EC SAFIRE Scenarios for Global Regions: Sub-Saharan Africa

EC SAFIRE Scenarios for Global Regions: Sub-Saharan Africa

The latest in our series based on SAFIRE, a proposed system using foresight to develop policy for Research and Innovation relationships for the EU, is a review of sub-Saharan Africa.

The original SAFIRE Report is available via the link here. Four global scenarios provide the structure of a “gameboard”. These were then expanded into scenarios of each of the 10 Regions – the scenario reports for each Region can be found within Chapter 3 of the report.  At a workshop, Regional experts then examined how their Region might journey through the scenarios over time.

The Report was published in autumn 2021, but we continue to monitor developments and trends in each of the ten Regions.  So these blogs, rather than simply recycling the content of the Report, look at the trends that might influence how each Region might move across the scenario “gameboard” over the next 20 years.  The ten Regions are:

  • China;
  • Japan, South Korea & Taiwan;
  • ASEAN;
  • India & its Neighbours;
  • Australia & New Zealand;
  • Russia & Central Asia;
  • The Middle East & North Africa;
  • Sub-Saharan Africa;
  • Central & South America; and
  • United States, Canada & Mexico.

What Will Drive Change in Sub-Saharan Africa?


We know that SSA will “buck” the global trend in population.  Whereas fertility rates are falling, or about to fall across Asia, Europe and North & South America, Africa’s population is set to surge.  SSA’s population, currently 1.15 billion, is projected to double to 2.3 billion by 2050.  In contrast with the aging populations of the other regions, SSA will be the “Young Continent”, with 70% aged 30 or under.  The Census Bureau of the United States predicts that Nigeria’s population will overtake that of the USA in 2047, making Nigeria the third most populous country in the World, after India and China.  A small number of “megacities” will join the world’s largest – Lagos, Kinshasa, Dar-es-Salaam.

Perhaps more significantly, the century will see the emergence of a host of big, but not mega-cities: call them “medium cities”.  SSA has 528 cities with populations of over 250,000.  There is a chance for these cities, or some of them, to become the engine of a great African leap forward.  But the chances are that there will be a mixed picture. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 report identified “model cities” across Africa, for example Narok and Kisuna (Kenya), Accra (Ghana), Arusha (Tanzania) and Kigali (Rwanda).

But elsewhere, similar-sized African cities are fragile, struggling to cope with very rapid population growth, both due to high fertility rates, and the influx of refugees from conflict and/or poverty.  According to the WEF report, Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) has annual population growth of over 7%, Abuja (Nigeria) 6.2%, and Antananarivo (Madagascar) 5.1%.  All are rated as “fragile cities”, whose infrastructure struggles to cope with the population growth.

Population growth is potentially a huge opportunity for SSA – a chance to take a central place in the economy, and become a developer and nurturer of talent and innovation, in an aging and – probably – risk-averse world. Likewise, Africa’s cities will teem with young people.

But the projected rate of growth, in a region with generally underdeveloped infrastructure, also poses major risks: a surplus of young men providing participants in conflicts, which are already widespread; pollution and urban squalor, and lack of access to water, leading to the risk of disease; endemic poverty.  Some African cities will be pathfinders to a bright future: some, alas, will be dystopias of poverty, ill-health, crime and violence.


In the lead-up to last autumn’s Climate Conference of the Parties (COP), major concerns were flagged about the impact of environmental challenges for SSA. The World Bank warned that some 86 million Africans would be forced to migrate within their own countries by 2050 in response to environmental pressures, leading to fragility, poverty, conflict and actual violence. Their report highlighted two areas in particular: the Lake Victoria Basin, which could force 38.5m people to migrate, and West Africa, which could similarly affect 30m.

The World Meteorological Organisation warned (again in October last year) that the last three glaciers in SSA are now melting: Mount Kenya, the Rwenzori Mountains (Uganda & DRC), and Kilimanjaro.  All could become deglaciated by 2040, affecting access to water in these regions.  The IPCC highlights the risk of flooding in East Africa, and severe droughts in North-West Africa and South-East Africa.

