The population density of Africa is 30 persons per square kilometre. This might be misleading when dealing with a large land mass as Africa, and there is need to remember that the population is unevenly distributed.


There are marked variations in the population density of different countries and sub-regions of Africa, as shown in Table 46.3, which is based on the mid-2005 population projection by Population Reference Bureau.

East Africa is the most densely populated region in Africa, with a population density of 45.7 persons per square kilometre as compared with 42.9 for West Africa, 29.8 for North Africa, 22.2 for Southern Africa and 16.9 for Central Africa; and the average densities of Nigeria, Egypt, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa are respectively 142.3, 74.1, 334.6, 25.9 and 24.7 persons per square kilometre.

The spatial distribution of the population of Africa can be classified into four categories namely:

  • High density areas.
  • Medium density areas.
  • Low sparsely density areas
  • Very sparsely settled areas.


1) High Density Areas

The East and West African sub-regions have some of the most densely settled areas in Africa. Lagos Island, in Nigeria (the commercial capital of Nigeria), and the Ibo speaking districts of Awka, Onitsha, eastern Owerri, as well as the Annang-Ibibio speaking districts of Abak and Ikot-Ekpene, all in south Eastern Nigeria, have population densities that exceed 400 persons per square kilometre (1, 000 per sq km). These districts are among the most densely populated areas in the world and obviously over populated in view of the immense pressure on the available farm land in the area.

Other high density areas, with densities exceeding 200 persons per kilometre (500 per sq km) include Kano urban or settled districts, Sokoto home districts, districts of north-eastern Ghana, parts of Rwanda and Burundi and parts of shores of Lake Victoria. Due to the high population density, acute shortage of farmland is experienced in these areas, farm sizes are very small, rarely exceeding two hectares, fallow periods rarely exceed three years and farmlands are intensively cultivated leading to soil impoverishment, soil erosion and poor crop yield. It is not unusual, therefore, that these densely populated areas are known major food deficient areas and source regions for migrant labour.


2) Medium Density Areas

Rural areas that have between 100 and 200 persons per kilometre (250 and 500 per sq mile) constitute medium density areas. In West Africa, such areas are found in the groundnut belt of western Senegal, the Yoruba cocoa belt and southern Tivland all in Nigeria and southern Togo. Examples of such areas in East Africa include: western Buganda in Uganda, central Malawi and the heavily farmed districts of the Kilimanjaro. In these medium density areas, a lot of emphasis is placed on the production of industrial and cash crops, notably, cocoa, rubber, coffee and cotton, at the detriment of food crops; hence, it is not unusual to experience inadequate production of food crops. These medium density areas are key destination areas for migrant labour.


3) Low Density Areas

A considerable part of tropical Africa is of low density and falls under this category, with population density between 10 and 100 persons per square kilometre (about 25-250 per sq mile). There is abundant farmland; and long fallow periods of over seven years is not unusual in these areas. The coastal countries of Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Gabon and Mozambique fall within the category of low density areas. These countries have abundant rainfall, fertile farmlands and are ‘frontier’ areas that await development.

The dry savanna regions of West Africa, Central Africa and East Africa plateau are also of low density and are usually infected with tsetse fly. People living in these sparsely populated or low density areas are hardly better off than their counterparts living in the land-hungry congested rural areas, largely because most of the sparsely populated areas are isolated from the major centres of high population density and intensive economic activity. It is this relative economic stagnation, which tends to cause the out-migration of youths and able bodied individuals from rural low density areas. In recent times, low density areas are experiencing immense in-migration, with the increasing demand for farmland in high and medium density areas of most African countries.


4) Very Sparsely Settled Areas

The very sparsely settled areas, have a population density of less than ten persons per square kilometre and cover more than two-thirds of the land area of Africa. Areas that fall within this category are the semi-arid regions of West Africa and the eastern Sudan, the dry Gonja district of northern Ghana, Botswana and Namibia and the semi-arid areas of the Karamoja district of Uganda.

Other extensive sparsely populated areas include the dense forest region of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Niger Delta and the arid lands of the Somali Republic and the Great Muri plains of the Benue Valley, which experience seasonal flooding. Extensive areas of the very sparsely settled areas are uninhabited; some of them are designated forest and game reserves while others are the dry desert regions of West Africa, Sudan and Somalia. Food production is virtually impossible in these areas hence, the near total absence of people and settlements.


Factors Influencing Population Distribution in Africa

The distribution of human population in Africa is significantly influenced by a number of factors namely: the physical environment, historical, political and economic factors.

