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Rwanda tackles population growth

Africa’s most densely packed nation promotes family planning to avert crisis.

Rwanda, population growth, contraception
Rwandan children near the town of Cyangugu. As Africa's most densely populated non-island nation, Rwanda is working to increase access to family planning services to slow population growth. (Jon Rosen/GlobalPost)


MT. KABUYE, Rwanda — Three thousand feet above the nearest village, and accessible only by foot, this prominent peak was once unspoiled African wilderness.

For millennia, like most of Rwanda, Mt. Kabuye was covered by tropical forest and inhabited by bands of Pygmy hunter-gatherers who lived off roots, berries, wild honey and meat from animals they hunted.

Today, 3,000 years after the first Bantu farmers arrived in central Africa, the mountain has been conquered by agriculture. Where lush foliage once stood, women toil in the midday sun, tilling plots of beans, potatoes and cassava as their children scamper in and out of scattered mud and thatched-roof huts.

Rwanda is Africa's most densely populated non-island nation with a population density of more than 1,000 people per square mile, according to the Population Reference Bureau. In a country where 90 percent of people depend on small-scale farming and with a GDP per capita of just $500, Rwanda's people are in competition for scarce land.

The slopes of Mt. Kabuye show how agriculture has crept up to every arable acre of this mountainous country — a sign of the severe population pressure that some consider the greatest challenge to Rwanda’s development.

Despite recent improvements in farming and aims to move toward a service economy, Rwanda is expected to remain mired in poverty unless population growth is abated.

With a fertility rate of 5.4 births per woman, and a population growth rate of 2.9 percent, Rwanda’s population of 10.4 million is on path to double in size in just 24 years, according to data from the Population Reference Bureau.

Though these statistics are only slightly higher than the sub-Saharan Africa averages, they are of particular concern in a country where the economy is agriculture-based and where agriculture has little physical space to expand.

“We are a small country,” said Jean-Damascene Ntawukuliryayo, former minister of health and runner-up to Paul Kagame in this August’s presidential election. “If population growth continues as it is we are going to have a bigger and bigger problem.”

Though particularly acute in present-day Africa, overpopulation fears have preoccupied social scientists for centuries. In the early 1800s, Thomas Malthus, an English demographer and economist, became renowned for a controversial, and rather miserable hypothesis: that global population would eventually outpace food production capacity and population size would thereafter be limited by war, disease and famine.

Since then, a six-fold increase in the world's population — hastened by revolutions in industry, agriculture, transportation and biotechnology — has largely left Malthus discredited. Yet some neo-Malthusians see echoes of their ideologue in Africa. On a continent where collective life expectancy is just 52 years, high fertility remains a common response to drought, disease and civil conflict.

In Rwanda, like most of Africa, a culture of high fertility developed long before the arrival of Western medicine, when parents sought many children because it was assumed most would not live to adulthood.

Rwanda's 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed, set back efforts at birth control, said Anicet Nzabonimpa, family planning and HIV integration coordinator at Rwanda’s ministry of health.

“It was very difficult to talk about family planning after the genocide,” he said. “People wanted to replace those who had died.”

Yet in recent years, Rwanda’s government has made family planning a top priority, aware that high fertility is driving poverty and hunger.

High population growth in a country holds down the growth of its per-capita economic output, according to economists. High fertility also leads to higher rates of maternal and child mortality, and leaves families with fewer resources for each child’s nutrition, health and education.

Access to modern family planning methods helps families escape poverty, said Scott Radloff, director of the Office of Population and Reproductive Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Society at large also benefits from lower population growth through what Radloff calls a “demographic dividend.”

“When population growth begins to slow, you get a larger share of your population in their productive ages and fewer dependent age populations,” Radloff said.

This period, Radloff added, is one in which investment in physical and human capital is particularly effective in spurring economic growth — a phenomenon experienced in the 1960s and 1970s by the high-growth East Asian Tiger economies, all of which experienced significant drops in population growth en route to rapid industrialization.