Episode 11: Scenes from Nigeria's baby boom

Africa's most populous country faces a host of challenges as it continues to grow.

After years of trying to conceive, Foyeke Omage and her husband, Ewanle, welcomed quintuplets as a miracle. But the cost of raising three girls and two boys is a financial strain. Although quintuplets are extremely rare, Nigeria’s total fertility rate is more than five children per woman. Its fast-growing population is on track to add 150 million people by 2050, possibly making it the world’s third most populous country.
Photo by Yagazie Emezi

With 224 million people, Nigeria is Africa's most populous country. By 2050, it could crack the global top three with some 375 million people. In the second of our two-part series on the global population passing eight billion, National Geographic photographer Yagazie Emezi describes scenes she captured in Lagos, Africa’s biggest city—including intimate close-ups of a family raising four children in a one-room apartment and women receiving prenatal care. Plus, a Nigerian demographer explains how the country's soaring birth rate could make it an economic powerhouse, but only if the country finds new ways to invest in its youthful population.

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YAGAZIE EMEZI (PHOTOGRAPHER): When I first got this assignment, I think my first thought was, Oh no, how am I going to do this?

PETER GWIN (HOST): Yagazie Emezi is a Nigerian photographer and a National Geographic Explorer. Last year Nat Geo asked her to photograph Nigeria’s population, which is projected to explode in the next few decades.

EMEZI: You know, I've spent the majority of my life in Nigeria, but I haven't experienced even a fraction of this country just because of its size and because of its diversity.

GWIN: Nigeria is home to hundreds of different ethnic groups and languages, but the center of gravity attracting people from all over is Lagos. With 15 million people and counting, Lagos isn’t just the largest city in Nigeria. It’s the biggest in Africa. Yagazie moved there herself right after college.

EMEZI: I grew up in the south of Nigeria. It's like, coming to Lagos for the first time, I was taken aback. I was like, Wow, this is—even as an adult, you know? I was like, This is a city.

GWIN: In fact, when I reached Yagazie, she was in a setting that’s familiar to city-dwellers everywhere: camped out in a coffee shop so she could use the internet and talk to me.

EMEZI: Very, very overpriced. I am very bitter about it. I will not be coming back here.

GWIN: So I haven't been to Lagos myself, but I've heard it’s a city of stark contrasts. You have super wealth and skyscrapers and super-modern architecture in some places, and then you have, you know, extreme poverty in other places. Tell me a little bit—can you give me a little, like, when you landed there and you started exploring the city, you know, give me a little tour of what it's like to travel across Lagos.

EMEZI: You get off the airplane and obviously leave the comforts of the air-conditioned airplane into the un-air-conditioned airport. You might get stopped by customs, who will probably try and ask you—I hate this because it sounds like such a stereotype—try and ask you for some money. But you go outside, and you see the traffic. You see, you know, the standard yellow buses, the conductors, you know, hanging out of the buses or negotiating with each other or with a customer.

GWIN: The legendary Lagos traffic is just one data point in the country’s massive growth. Nigeria is already a huge country. It has the largest population in Africa—and sixth in the world—with more than 220 million people. In just a few decades, Nigeria is on course to add as many as 150 million more people. Some models project Lagos to become the world’s largest city by the end of the century. So what’s driving the baby boom, and is Nigeria ready to handle it?

I’m Peter Gwin, editor at large at National Geographic, and this is Overheard: a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

As the world population passes eight billion, we’re focusing on women in two countries going through massive population change.

This week: what Nigeria’s population growth looks like through the lens of Yagazie Emezi. And in a country where the median age is 17, the energy of its youthful population could make it an economic powerhouse, but only if its leaders make the right moves.

That’s all coming up. But first, fuel your curiosity with a free one-month trial subscription to Nat Geo Digital. You’ll have unlimited access on any device, anywhere, ad-free with our app that lets you download stories to read offline. Explore every page ever published with a century of digital archives at your fingertips. Check it all out for free at natgeo.com/exploremore.

