(CNN) -- A leading African organization is spearheading a campaign to stop the use of the phrase "Sub-Saharan Africa," calling it a "disparaging and contemptuous" reference to nations south of the Sahara.
Celebrate Africa Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the continent, said the aim is to collect more than 2 million signatures that will be submitted to world leaders and international organizations.
The group said the signatures will be handed over to organizations such as the African Union, the United Nations and the World Bank.
"Sub-Saharan Africa is a pejorative term. It is an euphemism for contemptuousness employed by the continent's detractors to delineate between the five Arab countries that make up north Africa from the other 42 countries and the islands that make up the rest of Africa," said Chika Onyeani, chairman of the foundation.
North Africa refers to Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco.
"Who decided on the line of demarcation between 'northern' and 'southern' Africa?" Onyeani asked in a statement.
The foundation chairman is urging editors worldwide to reject the term, saying it started off in the 1990s at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the continent.
Onyeani said the term started on a negative connotation. "It was a way of telling us, 'you people are lepers, you don't belong to the human race,'" the chairman said. "Just because America is below Canada in North America, doesn't make the United States a sub-America.
No other continent in the world uses the word for a group of countries, according to Onyeani.
The campaign has sparked a major debate. Some are calling it much ado about nothing.
"I'm in favor of the usage of Sub-Saharan Africa, because black Africa is below, or rather, south of the Sahara," said Patrick Egwu, a Nigerian based in London, England.
"What is the fuss in such a simple name?"
Kenyan Mark Kaigwa chimed in. "There's some merit in the campaign, but there are bigger fish to fry rather than attempting a rebranding, repackaging and renaming exercise."
Kaigwa added: "It looks more like a publicity attempt rather than means to a positive end for the continent. It doesn't serve 'Sub-Saharan Africa's' collective interest."