Africa’s population is aging and it needs social protection

Africa may be the youngest continent on earth, but its older population is growing, too, and it is growing fast.

An elderly Nigerian woman
An elderly Nigerian woman stands in the shade while waiting to cast her vote at a polling station in Daura, northern Nigeria on March 28, 2015 [File: AP/Ben Curtis]

As the world continues to grapple with the unfolding COVID-19 crisis, many in Africa are worried not only about its spread but about the pandemic’s long-term economic consequences as well. But long before our attention was captured by this virus, African governments were already ignoring an increasingly important factor in securing healthy populations and prosperous economies: Africa’s older population is growing fast.

According to a 2017 UN report on population ageing, Africa’s elderly population is expected to grow faster than in any other region in the world. The continent’s population aged 60 and over is “projected to increase more than threefold between 2017 and 2050, from 69 to 225 million”. In some countries, the number is expected to increase even faster. In Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, for example, the report anticipates that older populations will quadruple by 2050.

But despite their increasing numbers, Africa’s older population continues to be largely overlooked. In 2016, the African Union member states adopted the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on The Rights of Older Persons in Africa. The charter urged all African countries to put in place policy measures to protect the rights and address the needs of their older populations. But of the 54 member states, only 14 signed the charter and, in the four years since, Benin and Lesotho are the only two nations to formally ratify it.

Many African countries, such as Nigeria, which has the largest older population in Sub Saharan Africa, do not yet have a functional policy focused on older people. But even when countries have policies focused on older populations, the lack of coordination between government agencies along with insufficient budgets make implementing those policies a challenge.

Cameroon and Nigeria, for example, have plans for training healthcare professionals for geriatric care, but experts have pointed out that such steps have not translated into action and that government support is “almost non-existent”. In Ethiopia, while HIV/AIDS is an area of focus in the national plan of action on older people, the country’s 2018 National Roadmap for HIV Prevention does not include older people in its population groups.

The lack of a responsible body for comprehensive data collection and monitoring focused on older population groups at a continental and country level is another indication of how little attention is afforded to the needs of older people.

One of the starkest examples of the lack of government focus on older people is in social protection systems like pensions. In Sub Saharan Africa, universal pensions that provide for older populations exist in fewer than 10 countries.

Contributory pensions, which are offered based on past earnings and contributions to pension schemes, are common in many African countries. But those social safety nets exclude people working in the informal sector, which accounts for 85 percent of employment in Africa. For the 6.3 percent of Sub Saharan Africa’s working-age population that contributed to a pension scheme, the payout is often not enough to cover their living expenses because pension payouts are only a percentage of earnings before retirement and are not adequately adjusted for inflation.

This lack of attention towards older people will have serious economic implications across Africa. As people age, the labour and capital they provide to the economy will decline, while their healthcare needs will increase. This will place a demand on personal savings that many elderly in Africa do not have.

In the absence of strong healthcare and social protection systems, the economic weight of caring for older people will increasingly fall on family members. A study in a peri-urban district of Ghana showed that 94 percent of the surveyed caregivers spend nearly half of their income on caregiving while 59 percent of caregivers said they had to give up one or more necessities to care for an older member of their family.

With a large portion of their income going towards caregiving, families are left with little disposable income for saving. At the macro level, a decline in savings means that less capital is available to help finance public and private investments that drive a country’s economic growth. According to a 2015 World Health Organization report, Africa’s productivity loss due to just non-communicable diseases among the 60+ age group was valued at 159 billion international dollars (the dollar equivalent in purchasing power for the specific region).

To be sure, Africa is a young continent. Policies that address the needs of the continent’s youth are critical for economic growth. But if the continent does not incorporate and plan for its growing older population, any economic growth could be erased within a few decades. China, once heralded as the “world’s economic miracle” for its rapid economic growth, is predicted to experience significantly slower growth periods in no small part because adequate measures were not taken to protect the elderly population.

A 2011 study on the impact of ageing on economic growth in 12 Asian countries, including China, projects that they could experience slower growth periods unless policies are put in place to mitigate the challenges that come with a growing older population.

Africa’s older people have an integral role in transmitting knowledge to younger generations, resolving conflict and maintaining social cohesion. African countries must put in place proactive policies that address their needs. As the Cameroonian proverb says, rain does not fall on one roof alone. If Africa continues to overlook its older population, the impact will not only hurt them, but the entire continent.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.