There are more than eight billion human beings here on planet Earth. That’s more than ever, and the number’s going up. The UN predicts that later this century, we could reach 10 billion or more before it levels off. A lot of that growth is happening in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, between now and 2050, that’s where two-thirds of the world’s population growth is expected to come from. And no country in that region is bigger than Nigeria.

By 2050, Nigeria could squeeze nearly 400 million people into a country roughly one-tenth the size of the United States. Before diving into what that population change looks like with Yagazie Emezi, I wanted a better understanding of what’s causing it.

(To Akanni Akinyemi) So can you help put it in perspective for us how quickly Nigeria is growing? And how does it compare to other countries?

AKANNI AKINYEMI (DEMOGRAPHER): Well, first to say that, yes, the population is growing at very alarming rates.

GWIN: That’s Akanni Akinyemi. He’s a Nigerian demographer who studies population and health based at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria.

AKINYEMI: For instance, you look into what we demographers call the total fertility rate, which represents the average number of children that a woman will have. Currently it’s almost six—about 5.5 to around six.

GWIN: Six kids per woman?

AKINYEMI: Yeah, that's the average.

GWIN: Almost 20 years ago, the Nigerian government tried to curb the fertility rate. It rolled out a 10-year plan recommending that women have no more than four children. But when it comes to the decision to have kids, Akanni says that many Nigerians lack access to two very important tools: contraception and education for girls.

AKINYEMI: Just about 12 percent of Nigerian married women are using modern contraceptives. So when you have it low like that, again there will be problems because it means that people also are likely to have pregnancy when they do not plan to have it. You know, studies have also shown that people who are poorly educated, people who are poor and who also live in rural areas, they are people who are disproportionately affected—I mean having more babies than other people. So you therefore need to look into, how do you therefore invest in such areas to improve the quality of life? Also to improve, you know, their negotiation power, you know, so that then they can negotiate better. So they know this is when, this is how I want to have babies.

GWIN: Looking at other countries that have struggled with large population growth—you know, I'm thinking specifically of a place like China that's taken the, you know, the famous one-child policy. Could you see Nigeria ever sort of taking on something massive like that, some sort of massive, you know, policy to try to, you know, manage the growth in a really dramatic way like that?

AKINYEMI: You know, the political economy atmosphere in China and Nigeria are not just comparable, but that doesn't mean that government cannot make things to happen. But rather than having those—what people term to be draconian laws that can work in a place like China—in Nigeria such cannot work. What we need to do is to prioritize investment. If a woman have like high school completed, because of the time you spend to have that high school, you are not likely to be like a young girl who started having children at 14 because, you know, you stay in school till 18. And if that same lady now go for higher education, right, maybe you go to university or you go to college, then you'll be there until like 23, and you don't want to start having children. So that makes a whole lot of difference, and so government can therefore look into that and see how to improve.

GWIN: Nigeria's population is very young, and you've written that that means a big opportunity for the country if it's handled right. What do you think that the government needs to do to kind of harness all this potential, this young potential?

AKINYEMI: You look into government investment, for instance, into higher education because if you invest in things where young people can have skills, OK, then you are investing in them to be economically viable, and they are also likely to bring the desired outcome because then, you know, you are better off than someone who is not working. So if you make right investment for people who are highly skilled in communication, highly skilled in medicine, they are likely to compete favorably well globally. And they’re likely to have good return. So government need to prioritize, you know, investment in these young people, deliberate investment in key sectors, you know, to help these young people.

GWIN: So I hear you talking a lot about what Nigeria could do, but how is the country managing right now? How well is it doing to harness this youth potential?

AKINYEMI: I think, honestly, I think the country is not doing well. You look into the cost of living—it keeps increasing. Government is not opening up new opportunities for these young people, making the wrong kind of investment, you know? Last year, universities were shut for like eight months. That does not show right investments, right, in education. So for me—and I stand to be corrected—I think I will score government very low.

GWIN: When I reached Akanni, Nigeria was a week away from its presidential elections. He said none of the candidates were talking about these issues, although he did point out that some regional leaders were making progress. Now it’s up to new president Bola Ahmed Tinubu to take on this challenge.

