Fertile Debate

Book Review: Demography, education, electricity to determine Africa’s development

By David Whitehouse

Posted on June 2, 2022 06:00

Adult literacy is a key predictor of rapid economic growth. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Adult literacy is a key predictor of rapid economic growth. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Africa needs smaller family sizes, increased literacy and more electricity for manufacturing to achieve economic development, a forthcoming book by Charles Robertson argues.

The Time-Travelling Economist will be published by Palgrave Macmillan at the end of June. Robertson is global chief economist at Renaissance Capital in London.

The book is the product of more than a decade of research and extensive travel across Africa and other developing countries. It is a genuinely original contribution to how development can be achieved. Dependency theory, which claims that the West holds Africa in post-colonial poverty, is rejected. ““Colonialism, or neo-colonialism, can no longer independently explain away a country’s relative weakness. Commodity exploitation by the West and now China is not the major problem.”

Africans control their own destinies, and family sizes will be a key part of shaping their futures. The key factors, Robertson writers, are the adult literacy rate in any language, average electricity consumption per person and the fertility rate. Families with five or six children are unlikely to be able to save. There is no money left after meeting essential needs to put in the bank. That means bank deposits are low, money for productive lending is scarce, and interest rates are high. Employment can’t take off in that context, and the capital-intensive investment needed for electricity in manufacturing is a crucial casualty.

In many places, Robertson sees ground for optimism.

  • Smaller family sizes mean that the next wave of industrialisation in Africa will be led by North Africa, and perhaps Ghana and Kenya. Family sizes are also shrinking in southern Africa and southern Nigeria.
  • He sees the greatest difficulties in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, northern Nigeria and the Sahel region. Current UN forecasts show that countries such as Tanzania and Angola are not going to see their fertility rate drop below three until about 2070.


Robertson writes that the stress on adult literacy is the least contentious of his arguments, yet in fact it seems open to question. There is a danger in the book’s mobilisation of European history as a guide to industrialisation. In Britain and France, industrialisation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was well under way before literacy levels really took off.

Mass literacy was a product of British and French urbanisation and industrialisation, rather than its cause. People did not move to the cities to learn to read. They moved there to work, and mass education systems, eventually, developed around them.

Robertson sees secondary school statistics as a definitive guide to whether a country will be in poverty for the next 20 years. The countries which in 1971 failed to educate 25% of their 11–17 year-olds at secondary school level were all mired in poverty a generation later. The need to close the gender gap in education is clear. Most countries, Robertson writes, would make good progress towards 70%–80% adult literacy if they simply educated girls as much as boys.

Still, literacy is not a silver bullet, and the book says little about what children and adults should learn to read, and in which languages. Many African countries during and since colonialism have grappled with the problem of literate but unemployable graduates. For example, Rwanda in the 1970s under President Juvénal Habyarimana, for example, churned out at huge expense a steady stream of graduates who had studied Latin, Greek and French literature. They were sure they deserved white-collar jobs in a country that was largely unable to provide them. Pierre Erny, a prolific author who taught at the country’s national university in the 1970s, likened the effect of the university on Rwandan society to that of a “cancer”.

In Nigeria, the post-colonial education system was shaped by the experience of British colonialism, and the assumption that developing a university-educated elite was the priority.

  • Andrew Alli, CEO of African investment bank SouthBridge, has said that Nigeria today, as well as expanding educational access, needs to change the content and delivery of education.
  • More emphasis, Alli says, is needed on technical skills, such as electrician training and computer literacy.

The Bottom Line

Given the large share of scarce national resources consumed by education, the  assumptions behind the allocation of educational spending will become ever more crucial as African populations grow.

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