A) Physical Factors

Rainfall, soils, disease and terrain are the main physical factors that influence population distribution in Africa.

1) Rainfall: Aridity is the single most important physical factor that has rendered extensive areas unsuitable for human habitation. In the absence of irrigation in most parts of Africa, aridity has confined cropping to areas with not less than 750mm of rain per annum. High density areas receive more than 750mm of rainfall per annum. There are however, exceptions in this regard, for example, the Niger Delta and the Congo Basin in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which receives over 2,000mm of rainfall per year, yet are very sparsely settled. This is because the vegetation and/or ecology is unsuitable for human settlement. The influence of rainfall in population is obvious in Kenya where the 750mm isohyet divides the densely populated areas in the west and the very sparsely settled areas in the east. It is interesting to note that areas around Kano, Katsina and Sokoto in Nigeria are densely populated yet receive less than half of the total rainfall received in sparsely settled forest areas of Ondo, Benin and Cross River districts of Nigeria.


2) Soil: The quality of the soil is a vital attraction and factor for human settlement. It is however, strange to note that there are large concentrations of people in localities known to have impoverished soils. Such areas include, central Ibo and Ibibio speaking areas of the eastern states of Nigeria, the deeply weathered fertile volcanic soils of Kikuyu land in Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. In addition, poor soil conditions have been responsible for the sparsely settled areas of the Niger Delta and Accra Plains.


3) Disease: In Africa, disease is the second most important physical factor, after rainfall that influences the distribution of the population. Areas infected with tsetse fly which spread trypanosomiasis among cattle and humans is less attractive and sparsely settled. In Kenya, where 60 percent of the country is tsetse fly infested, particularly the western and southern provinces, the population density is less than two persons per kilometre, even in areas where rainfall is adequate for cropping. Extensive areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), West Africa, Gabon and Zambia are heavily infested by tsetse fly which is believed to have contributed to the depopulation of these areas.

Attempts at eradicating tsetse fly in the northern and middle belts of Nigeria and in Zambia in the recent past have resulted in further depopulation of these regions because the policy involves the destruction of infected settlements, which force the population to out-migrate to other settlements, usually far removed from their ancestral settlement.

River blindness is another disease which is responsible for the depopulation of infected areas. Though more localized than sleeping sickness, river blindness has been responsible for the depopulation of considerable areas in the savanna belt of Africa extending from Senegal in West Africa to Uganda in East Africa. In the early 1960’s the high incidence of river blindness in northern Ghana and Burkina Faso, was identified as the main factor responsible for the complete depopulation of the valleys of the Red and White Volta.


4) Terrain: Physical conditions of the terrain are known to have influenced the pattern of population distribution in many parts of Africa. In East Africa, the upper and steeper slopes of the mountainous region are generally sparsely settled, while the lower slopes are densely populated. Furthermore, the rugged terrain of the Cameroon-Adamawa highlands, Ethiopia, and East Africa are unsuitable for human settlement, hence sparsely populated.


B) Historical Factors

The sparsely settled nature of some localities in Africa is related to historical developments. The period of the slave trade and inter-tribal wars of pre-colonial periods has been an important factor in the depopulation of several areas and countries in Africa. Areas that suffered depopulation include Angola, Mozambique, Gabon and the middle belt of West Africa, which experienced massive slave raids. It is estimated that between 10 and 15 million African slaves were exported to North, Central and South America, excluding slaves who died on slave ships and could not make it to the new World. Fulani raids in northern Yoruba land and the Middle Belt of Nigeria depopulated these regions.

Davison (1961) was of the view that the population of slaves exported from Angola was much more than the 4.8 million people recorded as Angola’s population in 1960. This is an indication of the extent of depopulation in the country during the period of slavery. It is also important to note, that Africa lost millions of people to the Arab world and southern Europe through the Arab slave trade, which lasted even longer than the European slave trade.

Inter-tribal war is another historical factor that influenced the population distribution in Africa. An example of this is the sparsely settled no-man’s land along borders separating some ethnic groups who are in conflict with each other. In addition, there were several intra and inter ethnic wars among the Yoruba’s of south western Nigeria and the Akan people of Ghana with massive destruction of life and property. Defensible sites in West African Middle Belt, the Adamawa highlands and central highlands of Zimbabwe, provides a place of refuge and safety for fleeing refugees from conflict zones. Another of the highland settlements has since relocated to lower grounds with the apparent cessation of most inter and intra ethnic wars in recent times.