Also this year, Nigeria is planning its first census in more than 15 years. Censuses aren’t just about counting how many people there are. They produce statistical data that’s crucial for planning. But Akanni has written that in the past, Nigeria’s censuses have collected incomplete data or been derailed by political fights.

Meanwhile, population change on a scale this large can be hard to get your head around. It involves hundreds of millions of people and huge issues like government, health care, and education. It’s a tough story to boil down to just a few photographs, but last year that was Yagazie Emezi’s job.

(To Emezi) So what are the issues related to population that you wanted to illustrate with your photographs?

EMEZI: Ideally everything. When it—because Nigeria has to be with population, you know, you want your country to be a functioning country. So what makes a country function as—also as imperfect as Nigeria is? And I think definitely with agriculture, housing, and education, those were the main ones because you see it every day in Nigeria. You know, you see people who do not have access to food, or the right type of food. You know, you see children who are on the streets who are not educated or being put in school. So these are the tough ones. It's just like, what have I always seen in Nigeria, you know?

GWIN: So one other issue that comes up in this conversation is that Nigeria is such a diverse country. It's got so many different ethnic groups, so many different languages, different religions. How did you go about trying to photograph the great diversity in Nigeria?

EMEZI: What is so great about a place like Nigeria, even looking at Lagos alone, is that once I focused on these different sectors—be it housing, be it health—is that it is diverse, still. So it kind of like shows the mix of people and mix of Nigerians. So I don't think there was any place that—or any of the images that represents just one group of people, be it of a certain class, be it of a certain ethnicity. And I think that also speaks really well of Nigeria, that you can focus on these large things and focus on these sectors and still find diversity within there in terms of different representations of what the country is.

GWIN: One of the things that you focused on was health care. Can you talk a little bit about, like, how you approached trying to photograph health care and how that related to the population growth?

EMEZI: So with health care, I wanted to look at the mortality rate of infants.

GWIN: Infant mortality is a key indicator of a society’s overall health, and Nigeria’s infant mortality rate is trending down. In the past 30 years, it’s been cut nearly in half. But in international rankings, it remains one of the worst. The rate of maternal mortality—that is, mothers dying in childbirth—is even more stark. It’s one of the five worst in the world.

Today less than half of Nigerian babies are born in hospitals, and many expectant mothers depend on midwives. So Yagazie shadowed a midwife as she worked with her patients.

EMEZI: A lot of the women who were about to—who were already full term or were about to reach full term regularly get massages to make sure that the baby is in the correct position, and sometimes that means having to turn the baby in the womb. So yes, it was bearing witness to that, and it was incredible to watch but also quite honestly a bit uncomfortable because you're also watching someone who is in discomfort, which is, you know, the pregnant ladies, but then also to watch the relief. And, you know, the midwife works—you know, she's been working for over 30 years at this. So you know just by watching her hands and she's just chatting with me, telling me what she's doing. She's like massaging their bellies and moving it around. Yeah, it was just really great to watch that aspect of her process and also just hear about the fact that, you know, she's never lost a baby.

GWIN: Women that have more education delay having children longer, and that has an impact on the population growth. How did you approach trying to photograph that aspect of the story?

EMEZI: With women education, I definitely wanted to represent, you know, the Muslim community because that is a huge part of Nigeria.

GWIN: As Akanni mentioned earlier, investing in education is one of the keys to harnessing Nigeria’s young population. But there’s a lot of work to do. About 40 percent of Nigerian kids between the ages of 6 and 11 don’t go to school regularly. And for girls, the number is even higher, especially in rural areas in northern Nigeria. The Islamic militant group Boko Haram has attacked schools, like in 2014, when it kidnapped more than 200 girls in the town of Chibok. But Yagazie’s photo shows what it looks like when girls do get a chance. We see eight girls posing together in a hallway, all wearing hijabs at an Islamic school outside Lagos.

EMEZI: I cannot, you know, have all these images and not have this aspect represented as well. And what's better than to photograph girls receiving Western education at an Islamic institution that can also keep the balance of both, which also speaks in terms of diversity and two things, you know, existing harmoniously at the same time.

