Unreached People Groups in Africa and Beyond

The Unreached People Groups (UPGs) concept is very popular among evangelicals, especially those who take the Great Commission very seriously. A lot has been written and many strategies have been designed as to how the UPGs are to be reached. Although I will make references to some of these writings and strategies, my main desire is to highlight the current implications of the people group concept, especially from an African perspective, in the context of present global realities.

The people group concept has been a major plank of the African National Initiatives. It is also the basis of the current exercise by the Movement for African National Initiatives (MANI) as per the following statement:

The Movement for African National Initiatives believes that mobilization of the African Church will be heightened by country-level assessments of the unfinished task. For the next two years MANI regional and country coordinators will make it their priority to begin updating the Joshua Project list of people groups, particularly those considered least-reached. Several countries have begun forming review teams or even research networks for accomplishment of this goal.

The Joshua Project List, which, among others, is the basis of the assessment, is the most authoritative source for definitions, clarifications, and strategies of the UPGs concept. One of the principal authors of the list and some of the “actors” on the field are part of the MANI team championing this new effort in Africa.

My desire is for us to see how and where changes regarding UPGs have occurred and to capture the new parameters which are redefining the concept and invariably would determine our priorities and impact our strategies.

Origin of the Concept and Evolution of the Definitions
The concept of a people group, defined by common language and culture, emanated from the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. In 1982, a common definition for a people group was: “For evangelization purposes, a people group is the largest group within which the gospel can spread as a church-planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.” The Joshua Project Web site defines the term this way: “A people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group.” Such a group is therefore regarded as “Unreached or Least-Reached People Group.”

The debate, however, continues as to what constitutes the indices of a people group. Such efforts to clarify the task and develop appropriate strategies have led to further expositions on the concept, bringing up terms such as least evangelized people groups, ethno-linguistic families, unengaged people groups, affinity blocks, gateway peoples, and people clusters.

The Unreached People Groups of Africa
The issue in this article is not to quote figures or describe the UPGs in Africa. There are already enough publications on that and the MANI Country Assessment Process (MANI-CAP) will afford us more data on such.

The unreached people groups of Africa
are found in all areas of the world.

My concern is to highlight the changes in the locations and identities of the UPGs of African descent in order to stimulate attention of the local, national, continental, and global Church and the mission community toward these new phenomena of the African unreached peoples.

These changes are induced by certain factors which are already well known:

  • rural-urban migration;
  • relocation or dislocation due to (internal or external) displacement of communities by wars, natural disasters, or persecutions (such as political, ethnic, or religious cleansing); and
  • economic migration from depressed national or local economies to the areas or countries (usually the West), where life is perceived to be more bearable.

These factors account for the ghetto camps (slums) that are now characteristic of most urban areas in Africa.

The same factors account for the increasing tension developing in the countries of southern Europe where populations of African immigrants are being perceived as social misfits and security risks, making them targets of various forms of hostility in the host countries. Most of these “displaced” people, whether abroad or in the African urban centers, come from ethnic groups or religious blocks that constitute the UPGs of Africa.

UPGs at Home
MANI-CAP will not only unveil Africa’s remaining unreached people groups at home, but will also reveal:

  • that those who were identified with certain locations of the unreached in the past will no longer be found in those locations/areas now, and
  • that the numbers will not have increased, but rather decreased, not because they have become extinct, but because they have moved out to other locations due to the above factors.

These will still remain our priority foci of MANI in future engagements.

Africa’s Unreached Peoples Abroad
The origin and characteristics of the majority of the African immigrants in Europe and North America highlight the need to consider their unreached people group status. The majority come from areas in Africa that are considered least evangelized, from people groups regarded as unreached, and from religious blocks and political environments hostile to the gospel. These constitute African mission fields abroad.

Since for whatever reason they have found themselves in “the free world,” they should be given opportunity to hear the gospel as part of the package available to them in the free world. Hence the need to identify where such African mission fields abroad are located!

Africa’s Unreached Peoples in Europe
According to an estimate by The Migration Policy Institute, seven to eight million African irregular migrants now live and work in Europe. Jason Mandryk, from Operation World, recently indicated that in 2000 A.D. France had 6.4 million foreign-born immigrants (3.4% of all immigrants), mainly of North African and Black African origins; while Spain had 4.7 million of such (2.5% of all immigrants) of Latin America and North and West Africa origins.

