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Does the ‘billionth African’ mean boon or burden?

One day this year, in all probability, the “billionth African” will have been born, a milestone that will only benefit the poorest continent if it can get its act together and unify its piecemeal markets. Nobody knows, of course, when or where in its 53 countries the child arrived to push Africa’s population into 10 figures.

The UN merely estimates that in mid-2008 there were 987 million people, and in mid-2009, 1,010 million.

Given the difficulties of obtaining accurate data from the likes of Nigeria, where provincial population figures are often hostage to the ambitions of local politicians, or any data at all from the likes of Somalia, experts are reluctant to hazard any greater degree of accuracy. There is less doubt, however, about the underlying trend – that Africa’s population is set to grow faster than in any other part of the world in the coming decades, and to double by 2050.

“Despite the fact we have these huge populations in China and India, the actual growth of the population will be much more in Africa than in Asia,” said Gerhard Heilig, head of the UN Population Estimates and Projections Section.

To some, the statistics will invite comparisons to the Asian giants, and inspire hopes of a flood of investment from Africans and outsiders to meet the needs of a continent likely to be home to one in five people by the middle of this century.

By contrast, China’s projected population of 1.4 billion in 40 years will be shrinking, while India will only be adding an annual three million to its 1.6 billion people.

To others, the numbers are stark reminders of the mammoth task Africa’s leaders face in providing the food, jobs, schools, housing and healthcare that are still so sorely lacking.

UNFPA, the UN population arm, summarises by saying that sub-Saharan Africa faces “serious political, economic and social challenges” and points to the last two decades as evidence that more people does not mean more wealth.

“Twenty years of almost three percent annual population growth has outpaced economic gains, leaving Africans, on average, 22 per cent poorer than they were in the mid-1970s,” it says.

From 2003 to 2008, Africa experienced an unprecedented boom due to a mixture of debt forgiveness, free market reforms and soaring commodity prices that lifted annual output by five percent or more – crucially outpacing population growth.

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