There is nowhere else in the world where the trend of urbanization appears it will be more pronounced than in Africa. By one estimate African cities will grow 267% by 2050, while global cities will grow by 94%. It’s possible to read these statics and assume that urbanization in Africa will mean a mass of people moving in to the traditional economic centers and burdening these cities that are already struggling under the weight of poverty, scarce resources and inadequate and inefficient infrastructure. While this will undoubtedly continue to be the case, there are factors at work that suggest the picture of urbanized Africa is more nuanced.
Interestingly, the most rapid growth is expected to be in cities in the middle of the continent, such as Lagos and Kinshasa instead of in North African countries or South Africa, which were traditionally the destinations for job-seeking migrants. Much of the economic growth in these regions will be driven by the development of natural resources.
It is no secret that many African countries are rich in natural resources, and minerals in particular, but political instability and a lack of critical infrastructure have historically restricted foreign investment and development. Investors have often been content to limit their large-scale mining ventures to South Africa. However after widespread strikes at mines in South Africa in 2012, many companies have reduced their exposure to that country and investing in other locations such as Ghana, Guinea, Mali and even Ethiopia, which suddenly appear comparatively stable.
As mines are finally developed, and concentrated settlements emerge, roads also must be built to transport the minerals to ports. This in turn creates further economic activities in these centers and drives urbanization. The development of roads alone has important implications for economic development. Calestous Juma, a Harvard professor, points out that people who do not live within close proximity to all-weather roads are not capable of participating in any meaningful entrepreneurial activities. In Kenya, for example, only about 32% of the rural people live within two kilometers of an all-weather road. For Ethiopia that figure is only 10.5%.
With additional investment and economic development comes a growing middle class desiring better living conditions, which are often in the form of more sustainable urban developments. Such developments are becoming more common. One prominent example that has received attention is Tatu City in Greater Nairobi, a planned work-live-play community by a development group planning similar such projects throughout Africa. At the other end of the spectrum, and receiving significant acclaim, the renewal of derelict spaces in Johannesburg is creating instances of more sustainable urban housing.
For much of the continent, urbanization will continue to mean massive slums amidst the same places much of the world expects to hear of. The limited examples of economic development, urban renewal and green-field smart cities presented here, however, show that the story behind the numbers will be more complex and that the future of African cities may look markedly different than many people anticipate.