Helen Trauner,1 quoting Julien Conde and P. Diagne,2 stated that “until the 1980s, four-fifths of sub-Saharan immigrants in France were originating from Senegal, Mauritania, and Mali, predominantly from the Senegal River Valley” (within the 10/40 Window, where there are significant numbers of UPGs and there is the dominant Islamic religious block) and that “more than ninety percent of Malian immigrants in France originate from the rural areas of the Kayes Region in the western part of Mali.”

She continued that the female immigrants who were her main focus of the research, like their male counterparts, originated “from the Senegal River Valley (Mali, Mauritania, Senegal) as well as from the Gulf of Guinea and from Equatorial Africa” (all of them locations of most of the African UPGs). These West African female immigrants in France provided their compatriots an African “imagined community where they meet, communicate in their mother tongue, and have access to an important infrastructure (e.g., to mosques, Islamic schools, markets, etc.).”3

This phenomenon made it possible for the African immigrants from the homogenous and closely-knit people groups of West Africa not to be assimilated by the French culture, thereby maintaining their people group uniqueness, even in such distant lands of Europe and despite many years of their sojourn there.

Africa’s Unreached Peoples in the Americas
Aaron Terrazas, citing the U.S. Census Bureau, 2006 American Community Survey, made the following observations with the relevant statistics:

The number of African immigrants in the United States grew forty-fold between 1960 and 2007, from 35,355 to 1.4 million. African immigrants made up 3.7% of all immigrants in 2007. About one-third (35.6%, or 505,619) of African immigrants in the United States are from West Africa. There are also large numbers of East Africans (27.2%, or 386,225) in the United States. North Africans accounted for 19.4% (274,951) of African immigrants in the United States in 2007, followed by Southern Africans (5.7%, or 81,595) and Middle or Central Africans (3.9%, or 56,056). The top five countries of origin of the 1.4 million African immigrants in the United States were Nigeria (13.1%, or 185,787), Egypt (9.6%, or 136,648), Ethiopia (9.5%, or 134,547), Ghana (7.4%, or 104,842), and Kenya (5.7%, or 80,595). In the United States, Africans are concentrated in New York, California, Texas, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

These provide us with an understanding that from the origin of these recent African immigrants in the USA, they are mostly from some of the areas harboring significant numbers of Africa’s remaining unreached people. We are also afforded information about their locations in the USA so that we can easily target them if we decide to.

We are also confronted with the need of peoples of African descent in South and Central America, especially in Brazil, where a significant proportion of the Brazilian population is of African descent who are still very much deep in African traditions, culture, and folk religion.

Reaching Africa’s UPGs in the Diaspora
This will entail forming strategic partnerships between the Church in Africa and those in the host countries. Already there have been discussions between some African denominations and their counterparts in Europe, as well as between ministries in the Americas and Africa. The African Inland Mission of U.K. is seeking some form of collaboration with African churches or ministries in its interest in reaching the African immigrants in southern Europe.

A new initiative (Back to Europe Project) being spearheaded by OC International in collaboration with COMIBAM has similar objectives which will focus on reaching immigrants from the Global South living in Europe, the majority of whom are from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

There is also an ongoing partnership between Occupy World Outreach Ministries in Ibadan, Nigeria, and a Brazilian ministry in Belo Horizonte. This partnership will allow a Nigerian missionary family who is now in Brazil to reach the African descendants in Brazil, the majority of whom come from the Yoruba people group of Nigeria and have largely remained tied to the traditional religion and other cultural practices of the Yoruba people.

It will be very encouraging to see more of such collaborative efforts emerging between the Church and missions from Africa and their counterparts from other parts of the world in such kingdom-oriented goals of reaching Africa’s UPGs both within and outside Africa. MANI is committed to this goal and is willing to foster more collaborative efforts and partnerships in this regard.

Useful Sources and Web Sites


1. 2001. “Dimensions of West-African Immigration to France: Malian Immigrant Women in Paris.” An article based on her research for a master thesis.

 2. 1986. South-North International Migration: A Case Study: Malian, Mauritanian and Senegalese Migrants from Senegal River Valley to France. Paris: OECD.

3. Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflexions on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.  

Rev. Reuben E. Ezemadu is international director of the Christian Missionary Foundation, Inc. He has served the mission community as the pioneer general secretary and chairman of the Nigeria Evangelical Missionary Association, the general coordinator of the Third World Missions Association, and the Nigeria ministry center director of Development Associates International. He is currently the continental coordinator of the MOVEMENT FOR AFRICAN NATIONAL INITIATIVES (MANI) and a mission commission associate of the WEA-Missions Commission.