GWIN: One of the photos that I was really struck by in the article was this intimate portrait of a couple with their kids living in a one-room apartment. And I think it said—the caption said they don't have running water and that about 30 people live in this same building. Can you tell me a little bit about how you found that family, and what that photograph says about the story of Nigeria's population?

EMEZI: The family portrait of the Ewenikes was actually one of my favorites. They’re fantastic. I spent a lot of time talking to the husband. He's a trader. And they were just, I mean—like really any other family. The time I came initially, the kids had—they were still in their school uniform. The eldest daughter was quite grumpy to see me there. She was like, Why are you here? Why are you taking pictures?

GWIN: What we see in the photo looks like a freeze-frame of chaotic domestic bliss. Mom, dad, and four kids sprawled out on their bed, mostly with big smiles.

EMEZI: You know, there's always this underbelly of—when in Nigeria, at least in my experience, when you witness cases of like joy and all these genuine moments of love and the underbelly is there's no electricity, you know, or they have to step out for a bit to go get a pail of water or the fact that you can clearly see that it's a one-bedroom and the bed is there. I'm not saying that things are easy, but at the end of the day is, these things exist. There are moments of joy. There are plenty moments of joy. And that's what I love most about the photograph is that you can see the joy. However, you can see the condition. There is not an erasure of either.

GWIN: What was their outlook for the future? Did they talk about how they saw—you know, was this just sort of a temporary situation they were in, or \were they expecting things to get better, to get a better place, et cetera?

EMEZI: When I asked him about, you know, just living at home, he had already been there for about 11 years, I believe, So that really kind of like spoke to the possibility of kind of like getting out, especially when, you know, you have to pay for school fees and sending the kids to a private school. His main complaint was, you know, that it's just really not a safe neighborhood for the kids in terms of like armed robberies happening every now and then. But what I did appreciate is that I could tell that the family is a very proud family in the best of ways. So there was no talk about, Oh, you know, it's difficult for us to send the kids to school, or, you know, there was nothing like that. It was just like the kids go to school. The kids are eating, they have to schedule, they have homework to do, and we’ll be going to work, right? And I think that's just—that's their reality.

GWIN: You know, the population predictions for Nigeria are pretty staggering. On the very highest end, I think 80 years from now, they're projected to have 800 million people and predict that Lagos could be the biggest city in the world, I mean potentially. As a Nigerian, how do you process what that future looks like?

EMEZI: Ooh. Honestly it is scary just because once again, I live in Lagos and I see the crowds. Like, whatever Nigerian I am, I'm just like, It will get better! It has to. For me personally, it's that I just have hope. I hope we have better governance. I hope we have way better leadership that can secure the nation, that can feed the nation, that can educate the nation. These are the main things. And I think that with the right leadership, we're good. But all we can do is to hope and vote and as individuals, you know, just do our own parts with helping our neighbors and all that other stuff. Because quite honestly, I don't want to think of a Nigeria that isn't functional with that large of a population.

GWIN: Yagazie Emezi is a National Geographic Explorer based in Nigeria. You can see her pictures in the April issue of National Geographic, which is all about our planet at eight billion people. You can follow Yagazie on Instagram, @YagazieEmezi. That’s Y-A-G-A-Z-I-E E-M-E-Z-I. And check out more in our show notes. They’re right there in your podcast app.

If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us, and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.


This week’s Overheard episode is produced by senior producer Jacob Pinter.

Our other producers include Khari Douglas and senior producer Brian Gutierrez.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Robin Palmer fact checked this episode.

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world and funds the work of National Geographic Explorer Yagazie Emezi.

Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. See y’all next time.


Want more?
See Yagazie Emezi’s photos—and other scenes from a world with eight billion people—in the April issue of National Geographic.

For a previous National Geographic assignment, Yagazie photographed the women stepping up to remake Rwanda. Follow her on Instagram @yagazieemezi.

Also explore: 

With a get-rich spirit that fuels the continent’s largest economy, see why Lagos has become Africa’s boom town.

Read more from Akanni Akinyemi, including how Africa will shape the future of the planet’s population.