C) Political Factors

Political decisions and policies by different countries in Africa have also influenced the spatial distribution pattern of the population in Africa. These include racial segregation, apartheid, creation of game and forest reserves and resettlement schemes.

1) Racial Segregation and Apartheid

Racial segregation in pre-independence Zimbabwe and Kenya instituted by minority European settlers influenced the spatial population distribution in these countries. In Zimbabwe, 40 percent of land was set aside for the minority white population that accounted for about 5 percent of the total population. Furthermore, over 70 percent of the minority white population lived in urban areas, while the majority black population lived in rural areas and black settler reserves. The consequence of this policy is that white urban settlements are sparsely settled, when compared to the high population density recorded in black rural settlements and reserves. In the last decade, Zimbabwe has embarked on a land reform policy which is aimed at redistributing land to the black majority, who ironically has been more of tenants on their own land, claimed by white minority settlers.

In the republic of South Africa before the abolition of the apartheid policy of government, Africans were restricted to native reserves and allocated only 20 percent of the land, while the white minority population claimed 80 percent of the land. The apartheid policy in South Africa has been an important influencing factor for the pattern of population distribution in the country. It is important to note that since the dearth of apartheid there has been significant redistribution of the population, as the mobility restrictions placed on the Africans have been completely removed.

Before the Mau-Mau organized the opposition of 1952-6, the so called White Highlands of Kenya, covering an area of 31,000 square kilometres (12,000 sq miles) were occupied by only 12,000 Europeans and about 150, 000 African squatters, and therefore had a population density of only 2.5 persons per square kilometre, compared with over 230 persons per kilometre in Kikuyu land. There has been significant redistribution of land and the population after Kenya had a majority rule at independence in 1963.


2) Forest and Game Reserves

The creation of forest and game reserves in many African countries has led to the restriction and scarcity of farm land in localities where they are located. People are restricted or banned by law to either farm or settle in these designated reserves. This has created a situation, whereby a vast uninhabited area, co-exists side by side with a densely populated area and where the people experience acute shortage of farmland.


3) Resettlement

The resettlement of people displaced by large man-made lakes such as Kanji Lake in Nigeria, the Kariba Lake along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, Volta lake in Ghana, has had immense influence on the distribution and redistribution of the population, in regions where these projects are located in Africa. Settlement integration schemes for health or security reasons in Nigeria and Kenya have had similar effects.


D) Economic Factors

Economic factors have become increasingly important in the distribution of the population of Africa in the last half a century. In addition to urban centres, leading areas with high population concentration in Africa are: rural areas involved in the production of crops for export and industrial use and areas known for mineral exploitation. These areas include the Zambian copper belt, the Jos Plateau tin fields, the cocoa belt of western Nigeria and the groundnut belt of Senegal. In recent times, the mineral oil and gas exploitation in the Niger Delta in Nigeria changed the population distribution pattern of the region. There is a massive concentration of population in the main urban areas of Port Harcourt and Warri where the oil companies have their operational headquarters and which provide housing for a large population involved in the oil and gas industry.

In West Africa, the leading centres of economic growth are located 200 kilometres of the coast, with the exception of Kano groundnut belt and the tin mining field region of Jos Plateau in Nigeria. There tends to be greater employment opportunities either in industry or the agricultural sector, along the coast than the interior. Most of the capital cities and sea ports of most countries within the sub-region are located along the coast; it is therefore not unusual to find marked relocation of population from the interior to the coastal areas of West Africa. In East and Central Africa, the situation is slightly different since the economic growth centres, such as the Kenya Highlands, the Katanga-Zambia copper belt, the Uganda cotton belt and the central highlands of Zimbabwe are all located at great distances from the coast.

The older settled and high density areas experience immense pressure on land. The unproductive nature of traditional agriculture in most sparsely settled rural regions of Africa, has contributed to the massive out-migration and redistribution of the population from these economically stagnant areas, to more rapidly growing economic urban growth centres.

The rate of urbanization in Africa has increased tremendously since the early 1960’s, when most of the newly independent nation states of Africa changed their political economy from essentially primary economy to the manufacturing of essential consumer goods. Migration to these emerging urban centres from rural areas has had immense influence on the spatial distribution pattern of population. Furthermore, the establishment of new cities, such as, the Federal Capital City of Abuja in Nigeria, has created a new economic growth centre which attracts people from all states of the federation, thereby, distribution and redistributing the population of Nigeria.