Opinion: Burundi’s Population Future

July 27, 2016 • Daily Email Recap

Burundi is already consuming double the food it can produce for itself…
Two UK based population activists and researchers sent me the following essay on the country of Burundi. Eric Rimmer and Andrew Ferguson were inspired to make this analysis after a discussion with an Anglican Bishop in Burundi, who asked them for information and advice to help to alleviate Burundi’s urgent population growth problems.
Originally written in 2012, the essay takes a look Burundian bio-capacity as calculated by the Global Footprint Network vs. the current Burundian population and future projections. (Note: some of the population data points have been updated to 2015 data.)
The two authors boldly suggest that a voluntary and rapid reduction of national fertility in Burundi might be accomplished if the country became “aware of the dangers” it faced in terms of population and sustainability. They point to the world record fertility decline engineered in Iran as an example of what can be accomplished, and also mention Thailand’s notable success on population. If you would like to provide comments to Mr. Rimmer, you can reach him at: mail@ericrimmer.com



Burundi has a current population of over 11 million, with an average Fertility Rate (children per woman) of 5.6. Population has grown by more than 3 million since the year 2000. Food is in short supply, and malnourishment is common. Farmland productivity is declining, and forest cover has seen steep declines in the past 3 decades. Currently, only 7% of Burundi’s total land area is forested.

If fertility does not decline at all and if mortality does not increase, Burundi’s population will reach 28 million by 2040 and still be growing by about 1 million each year.

In 2012, the US Census Bureau (USCB) projected a steady, straight-line reduction in Burundi’s Fertility Rate, from 6.3 to 2.9 by 2050. Even if that were achieved, in 2050 the population would be 27 million and still growing by half a million per year. This scenario would be far preferable than no fertility reduction, but would still leave Burundi facing enormous problems.

For example, Burundi is already consuming double the food it can produce for itself, and is therefore 50% dependent on food imports. With current population, average bio-productive land per person is 0.4 global hectares, which falls far short of an acceptable target, which as later proposed is likely to be about 1.2 global hectares. (See below for the meaning of global hectares.)

If the USCB’s projected 2050 population of 27 million were reached without mass starvation, the bio-productive land per person would be only 0.15 global hectares – an impossible figure for self-sufficiency. Rather, Burundi will need to attempt to import 80% of its food in an increasingly uncertain global political climate. Climate change and continuing forest and farmland deterioration will add further daunting challenges.

Therefore, Burundi must work towards a much lower population. To set a sustainable population size, it is necessary to calculate how many could be completely supported by Burundi’s land alone – while at the same time lifting people out of poverty and malnutrition, and working towards the sort of life that would likely offer opportunities for happiness. In most cases, that would include the provision of good education and health care, which cannot be easily provided while the size of Burundi’s population exceeds its bio-capacity.

As we show below, that sustainability would require a population of 3.3 million people, which could only be achieved with a fertility rate of 1.0. We posit that, with maximum effort and support, conditions could be created that would enable fertility to fall from 5.6 to 1.0 in just 10 years’ time, or about 2022. Population at that point would be about 12 million, before peaking in 2050 at 14 million, then steadily falling to 3.3 million around 2120 – see graph on page 5. (The explanation for it not falling sooner, as one might expect with a fertility of only 1.0, is that 38% of the current population is under 14 years of age, and 73% below 30.)

Any less ambitious goals would be overtaken by the relentless pressure of an ever larger population.

Determining a Sustainable Population for Burundi:

We have used data from the Global Footprint Network (GFN) as reported in the WWF Living Planet Report 2012, to calculate the bio-productive land needed to support each Burundian. In all countries with more than one million inhabitants, GFN measures the land actually needed to maintain current lifestyle, and compares it with the land available. Both are calculated in “global hectares” i.e. hectares at global average productivity.

The current Burundi values are 0.8 global hectares of land needed, per person, to satisfy present consumption, but only 0.4 global hectares are available – the difference is made up by imports including food aid and to some extent by exceeding the levels of sustainable extraction – e.g. by cutting down trees faster than they can be grown.

Nevertheless, there is still not enough food to go around – and the UN World Food Programme reports that only 28 percent of Burundi’s population is food-secure, and as many as 60 percent are chronically malnourished. A sustainable population must therefore be one that corrects that shortfall, and makes it possible for all to have a tolerably decent standard of living.

If we look to Europe for comparisons – current European life-style needs nearly 5 global hectares per person, though about half of that reflects Europe’s unsustainably high use of energy.

