“Future food needs depend on our investments in women and girls, and particularly their reproductive health,” says the Population Reference Bureau’s Jason Bremner in a short video on population growth and food security (above). Understanding why, where, and how quickly populations are growing, and responding to that growth with integrated programming that addresses needs across development sectors, are crucial steps towards a food secure future, he says.
On average, women in the region have 5.1 children, more than twice the global average total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.5. The United Nation’s medium-variant projections (which Bremner notes are often used to predict future food need) show the region more than doubling in size by 2050, but that projection rests on the assumption that the average TFR will drop to three by mid-century.
As many as two-thirds of sub-Saharan African women want to space or limit their births, but do not use modern contraception. While the reasons for not using modern contraception are many, ranging from cultural to logistical, the lack of funding for family planning and reproductive health services remains a serious impediment to improving contraceptive prevalence and, in turn, lowering fertility rates.
“Current levels of funding for family planning and reproductive health from donors and African governments fail to meet current needs, much less the future needs,” writes Bremner.
Almost 40 percent of the region’s population is younger than 15 years old and has “yet to enter their reproductive years,” writes Bremner. “Consequently, the reproductive choices of today’s young people will greatly influence future population size and food needs in the region.”
Fertility Assumptions and Population Projections in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Family Planning Is One Piece of an Integrated Puzzle
Increasing funding for family planning services would be a boon to the region, but Bremner cautions that viewing sub-Saharan Africa’s rapid population growth solely from a health perspective and in isolation from other development needs would be inherently limiting.
Improving women’s role in agriculture, for example, could help minimize food insecurity on a regional scale, Bremner writes. Women make up, on average, half the agricultural labor force in sub-Saharan Africa, and yet it is more difficult for them to own arable land, obtain loans, and afford basic essentials like fertilizer that can help boost agricultural productivity. Furthermore, women’s traditional household responsibilities, like fetching water, often cut into the amount of time they are able to give to farming. With those limitations lifted, women could offer enormous capacity for meeting future food needs.
Given the complex and interconnected nature of the development challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa, integrated cross-sector programming, with an emphasis on meeting family planning needs, is essential to reducing total fertility rates while improving food security over the long-term, according to Bremner.
“Investments in women’s agriculture, education, and health are critical to improving food security in sub-Saharan Africa,” he writes.
“Improving access to family planning is a critical piece of fulfilling future food needs,” he adds, “and food security and nutrition advocates must add their voices to support investments in women and girls and voluntary family planning as essential complements to agriculture and food policy solutions.”