LOKOJA, Nigeria—This was a small town on the docks where steamships stopped when a traveling young nut merchant named Ahmed Musa settled here in the 1940s. He didn’t even lock his doors at night.
Now Lokoja is the fastest-growing city on Earth. His roof looks out over shanties and suburban estates tangling along the Niger River stretch where, a century ago, a British writer gazed across the water and coined the name Nigeria. Lokoja’s metropolitan population of 473,000 is set to rise 78% in the next 10 years, the United Nations projects, quicker than every other sizable town in the world.
The biggest human increase in modern history is under way in Africa. On every other continent, growth rates are slowing toward a standstill for the first time in centuries, and the day is in sight when the world’s human population levels out.
But not here—not yet.
Early morning commuter traffic in Lokoja, Nigeria, the world’s fastest-growing city.
Early morning commuter traffic in Lokoja, Nigeria, the world’s fastest-growing city. PHOTO: MONIQUE JAQUES FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Some 2.5 billion people will be African by 2050, the U.N. projects. That would be double the current number and 25% of the world’s total. There will be 399 million Nigerians then, more than Americans. When the century closes, if projections hold, four out of 10 people will be African.
Billions of them will be living in cities that are today small towns. The land of open spaces that was Africa will have blended into one big megalopolitan web.
Ahmed Musa, a 93-year-old nut trader, second row, center, sits for a portrait with a small portion of his extensive family.
Ahmed Musa, a 93-year-old nut trader, second row, center, sits for a portrait with a small portion of his extensive family. PHOTO: MONIQUE JAQUES FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Whether that makes Africa the next emerging giant, or giant emergency, one thing is certain: At 93, Mr. Musa has something to do with all this. In his seven decades as the reigning nut trader in town, he has had 21 children by five wives, and 118 grandchildren. They call him Baka Son Matsi: roughly translated, Mr. Cool.
It’s because he is so relaxed, he said, perched in the armchair where he watches CNN.
“This makes me happy,” said the old man, surrounded by dozens of children and grandchildren. “It makes me proud.”
One of the great questions of the 21st century is unfolding outside his window: How will the world look with vastly more Africans in it?
Better, by some measures. Humanity is aging. By 2050, nearly a fourth of the people on earth will have passed their 60th birthday, compared with just one-eighth now. A swelling portion of the global economy will be spent hospitalizing or retiring old people.
By comparison, the average African will be 28. Some 1.3 billion people here will be both young and old enough to start a business, educate themselves, build new homes, embark on a career—and give the world’s farms and factories a reason to grow.