Can Urban Fertility Trends Predict How African Countries May Fare in Achieving a Demographic Dividend?

February 8, 2016


Zacharie Tsala Dimbuene



Demographers and development professionals sometimes find themselves on opposite sides of the debate about the move across Africa towards urbanization. On one hand, there are more opportunities for economic advancement in cities; on the other, the challenges of urban life can leave many consigned to poverty and poor health outcomes due to overcrowding, poor sanitation and destitution. What both can agree on is that women in urban environments are having fewer children than their rural counterparts – and this relationship could have implications for population wellbeing.

There are many factors that contribute to the decline in fertility; women have greater opportunities for education and employment in cities, and better access to family planning. They also tend to get married later than their rural counterparts. There are other differences, which means that any explanation of urban-rural fertility advantage should integrate these differences. The easiest way to account for the urban-rural demographic and socioeconomic differences is to answer the “what if” questions in observational data. The question is, therefore, “given that the average number of children born to a woman in an urban setting is known, would there be a difference if that same woman lived in a rural setting? Likewise, given that the average number of children from women living in rural settings is known, what should it be if they lived in urban settings?” Using 38 Demographic Health Surveys in Eastern Africa, I showed that urban women have significantly fewer number of children than their rural counterparts.

So if people are migrating from rural to urban areas at an unprecedented rate, and cities are swelling as fast as they can to accommodate both the new arrivals and the resident populations, what does this mean for countries seeking to achieve a demographic dividend: the economic boom that accompanies a demographic shift when the size of the working-age population exceeds that of their dependents?

For one, it means that they have to better understand why women in cities are having fewer children – and seek to apply those lessons to their rural populations as well. Making family planning accessible, affordable and available would go a long way to reducing the number of children born to all women. Equally, increasing the opportunities for women and girls to be educated – irrespective of where they live – will provide them with more choices, and give them greater exposure to economic opportunities.

But as Bloom and Canning wrote, all of these commitments pale in comparison to the need for a conducive policy environment to take advantage of the demographic opportunity. Good governance, solid macroeconomic management including job creation for youth and other working groups, a carefully designed trade policy, efficient infrastructure, well-functioning financial markets, and effective investments in health, education, and training are key to achieving the demographic dividend.


Bloom, DE and Canning, D. Demographics and Development Policy. Development Outreach, April 2011.