The impact of adverse climate change in regions with fragile infrastructure will affect many millions, heighten food insecurity, and spark mass-migrations.  It will also almost inevitably lead to conflict.  The fast-growing population will fuel greater pressure on SSA’s ability to feed itself, increasing the risk of widespread famine and disease.

The combination of population growth and climate change will also prompt competition for water resources. This week saw Ethiopia begin for the first time to draw water from its “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”, Africa’s biggest hydro-electric project to date, which draws water from the Nile – a plan which has caused great concern among its two main northern neighbours, Sudan and Egypt, with the latter even talking of possible military confrontation.


SSA has been adversely affected by the global impact of Covid-19.  The impact of the pandemic itself is still not fully understood: access to vaccines and medicines has been poor, as compared with other regions, but the region’s relatively young population, may prove to be its trump card. However, equally, the relatively low roll-out of vaccines leaves open the possibility that new strains may develop in SSA, and may spread beyond. More positively, five SSA countries: Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, plus Tunisia are jointly setting up mRNA vaccine production centres.  The development of independent state of the art technology of this sort will be a key indicator of the region’s potential to thrive.

The economic impact has been more clear.  The World Bank reported that output in SSA fell 2.4% in 2020 – the region’s deepest recession since the 1960s. The Region’s debt to GDP ratio rose by an average of 8%, to 70% of GDP.  GDP per capita fell by 4.9%.

Assuming the world recovers quickly from the economic impact of Covid, SSA would have the chance to put 2020’s problems behind it. The African Union continues to work to open the region’s own borders to easier terms of trade, and investors, particularly China, have been keen to develop business with states in the Region.  However, again there are clouds on the horizon.  According to a report from Reuters in November 2021, China reduced its investment in Belt & Road Initiatives (BRI) by 54% between 2019 and 2020. In Africa, where 40 states have sought BRI funding, Chinese expenditure fell from $11Bn in 2017, to just $3.3Bn in 2020.  Projects have been left uncompleted, for example the BRI rail link from Mombasa to Uganda, on which work has stopped 468km short of the Ugandan border.

In addition, SSA knows all too well that investment from other regions comes with strings attached – diplomatic and strategic as well as economic.  And the approaching confrontation between Russia, Europe, the USA and China may well lead to serious economic reversals in SSA.

Some SSA states are struggling with debt. The Reuters report quotes the African Development Bank, which estimates the region’s infrastructure investment deficit to be $100Bn.  More specifically, Zambia has defaulted on debts of $12Bn, half of which is owed to China.

Conflict seems to be on the increase across the region.  As well as the long-standing conflict zones, such as Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is an arc of conflict across the Sahel Region, taking in Burkina Faso, Niger, Northern Nigeria, Mali and Chad. Conflict flared up in Mozambique in 2020 and 21, and in Ethiopia, which had been widely seen as an exemplar of economic development and good governance, but is now engaged in a major civil conflict.


SSA both enjoys massive opportunities – its natural resources, its population boom, its youth and ambition – and greater challenges perhaps than any other global region: the impact of the population surge, the impact of climate change.  Given the diversity of the region, it is certain that we will observe a very mixed picture across the SSA’s states.  Indicators of success will include:

  • The speed at which SSA recovers from the Covid pandemic and its economic effects;
  • Examples of innovation and African-led research and innovation;
  • Examples of model cities as Africa’s urban population swells;
  • Progress towards open trade;
  • More equal partnerships with powerful external investors.

But the risks and challenges facing Africa are enormous, including:

  • Failure successfully to absorb the rapidly increasing population, leading to overcrowding, conflict and civil unrest;
  • Adverse environmental impacts of climate change, leading to widespread water and food shortages, mass-migrations and possible pandemics;
  • Spreading conflict on religious and ethnic grounds; and
  • The “backwash” from strategic conflict in other regions, affecting SSA’s own economic and strategic situation.

SSA’s potential movement on the scenario board above will to a large extent depend on how these opportunities and challenges play out; it will also depend on events in other, more developed regions.  Inevitably, in such a large and diverse region, there will be a mixed picture among the individual states.  But it might be prudent to predict that success may – in overall terms – come slowly: perhaps in the second half of the century.  Short term success is likely to be confined to a minority of leading states in the region.

Written by David Lye, SAMI Fellow

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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