A first atlas on rural migration in sub-Saharan Africa 1

A first atlas to deepen understanding on rural migration in sub-Saharan Africa

2 November, Rome A first atlas to offer a better understanding of complex rural migration patterns in sub-Saharan Africa has been published today.

The atlas Rural Africa in motion. Dynamics and drivers of migration south of the Sahara – also highlights the important role rural areas will continue to play in shaping the continent’s migration for decades to come.

“Population growth translates into a massive expansion of the labour force. Some 380 million new working age people are expected to enter the job market by 2030. Of those about 220 million are likely to be in rural areas. The challenge is to generate enough employment to absorb this booming labour force. This is why agriculture and rural development must be an integral part of any response to large migratory movements to harness the potential of migration for development,” said Kostas Stamoulis, FAO Assistant Director-General, Economic and Social Development Department.

Through a series of maps and in depth case studies, the 20 authors of the atlas, representing different research institutions, think tanks and international organizations from and outside Africa, explore the complexity of the interrelated causes that drive people in Africa to leave their homes. They shed light on regional migration dynamics and perspectives, and foster understanding of rural migration.

“The atlas is timely as the need for new analytical tools to improve our understanding of Africa’s migration is becoming more and more pressing. In the face of climate change and unprecedented population growth, the atlas doesn’t only provide a stimulating overview on rural migration, it can also help shape more coordinated and coherent actions to address migration,” added Kostas Stamoulis.

The atlas is the result of a partnership between the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO), with technical support from the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) in South Africa.

“This atlas is an innovative contribution which will support the policy debate not only between governments and the international community, but also between and with local stakeholders,” said Jean-Luc Khalfaoui, CIRAD’s Director General for Research and Strategy.

North versus sub-Saharan Africa: different migration flows

The atlas notes that the vast majority of Africans (75 percent) are migrating within Africa, whilst the overwhelming majority of North Africans (about 90 percent) migrate to Europe. Hence, sub-Sharan Africa “is in motion”, but mainly within the limits of the continent.

Western and Eastern Africa are the most dynamic regions with about 5.7 and 3.6 million intra-regional migrants in 2015.

Excerpt from the Atlas

One of the 13 maps of the Atlas – Rural Africa in motion.  

Evidence also suggests that, in most sub-Saharan Africa countries, internal migration is the dominant migration pattern. For example, half of Kenya’s and Senegal’s migrants move within national borders, and in Nigeria and Uganda, in-country migration is as high as 80 percent.

This supports global estimates indicating that the number of people moving within their countries is six times higher than the number of emigrants.

Sub-Saharan Africa: a unique context and demographic feature

Sub-Saharan Africa’s population increased by 645 million people between 1975 and 2015, and is set to increase by 1.4 billion in the next forty years (by 2055) – a unique demographic feature in world history.

By the middle of the century, the estimated rural population in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to increase by 63 percent. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where rural population will continue to grow after 2050.

For a mostly rural Africa, this population growth means a massive expansion of the labour force (about 220 million rural youth will enter the working age in the next 15 years), more dense rural areas, and a huge pressure on the agricultural sector, making the need for economic diversification and job creation more critical.

Who is migrating?

Rural migrants are mostly young people, and the majority come from farming families.

Around 60 percent of rural migrants are between 15 and 34 years old. Most migrants are men; however in some countries like Mozambique, Democratic Republic of the Congo or Burkina, women form the majority of those who are migrating.

Rural people have generally lower school attainments than their urban counterparts, and rural migrants are no exception. Migrants tend, however, to spend more years in school than non-migrants do.

More urban, but also more rural

Unlike in other parts of the world, sub-Saharan Africa has become more urban but without becoming more industrialized. Cities are characterized by a precarious urban informal sector, often persistent poverty and limited formal employment opportunities.

More so than elsewhere, Africans move not only into towns, but also out of them and between rural areas.


A sprawling market in Senegal’s capital. With limited formal employment opportunities, many Africans move not only into towns, but also out of them. ©FAO/Jane Hahn

Climate change and migration

Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change due to its extensive reliance on rain-fed crop production, which represents 96 percent of agricultural land, and limited economic and institutional capacity to adapt to climate impacts.

Studies indicate that tropical regions will experience wheat and maize crop losses as a consequence of even small changes in temperatures. Crop losses for major cereals are estimated at around 20 percent by 2050 if no action is taken to mitigate the effect of climate change.

The atlas reflects on the complex link between climate change and rural migration. Although environmental challenges can influence migration, the decision to migrate is also determined by social, economic and political factors.

Future of migration: unpredictable but manageable

While the complexity of interrelated factors driving migration makes it impossible to exactly predict migration dynamics in the future, the atlas draws attention to crucial variables – such as size of rural population; location and occurrence of extreme weather events; poverty and hunger levels; job opportunities; quality of governance – to identify possible migration scenarios for the future.

The atlas notes that managing the future of migration should involve: safe, orderly and regular migration channels; the development of sustainable large cities; a stronger investment in intermediary cities; and the development of smaller rural habitats with provision of quality services.

It highlights that the decision of a rural person to migrate should not be dictated by survival or search for a decent life, but inspired by an aspiration for new experiences. For that to happen, it is necessary to invest in agriculture and rural development and to adopt a territorial perspective, fostering rural-urban linkages that will help to transform Africa’s rural areas into «safe havens» offering a better life.

A first atlas on rural migration in sub-Saharan Africa 2

Youth tending to their vegetables as part of an FAO initiative supporting young people at risk of migrating. Creating farming and rural, off-farm opportunities key to address migration. ©FAO/Tamiru Legesse


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