Much of Europe’s food is imported, a lot is wasted in the processed food and supermarket system, and the amount of meat in the European diet is probably more than that advisable on health grounds. So it is reasonable to argue that Burundi’s warm climate and largely vegetarian diet would allow for living comfortably on much less. For the 34 nations of Europe, the use of forest, cropland, pasture and fishing land averages 2.0 global hectares per person – but for the 47 nations of Africa the average is 1.1 global hectares per person. It could well be argued that too many people in Africa suffer from malnutrition for that to be a useful guide, but in view of Burundi’s existing overpopulation problem, let us select a figure close to the existing African consumption footprint for forest, cropland, pasture and fishing, namely 1.2 global hectares per person.

Given the total 4 million bio-productive global hectares available in Burundi, a population no greater than 3.3 million, could each have access to 1.2 global hectares – 50 percent greater than Burundi’s current footprint, and 60 percent of the European use of forest, cropland, pasture, and fishing.

There are inaccuracies in expressing the productivity of cropland, pasture and fishing in the overall unit of global hectares, so Burundi needs a detailed study by its agricultural scientists and hydrology experts to see what scope there is for improving agricultural yields. Though there seems to be limited prospects of much improvement, as de-forestation and poor farming methods have already caused extensive soil erosion and depletion – there does seem to be scope for increased fishing activity, as the average Burundian eats only 1kg of fish per year, and Burundi has about 100 miles of coastline on Lake Tanganyika, and the right to 8% of the lake’s fishing.

Reducing Fertility Rate:

Given the urgent and serious nature of Burundi’s population problems, we have searched the data in many other countries, to identify ambitious but achievable fertility targets. For example, the world’s lowest fertility rate is 0.8 (in Singapore) and there are 37 countries below 1.5.

But in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, the lowest current fertility rates are around 2.4, and are expected to fall below 2.0 by 2025.

If we look further afield, Iran has been outstandingly successful in reducing its fertility. During the period 1990-95, and also 1991-96, the average fall was 0.46 per year. The government did this by a combination of advocacy about the need for a change, and the provision of good contraceptive services. Comparable results were achieved in Thailand.

The changes occurred without coercion, and without specific incentives for having only one or no children. But, in our opinion, there is no reason why incentives should not be introduced in Burundi, and we think that we are not being excessively hopeful in making the assumption that it would be possible for nations who become aware of the dangers they face, to reduce fertility at a rate of 0.5 (half a child) per year, e.g. from 6.3 to 1.0 in 10 years.

As stated above, decline from 10 million to 3.3 million over a reasonable time-span would need a rapid change to a Fertility Rate of 1.0.

With a high initial fertility and disadvantageous age structure, a rapid transition is required to avoid worst-case population projections. Inspection of the graph will make it apparent that a reduction period of 10 years is the most realistic option.

A slower decline in fertility could reach the 3.3 million population-target in many more years, but all the time that fertility remains higher, the population continues to grow – and the challenge becomes much greater.

A Graphical Illustration of Burundi’s Choices:

The graph illustrates each of the scenarios we have calculated. The graph is split at 2050 because up till then we have high confidence in the population projections. After that, they become a little more tenuous.

The LIGHT BLUE line (square data-points) – the top curve in the graph, projects no decrease in the 2010 fertility rate – with population climbing extremely steeply, and running off the graph in 2040, at 30 million! This illustrates the massive penalty of doing nothing about fertility!

This should be contrasted with the horizontal BROWN line (triangular data-points) at the bottom of the graph, which shows the optimum Burundi population of 3.3 million.

The ORANGE line (circular data-points) reflects the USCB projections to 2050 – with fertility dropping from 6.3 to 2.9 and population increasing from 10 to 27 million, and still adding half a million each year. A much lower population must be achieved.

The RED line (square blue data-points) shows what could be achieved if the goal were set to reach a fertility rate of 2.0 in 10 years, which is the level at which population would stop increasing once the built-in population momentum has been overtaken. Unfortunately, it would take until 2060 to reach a stable population – and that would be at 19 million.

The DARKGREEN line (circular data-points) represents the only realistic goal for Burundi, with fertility decreasing to 1.0 (one child per family) after 10 years, after falling to that level at the average rate of half a child each year.


It is absolutely necessary for Burundi to take a courageous decision and begin immediately to lower its fertility rate towards 1.0. This will need the cooperation and funding of the family planning agencies, as well as full and unequivocal Government leadership and support.

We are happy to provide further information and encouragement!

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