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Why we should talk about megatrends in Africa

Megatrends spotlight 2022 05, 01.04.2022

Megatrends have become ubiquitous phenomena in public policy debates. A thorough understanding of what this concept entails is often missing. We address this gap by unpacking the notion “megatrend” and tracing the significance it has for understanding the transformation of African societies.

The term “megatrend” has recently gained popularity in public debates. The effects of megatrends on politics, economics, and societies are discussed in various policy fields such as development policy and foreign policy. Despite the increased attention, there is less detailed engagement with the concept of “megatrend” itself. Academics and politicians instead deal with individual megatrends and their relevance for global developments. Megatrends such as urbanisation, climate change, demographic change, digitalisation, economic and political power shifts, as well as global health more recently are likely to have profound impacts on the African continent. In order to move the debate on megatrends from mere description to analysis, a robust definition is needed that specifies the distinct characteristics of the phenomenon.

Approaching global transformations

Futurologist John Naisbitt coined the term “megatrends” in his 1982 bestseller “Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives“. Naisbitt observed the emerging change from an industrial to a knowledge society and from a national to a global economy. He was looking for a concept that could adequately account for these overarching developments. He specifically emphasised the longevity and intensity of megatrends in his work by characterising megatrends as

“large social, economic, political, and technological changes [that are] slow to form, and once in place, influence us for some time – between seven or ten years, or longer”.

Newer definitions build upon these general characteristics. For instance, the Zukunftsinstitut in Frankfurt describes megatrends as “avalanches in slow motion” mirroring complex societal change dynamics of a global magnitude that develop slowly, but over an extended period. Apart from the longevity of megatrends, the institute characterises megatrends as having effects on all spheres of life (ubiquity), a global character, as well as being inherently complex. In addition, a study commissioned by the European Union puts forward irreversibility as an essential attribute.

Characteristics of megatrends

  • Longevity
  • Ubiquity
  • Global relevance
  • Complexity
  • Irreversibility

Which transformation processes neatly fit this list of criteria cannot easily or conclusively be determined. Analysts agree with regard to climate change, urbanisation, digitalisation, and demographic change. However, there is less agreement on phenomena such as migration, democratisation, and autocratisation processes; the shift from industrial to knowledge societies; as well as shifting economic and political power to new actors such as China and India.

Other trends, such as regional integration and the proliferation of politically and religiously motivated violence, are not necessarily of global relevance, but they have a structuring effect, specifically on the African continent. The interaction of megatrends with these developments adds an extra layer of complexity.

Megatrends in Africa

Thematic area


Global megatrends


Megatrends in Africa

Horx et al. (2018)

PwC (2016)

KPMG (2014)

Roland Berger Institute (2020)

German Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation (2021)

Vastapuu et al. (2019)

AUC/OECD (2018)


Silver society


Gender shift



Silver society


Knowledge society

Demographic shifts


rise of the individual

People and society (population, migration, values, education)

Demographic change


Social inequality and new middle classes

Migration and population movement

Population growth



Demographic growth





Climate change and resource scarcity

Climate change, resource stress

Environment and resources (climate change and pollution, resources and raw materials, ecosystems at risk)

Climate change and resource scarcity

Climate change

Climate change



Accelerating urbanisation





The urban transition



Rise of technology

Enabling technology

Technology and innovation (value of technology, AI, humans and machines)

Digitalisation and knowledge societies

Technological development

The new production revolution




New work

Shift in global economic power

Economic power shift,

economic interconnected-ness,

public debt

Economics and business (power shifts, debt challenge, sectoral transformation, globalisation revisited)

Globalisation and regionalisation


Shifting wealth (new partnerships)





Politics and governance (future of democracy, governance and geopolitics, global risks)

Geopolitical power shifts

Democracy trends






Health and care (pandemics, diseases and treatments, caregiving)




A plethora of megatrends unfolding in Africa

Megatrends are of global concern and most of them specifically affect the African continent.

The 10 countries with the highest average fertility rates are all in Africa. For this reason, it is projected that the African population will increase from 1.3 billion to 2.5 billion people by 2050. This resulting lower average age also means that in 2034, the share of the working population in Africa will be larger than that in China and India. At the same time, Africa has the highest urbanisation rate worldwide. This is due to fast population growth as well as climate-induced migration. The World Bank estimates that, due to demographic change, climate change, and urbanisation, up to 86 million people will migrate within their countries in Africa by 2050. This estimation does not include cross-border migration, only internal migration.

In addition, digitalisation poses big challenges to the continent. Even though internet usage rates have improved as a result of large investments in infrastructure and the widespread availability of mobile phones, Africa is still the continent with the lowest level of access to a mobile broadband network. At the same time, digitalisation offers the young population in particular immense potential for further skills development, political participation, and access to global markets.

Conceptualising the future

This short outline shows that it is specifically the interaction potential of megatrends that provides the challenges. Megatrends can interact with each other in dynamic ways, creating effects that are not only stronger in expression, but also seem unexpected because of the missing link between cause and effect.

Anthony Giddens’ structures could serve as heuristics for megatrends. As with megatrends, structures are not only the basis for, but simultaneously the result of human practices. This dynamic process of the mutually constituting nature of structure and agency (i.e. Giddens’ duality of structure) is linked through discourse and practice – it reproduces our world order as well as what it means to be human. As actors’ practices can only be understood with recourse to this duality of structure, megatrends can serve in a similar manner as important signposts for research agendas and political action.

Our work on the megatrends

Understanding these individual, albeit linked, structures is essential to enable adaptation and even partial control. Our project contributes to this enhanced understanding by conducting research on megatrends, their interactions, as well as their effects on political, social, and economic processes in three different thematic areas: conflicts, statehood, and violent actors (1), megatrends and political authority (2) as well as new external actors (3).

Societies and political decision-makers need to identify the scope for action – not despite, but rather because of the irreversibility of megatrends – in order to mitigate negative consequences and enable opportunities for action. The local effects of megatrends, which arise out of global interdependencies, require joint political action based on equal partnerships. Germany’s Africa policy has – in line with Europe’s Africa policy – an important role to play in jointly creating a future with Africa that is oriented towards the common good.