The Great Contraction Experts Predict Global Population Will Plateau



Part 2: Phase I: A People Before the Transformation

Abraham Kasyibwami, a farmer, lives in a country that holds the dubious distinction of being both the most densely populated country in Africa and the site of the biggest genocide since World War II. Many say that the fact that there were too many people on too little land helped to exacerbate tensions between Rwanda's two main ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi. Is the Rwandan genocide a portent of the bloody future of an overpopulated continent?

With his five children, the 47-year-old Kasyibwami is the father of an average-sized family in Rwanda. When he started his family, quantity was still the key factor when it came to having children. "Who knew how many children would survive?" he asks.

He could have certainly used a few extra pairs of hands to help run his small farm, where he grew just enough food to survive. His story was typical in the small hamlet of Gasharu, a 90-minute drive south of the capital, Kigali. According to Kasyibwami, there are 86 women capable of bearing children in the village. "Sometimes we had 20 births a year," he says. But it was a vicious cycle: Poverty would bring forth many children, but feeding them would plunge the parents deeper into poverty.

But then something happened in Gasharu and, today, only two or three children are born there each year.

The radical shift began with the rice seedlings that farmers in the village received from the German aid agency Welthungerhilfe (German Agro Action), together with a few kilograms of chemical fertilizer and some tips on how to increase crop yields. Soon, farmers were producing enough to sell some of their harvest. "I could afford to buy two cows and 10 goats," Kasyibwami says. In fact, today he says that having two children would have actually been enough, adding: "You have to work much harder when you have a lot of children."

Education, Stability, Contraception

The example of Gasharu's farmers shows that Africa's growing population could by all means feed itself in the future. Agriculture is still very unproductive in many places, admits Harald von Witzke, an agricultural economist with the Berlin-based Humboldt Forum for Food and Agriculture. But, he adds, "harvests can be greatly increased with a little fertilizer and a few technical tricks."

As Witzke sees it, the vision of doom associated with a rapidly growing population merely blinds us to the actual solutions. "The causes of underdevelopment and hunger don't lie in large numbers of people," he says.

What the world needs is education, political stability and giving all women access to modern forms of contraception. Joel Cohen, a demographer at New York's Rockefeller University, estimates that this would cost about $6.7 billion (€4.9 billion) a year. "That's as much as Americans spend on Halloween parties on Oct. 31," he adds.

"We have a vision," Rwanda's undaunted health minister, Agnes Binagwaho, proudly announces. "The vision of a modern country with a large middle class that doesn't have to go hungry, and with enough schools, hospitals and roads."

Enjoying the 'Demographic Bonus'

Demographers see her country headed in that direction. In only five years' time, Rwanda's birth rate has declined from 6.1 to 4.5, which places it on the threshold between the first and second phases of the Great Transformation.

In the case of Kasyibwami, the farmer, this threshold runs directly through his family. His five children are going to school, and they are growing up as part of a younger generation that is better educated. Researchers call this the "demographic bonus" and consider it an important factor that positively affects the rise of a nation. Since life expectancy is still low, when the baby-boom generations reach working age, there are relatively fewer old people to take care of, which frees up the working population to be more productive.

Will Africa be able to make this ascent? If it does, Europeans will be able to benefit from an enormous market of more than 2 billion people. If the experiment fails, millions of migrants will be arriving on Europe's doorstep. "We should invest in the development of the continent," Cohen says, "if only out of self-interest."


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