Ageing and social protection

Africa’s demographic transition

Over the coming decades the number of older people is expected to grow fastest in Africa. As a result, the continent will face a number of challenges that must be identified and tackled now. The implementation of social pensions can be an important pillar.
Beneficiaries of Zanzibar’s universal social pension in 2018. Kate Holt/HelpAge International Beneficiaries of Zanzibar’s universal social pension in 2018.

The median age of Africans is currently 19 years. For comparison, Europe’s median age is 43 years and Asia’s 32. But this is going to change. In the coming decades the proportion of older people in some African countries will come close to rates experienced currently in industrialised countries.

While this might be news to some people, it has been a long time coming. There has been a steady increase over the past 40 years in the number of older Africans, and this trend is expected to accelerate. Its population of people aged 60 or older is projected to increase more than threefold between 2017 and 2050, from 69 to 226 million (see Alisa Kaps in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2020/04, Focus section).

For some countries, an ageing population is already a reality. For instance, the proportion of over-65s in Tunisia and Mauritius is around seven percent, twice as much as it was 20 years ago. Similar patterns can be observed in Botswana, South Africa and Libya.

Life expectancy on the African continent still remains lower than in any other region, but the greatest gains over the past two decades were also experienced in Africa. According to UN data, life expectancy at birth rose by more than six years between 2000 and 2005 and between 2010 and 2015. As improvements in poverty reduction and health are expected to improve further, African life expectancy at birth is projected to reach 71 years by 2045 to 2050, from 60 years in 2010 to 2015.

Life expectancy

Life expectancy at birth is hugely influenced by high levels of infant mortality and therefore reveals little about the survival of older adults. For that, life expectancy at 60 is a better indicator. Currently, a 60-year-old African can expect, on average, to live another 17 years.

It is important to look beyond survival to consider how people are living their older age – whether these extra years are spent in good or poor health. Healthy life expectancy (HALE) is a World Health Organization measure of population health and indicates what is happening. Globally, HALE is rising, but in many places, not at the same rate as life expectancy. This means that the proportion of life spent in poor health is likely to be increasing for some people. For example, in Kenya, the gap between life expectancy at 60 and HALE at 60 increased for women and men between 2000 and 2015.

Change of attitude

The demographic transition touches on every aspect of society, from ensuring universal access to age-appropriate health care and support, to enabling older people to remain socially and economically active and ensuring income security through adequate and sustainable pension systems. In broad terms, the challenge for all countries, whether rich or poor, is to develop systems that can provide care and support to people of all ages in line with their human rights.

If societies do not adapt to population ageing, there is a real risk that millions of older people will fail to get the opportunities and support they need. Given the still predominately young age of Africa’s population, it is not surprising that ageing is not always high on the political agenda of most governments. However, this should soon change. Fortunately, there is now a window of opportunity to learn from the experiences of others – in particular Asian countries – and adapt policies and systems that can meet the needs of populations of all ages.

Now is also the time to challenge ageism and pervasive stereotypes of older people as inherently dependent and vulnerable. For example, a recent study in Uganda found that 63 % of interviewed older people had experienced situations where they were not being taken seriously because of their age.

Bias and misconceptions can also lead to a failure to recognise disability in older age as functional impairments. It is often wrongly identified as a natural consequence of ageing and thus ignored.

New narratives need to be developed that reflect not only the myriad contributions of older people to African families, societies and economies, but also firmly recognise that people’s human rights do not diminish with age.

Expanding social protection

Most people in Africa lack income security when they grow older. Ensuring income security throughout the life-course is a core responsibility of the government, clearly established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, at the regional level, the African Union’s Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Pensions are the main mechanism to ensure income security to older people and the most widespread form of social protection. At the global level, 68 % of older people receive a pension, and there has been significant progress in recent years. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa the rate is less than 30 % according to the International Labour Organization.

In most African countries, contributory pension schemes based on formal employment cover only small percentages of older people. The main reason is that most of them are not formally employed. This challenge is likely to persist, as only around six percent of workers in sub-Saharan Africa contribute to a pension. While the better-off may be able to ensure income security in their older age through savings, assets or family support, most Africans’ sources of income are low and unreliable, even during the most productive years.

Older women are particularly disadvantaged. After a lifetime of discrimination and unpaid work, women often arrive at older age with limited economic and social assets to call upon.

The good news is that more and more African countries are implementing tax-financed social pensions, often provided on a universal basis, to provide at least basic income security for all older people. Africa, and in particular eastern and southern Africa, has a rich tradition of social pension. The oldest of these schemes is the Old Age Grant in South Africa that was introduced in 1927, followed by Namibia (1942), Botswana (1996), Lesotho (2004) and Swaziland (2005). Small island states such as Mauritius and Seychelles also have long standing social pensions, introduced in 1950 and 1979 respectively.

Most recent examples of countries ensuring the income security of older people through the implementation of universal social pensions include Kenya (2018) – reaching close to 1 million older people – and Zanzibar in 2016 (see box). Meanwhile, Uganda’s Senior Citizens Grant reaches 348,000 older people and is currently being rolled out nationally, targeting an additional 200,000 older Ugandans.

Receiving a pension can have a transformative impact for older people. Growing older is often associated with increased challenges to earning a living, particularly due to ill health, chronic disease and disability. Indeed, almost half of all people over 60 years experience some form of disability, and both the risk and prevalence of disability increases with age.

The unique role of pensions is repeatedly emphasised by older people themselves and has been reinforced by a growing evidence base. Pensions not only help older people to meet daily expenses but can transform their role within families and communities to one of dignity and independence. Evidence suggests that cash transfers, including social pensions, can have very positive effects and play an important role in removing some of the barriers to health care for older people. They can also improve older people’s wellbeing through better access to food and sanitation, self-esteem and dignity, as the aid organisation HelpAge found out in a study.

Pensions also indirectly support adults and children living in pensioner households. The documented benefits for children include better nutrition, increased school enrolment and reduced child labour. Pensions also support inclusive economic development by enabling households to improve their livelihoods. Moreover, equitable pension systems are crucial to ensure that gender inequalities are not carried into or amplified in older age.


UN, 2019: World Population Prospects. The 2019 Revision.

UN, 2019: World Population Ageing.

ILO, 2018: Social protection for older persons. Policy trends and statistics 2017–19.

HelpAge, 2017: Cash transfers and older people’s access to healthcare. A multi-country study in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

HelpAge, 2019: Impact Evaluation of the Zanzibar Universal Pension Scheme.

Florian Jürgens is Global Advisor – Social Protection at HelpAge International.

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