 36% of the Chinese population were subject to a strict one-child limit; 53% were permitted to have a second child if their first was a daughter; 10% of Chinese couples were permitted two children under special circumstances (such as physical or mental disability of one child); and roughly 1% of the population — mainly from ethnic minorities — had no limit at all.

Under the policy, families could be fined thousands of dollars (known as a “social maintenance fee”) for having more children beyond the official limit.

As a result of this population control policy, up to 250 million births were prevented in China, and the country’s income per-capita rose nearly 350% — from $2,250 in 1979 to $10,093 in 2015.

In 2016, the Chinese government finally relaxed the 37-year policy, allowing one-child couples to have one additional child.

Source: China’s National Bureau of Statistics

In India…

India borrowed a leaf from China’s population control strategy, and has implemented a two-child family planning policy in about 11 states (as of 2014).

Under the Indian policy, current and aspiring politicians running in local elections could be disqualified if they have more than two children. The idea is to have politicians lead by example, in the hope that ordinary citizens will follow.

There are also laws in some Indian states that create disincentives for ordinary citizens to have more than two children. These include, among others: limited access to healthcare for mothers and children, reduced social services for large families, and jail time or penalties for fathers.

In Iran…

From the early 1990s up to 2006, the Islamic Republic of Iran instituted the “two children is enough” campaign which discouraged Iranian couples from having more than two children.

During the program, as one historian put it, Iran’s government “declared that Islam favoured families with only two children.”

In Hong Kong…

In the 1970s, when it was still British Hong Kong, the Family Planning Association of Hong Kong launched the “Two is enough” campaign to slow down the rapidly rising population growth in the country.

As a result of that campaign and other informal initiatives, the total fertility rate in Hong Kong is currently 1.04 children per woman, one of the lowest in the world.

It is worthy of note that Hong Kong’s population control success was achieved by educational means, and not through formal policy or law.

But while the rest of the world has achieved remarkable progress in matching population growth with economic development, Africa remains the last stronghold for “out-of-control” population growth.

The chart below shows fertility rates (number of children per mother) across the world.

Can you see how most parts of Africa are glowing red?

Image credit: CIA World Factbook, 2016

The biggest barriers to population control in Africa

Given all these facts, it’s easy to think that we, Africans, will embrace this common sense and start reducing the number of children we bear.

Some people argue that there is no need to “force” population control. They insist that every population will ultimately control its growth naturally.

And there’s a strong element of truth in this. After all, there is considerable evidence that populations naturally taper in size as a society grows wealthier.

But again, there’s a different angle to Africa’s population control challenge.

While, on the average, Africa’s economies are some of the fastest growing in the world, the gap between the rich and poor on the continent is getting wider.

It’s no surprise that despite its promising economic growth trajectory, Africa still receives billions of dollars in foreign aid for a wide range of humanitarian and poverty reduction programs every year.

So, if we assume that as Africa gets wealthier, the size of its population will control itself, we may be waiting a long time, and could be risking a social catastrophe on a monumental scale.

It is evident that Africa’s wealth is not reaching the bottom of the pyramid – to the very same poor people who are largely driving the continent’s population growth engine.

But you would be naïve to think that these Africans have a penchant for bearing children just because they’re poor.

There are actually bigger factors and influences at play.

The first is illiteracy.

According to UNESCO, 38 percent of African adults (roughly 153 million in number) cannot read or write; and two-thirds of these are women. A significant proportion of these people are unaware of the social, economic and environmental consequences of large family sizes.

Until people in these vulnerable communities understand the importance of family planning and its benefits, it’s unlikely the high fertility rates will be dropping anytime soon.

Another influential factor is culture and tradition.

Even within Africa’s educated class, the bonds of culture and tradition are a strong influence. Most cultures on the continent are radically pro-fertility and it can be difficult to break with tradition, especially when these pressures are coming from within the society itself – from parents, peers, relatives and in-laws.

Religion is also a big influence.

When it comes to population control, religion is a very strong influence because of the wide reach it has in African society; it holds sway with both the continent’s rich and poor.

The major religions in Africa could be forces for change, and help educate the African people on the benefits of reduced family sizes. However, while one of the major religions promotes monogamy but disapproves of a wide range of contraceptive options, another major religion condones polygamy.

And with religion becoming a strategic tool for African politicians to influence the electorate, there is little incentive to actively trigger any programs that could taper population growth.

Another emerging influence these days is pop culture.

Unlike in the old days when having children before, or out of, marriage was frowned at, it’s quite common these days for young men and women to proliferate their offspring.

Teen pregnancy is on the rise on the continent, and so is what I like to call the “Baby Mama syndrome.”

The Baby Mama syndrome has made it fashionable and acceptable for young Africans to enter unplanned parenthood as a result of one or several amorous relationships.

This emerging trend is likely to enter the mainstream as long as there are no consequences for these behaviours.

But what can Africa do?

Africa is now at a crossroads.

It is clear that rapid population growth, without inclusive economic benefits for every African, is very dangerous for all of Africa.

To avoid a future of desperation, wars, conflicts and competition over land, food, water and other scarce resources, population control – through reduction in average family sizes – is pertinent for the continent.

My suggestion: rather than continue with our high fertility rates as they are, Africa needs to achieve “replacement level fertility.”

According to the World Resources Institute, “replacement level fertility is the total fertility rate — the average number of children born per woman — at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next, without migration. This rate is roughly 2.1 children per woman for most countries, although it may modestly vary with mortality rates.”

There it is: an average of two children per woman.

For Africa, I think this needs to be adjusted to two children per person. That way, we can rein in the raging testosterone levels on the continent, and ensure the same rules apply to both men and women.

This fertility limit could be achieved through formal government policy (like China and India), or informal educational means, as achieved by Iran and Hong Kong.

I think we may need a mix of both strategies to achieve the right profile of population growth in Africa.

It’s a tough pill, but Africa needs to swallow it.

I love kids, but it’s hard to argue with the facts and the progress achieved by other societies that implemented a population control strategy.

I have one child at the moment, and we’re working on the next one.

Actually, my wife is hoping for twins. I’m not quite sure how I feel about that.

But even in casual conversations with everyday people, it’s hard to win an argument in favour of population control.

Some people dismiss the points by saying things like:

“We can’t stop having kids. God will always provide.” or

“My parents survived raising seven children. Why should I have only two?”

It’s often surprising how we think we can avoid the consequences of our actions by looking at the past or relying on supernatural intervention.

But there is hope.

I find there is growing awareness among Africa’s young people about the high economic burden of supporting a large family, and its undesirable consequences on a family’s standard of living.

Many of the young, educated and urban couples I speak to want an average of 2-3 children.

They are more interested in quality over quantity.

This changing mindset must be actively encouraged until it becomes the prevalent culture.

Having a child is often the consequence of a deliberate action. Very few people sleepwalk into it.

It’s time to start making sacrifices, Africa.

It will be hard, but we just have to do it.

Else, our future could pay dearly for it.

Let’s go, Africa!