Africa in the 21st Century


What’s the challenge?

Africa is a big continent of big contrasts. How can we better understand the countries of Africa and support their populations?

Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Sub-Saharan Africa is the 2nd largest and 2nd most-populous continent in the world and is comprised on 48 countries
  • 24.2 million km²: Total land area of Sub-Saharan Africa
  • Populations in Sub-Saharan Africa vary greatly. Nigeria is the largest with a population of 144,700,000, and the Seychelles with a population of 100,000
  • less than 55 years: the life expectancy for both men and women in nine sub-Saharan African countries – Angola, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
  • In Sub-Saharan Africa, child mortality has been continuously falling for the last 50 years (1 in 4 children died in the early 60s – today it is less than 1 in 10)
  • 54%: The proportion of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP made up by South Africa and Nigeria

Sources: Max Roser (2015) – ‘Child Mortality’. Published online at Retrieved from: [Online Resource], World Development Indicators, WHO, Africa Development Indicators (ADI)

Economies are growing and living standards for many have improved.

  • Rising middle class: By 2025 if growth continues 3 out of every 5 African countries could be middle income.
  • Education: Secondary-school enrolment grew by 48% between 2000 and 2008 (The Economist, 2013)
  • Rise of service industries: telecommunications, retail, transportation, and tourism have increased
  • Natural resources: Africa has untapped sources of oil.
  • Private investment and business: Africa has increased trade and exports particularly with China and India.
  • Improved agricultural production (The Brookings institution, foresight africa: top priorities
    for the continent in 2015)

However Africa still faces huge problems.

  • Poverty: Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 41% of the world’s poor (World Bank’s 2014 Global Monitoring Report)
  • Infrastructure:  Transport, power, irrigation and storage is underdeveloped and is estimated to need an additional $48 billion per year
  • Health: 80 million people in Africa could be at risk of Malaria by 2080
  • Peace and security
  • Employment: Recent growth in Africa has not created enough good jobs: In the past decade, Africa’s labor force grew by 91 million people, but only 37 million of these were in jobs
    in wage-paying sectors (UNDP 2013). Farming is still the main livelihood for 78% of Africa’s extreme poor.
  • Governance
  • Climate change: The IPCC identified Africa as one of the most vulnerable continents to climate variability and change. Africa faces an increased threat from extreme events such as storms, flooding in its coastal regions, sand dune mobilisation and sustained droughts which impact on food and water security, ecosystems, health, infrastructure and migration. Mount Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are in retreat, over 5,000 African plant and animal species and the Karoo biomes are at risk.

On 31 March to 2 April 2008 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the African Union Conference held the first Joint Annual Meeting to discuss ‘Meeting Africa’s New Challenges in the 21st Century’.

Panel discussion

As part of the 21st Century Challenges series, Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, and humanitarian Sir Bob Geldof joined us the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) on 10 October 2007 to discuss the major challenges facing the countries of Africa in the 21st century. Issues discussed include Economic Growth, Governance, Trade, War, Hunger, Health and Climate Change in the African continent.

Professor Sir Gordon Conway, President of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).
Sir Gordon was appointed Chief Scientific Adviser to the Department for International Development at the beginning of 2005. He also holds the title of Professor of International Development at Imperial College, London. Prior to that he was President of The Rockefeller Foundation from 1998-2004 and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex and Chair of the Institute for Development Studies from 1992-1998.



Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations
Kofi Annan joined the UN system in 1962 as an administrative and budget officer with the World Health Organization in Geneva . The Seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) 1997 to 2006 and was the first to emerge from the ranks of United Nations staff. In 2005, he urged the Member States to establish two new intergovernmental bodies: the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council. He played a central role in the creation of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the adoption of the UN’s first-ever counter-terrorism strategy, and the acceptance by Member States of the “responsibility to protect” people from genocide,war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

He has been a constant advocate for human rights, the rule of law, the Millennium Development Goals and Africa , and sought to bring the Organization closer to the global public by forging ties with civil society, the private sector and other partners. In 1998, he helped to ease the transition to civilian rule in Nigeria.  In 2001 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, jointly with the Organization.Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, and humanitarian Sir Bob Geldof discuss the major challenges facing the countries of Africa in the 21st century.

“I’ve heard an African leader tell me that, ‘I like doing business with the Chinese because they come, they discuss business, they sign and give you your cheque – without a lecture on democracy or human rights” Kofi Annan

Almost every [African] government is now elected; communication is making a difference; civil society is becoming very active; and people know their rights, are beginning to understand them and are demanding themKofi Annan



Sir Bob Geldof
In November 1984 Geldof saw news on the famine in Ethiopia and vowed to use the situation to do something. The song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was released just before Christmas 1984 and raised millions of pounds and was (until 1997) the biggest-selling single in UK chart history. Using the enormous success of the Band Aid single, in 1985 Geldof went on to organise Live Aid and challenged Margaret Thatcher, leading to a major re-evaluation of British government policy towards famine relief. In 2004, approaching the twentieth anniversary of Live Aid concomitant with Britain’s presidency of both the G8 and the European Union, Geldof called for a political and intellectual debate concerning extreme poverty and its consequences (‘You’re History’). On March 31, 2005 Geldof announced the Live 8 project to raise awareness of issues that he claims burden Africa, such as government debt, trade barriers, and AIDS issues. Geldof organised 5 concerts on Saturday July 2, 2005; in London, Berlin, Philadelphia and Ontario. In the lead up to the G8 Gleneagles summit, Geldof fronted Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa, emphasising public private partnerships, free trade and foreign direct investment. Geldof labelled critics of the summit “a disgrace”. In December 2005 Geldof became adviser on global poverty to the British Conservative Party. Sir Bob Geldof has received many awards for this work, including an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II.

“Growth is not a cure all, but no growth is a kill-all. It’s as simple as that” Sir Bob Geldof



Further reading

Why are textile producers in Africa really struggling? Geographical magazine, 10 April 2015

Increasing relationships between India and Africa,, 2010

Africa’s new oil, Geographical magazine, 24 March 2015

The hidden cost of second-hand clothing, Geographical magazine, 20 March 2015

New African rainfall patterns, Geographical magazine, 6 March 2015

What is Fair Trade? Ask the expert interview with Dr Ann Le Mare, Lecturer in the Department of Geography at Durham University, Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Diaspora, Remittances and Development, Dr Ben Page for ‘Ask the experts’,

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