Writing history backwards or sideways: towards a consensus on African population, 1850–2010


  • We thank the participants of the session ‘New African economic history—approaches to long term African economic development’ at the XVIth World Economic History Conference 2012 (Stellenbosch, 10 July 2012), the African Studies Association UK (Leeds, 8 Sept. 2012), and the African Economic History Workshop (Geneva, 11 Sept. 2012). Special thanks to Gareth Austin, Patrick Manning, Alexander Moradi, and three anonymous referees for in-depth comments on previous drafts of this study. We are grateful to Sanne Mirck and Aske Bonde for excellent research assistance. Ewout Frankema acknowledges financial support from the European Research Council under the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme for the project ‘Is poverty destiny? A new empirical foundation for long-term African welfare analysis’ (ERC grant agreement no. 313114), and from the Dutch Science Foundation for the project ‘Is poverty destiny? Exploring long term changes in African living standards in global perspective’ (NWO VIDI grant no. 016.124.307). Morten Jerven acknowledges financial support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant for the project ‘African states and development: a historical perspective on state legitimacy and development capacity, 1890–2010’.


This article aims to make an empirical and theoretical contribution towards the creation of a continent-wide dataset on African population extending into the pre-1950 era. We investigate the reliability and the validity of the current population databases with the aim of working towards a consensus on the long-term series of African total population with a reliable 1950 benchmark. The cases of Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana are explored to show the uneven coverage of census taking in colonial and post-colonial Africa and to demonstrate the need for an upward adjustment of the conventional 1950 benchmark. In addition, we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of Manning's approach of projecting population growth estimates backwards in time by adopting the available Indian census data as African ‘default growth rates’, and we propose an alternative approach by incorporating the demographic experiences of tropical land-abundant countries in South-East Asia.