"The future of humanity is increasingly African."
That's the prediction in a new UNICEF report, which estimates that by the end of this century, 40 percent of the world's people will be African — up from 15 percent now. The continent's population currently sits at roughly 1.2 billion but will soar to more than 4 billion by 2100. Nearly 1 billion will live in Nigeria alone.
In a report released Wednesday, UNICEF projected the growth of Africa's child population within the next century. And the numbers are staggering.
An estimated 1.8 billion births will take place in Africa in the next 35 years, the authors predict. By 2050, Africa will have almost 1 billion children under 18, making up nearly 40 percent of kids worldwide.
Lead author David Anthony tells NPR's Melissa Block on All Things Considered that even the researchers were surprised by the findings. "[We] knew that the world's population was swinging toward Africa," he says. "But there have been new estimates released by the U.N. population division ... that shows an even stronger swing than we have anticipated."
Fertility rates have fallen in Africa but remain high compared with the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the number of women of reproductive age has grown enormously and is set to more than double in the next 35 years.
"So even though fertility rates are declining, the number of women having babies will increase so much that it will kind of offset, and you'll have increasing numbers [of births]," he says.
And while half of all deaths among children in the world occur in Africa — 1 out of every 11 African children dies before reaching 5 — child mortality has slowed since the '90s, according to the report.
Anthony says that the upswing in population presents both an opportunity and a challenge, depending on how the African governments handle it.
On one hand, he says, it's possible for Africa to thrive from the right policy decisions: "We want to see African leaders ... make the correct and right investments in children that are needed to build a skilled, dynamic African labor force that's productive and can grow, and can add value to the economy."
But, he warns, a lack of investment could result in mass poverty and mass inequality: "The worst thing would be if this transition was just allowed to happen because what you're going to see is an unparalleled growth of the slum population."
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
The future of humanity is increasingly African. That's the summary of a report released this week by UNICEF and the numbers are stunning. By the end of the century forecasts show that nearly 40 percent of the world's people will be African. That's up from about 15 percent now. Africa's population will soar to more than 4 billion by 2100. Nearly a billion of those people in one country alone, Nigeria. David Anthony is the lead author of the UNICEF report. When we reached him he was in Johannesburg where they released the findings. He joined us from the airport. He said UNICEF follows these numbers regularly but these new population projections stood out.
DAVID ANTHONY: We were surprised. I mean, we had done a previous report and knew that the world's population was swinging towards Africa but there have been new estimates released by the U.N. population division, on which the report is based, that shows an even stronger swing than we had anticipated.
BLOCK: When you look at these numbers is there one that's the most striking to you that illustrates what's going on with this population boom in Africa, in particular when it comes to children?
ANTHONY: Yeah. I think there are two figures. One is that almost 1.8 billion births are going to take place in Africa in the next 35 years on current trends. And the second one is that Africa will have almost 1 billion children by 2050. I think these are two facts that have been very sobering for us at UNICEF and have giving us pause for thought and reflection, even in our own strategy towards Africa.
BLOCK: It's interesting, Mr. Anthony, because fertility rates in Africa, as I understand it, are declining. But they are still very, very high. What else is fueling this projected population explosion?
ANTHONY: Well, the fertility rates are still high - I mean, every African woman, on average, has 4.5 children. The global average is 2.5, so there's a considerable disparity. But also just the number - the sheer number of women of reproductive age - that's women ages 15 to 49 - has grown enormously in the sector, pretty much more than double, in the next 35 years. So it's just - even though fertility rates are declining the number of women having babies will increase so much that it will kind of offset and you'll have increase in numbers. Plus also mortality rates among children are improving in Africa so it means that more births are surviving.
BLOCK: Would UNICEF also be taking the position that this population explosion is simply unsustainable and there would need to be changes made - perhaps reproductive health issues in Africa that you would want to see changes with?
ANTHONY: I think the unsustainability issue is not really in play. I mean, I think Africa has a very low population density compared to many, many other regions. I think it has room to grow and develop. I think it's much more about how the transition is handled and how Africa can invest in its future youth and people. That becomes its greatest policy challenge at the moment.
BLOCK: The report that you've issued today with UNICEF is called for courageous and determined action to deal with the challenges of this population boom in Africa. What action specifically would you want to see?
ANTHONY: I think we want to see Africa's leaders take the policy decisions really both to proactively manage the demographic transition and to make the correct and right investments in children that are needed to build a skilled, dynamic African labor force that's productive and can grow and can add value to the economy. And I think those are the really crucial things. Investing in girls, investing in children, investing in young people, linking education to employment, linking early childhood development to the whole cycle of development of the child and of the young people. I think these are some of the investments that we really want to see very much in Africa. And, you know, we are very much supportive in the continent.
BLOCK: David Anthony, thanks for talking with us.
ANTHONY: Thank you very much.
BLOCK: David Anthony is chief of the policy advisory unit for UNICEF and lead author of a UNICEF report on population growth projections in Africa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.