Urbanization in Africa

By Anonymous

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.

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2 thoughts on “Urbanization in Africa

  1. The author accurately points out that most African states will continue to disproportionately large levels of population growth over the coming century. Accommodating this meteoric growth will have several important implications in the African context.

    Infrastructure investment cost savings: Connecting 95 million Ethiopians to adequate sanitation systems is much more cost-effective when they’re clustered in a handful of key urban agglomerations, rather than 1.1 million km2 of rural territory. Similarly, governments can provide other basic services more efficiently in denser environments. Adequately anticipating and planning for this increased urbanization is difficult given resource constraints but will only further enhance these cost savings.

    Regional infrastructure schemes: Electricity generation and water delivery are two critical areas where regional schemes could deliver significantly lowered investment costs. Generation schemes such as the Desertec solar system in North Africa or the Inga X dam in the DRC, combined with regional power grids such as the West Africa Power Pool, could deliver inexpensive and renewable power to the entire subcontinent and beyond, an area that currently suffers from 26% access rates. The commenter’s reply also accurately highlights the importance of transit infrastructure and regional highway systems as ways to connect burgeoning economic regions and further facilitate growth.

    As Professor Macomber noted, the financing component will remain a key impediment for growth and project delivery for many sovereign and sub-national governments. Any efficiencies that can be wrought through greater planning and regional investment will go a long ways in helping shape better, sustainable African cities.

  2. I think the central premise made here–that African cities will grow in a particular way reflective of their unique cultural, economic, and political realities–is exactly right. Over the coming decades, African cities are poised to see disproportionate growth, because the global trend of urbanisation is exacerbated here by a massive reservoir of rural population observable in most sub-Saharan nations.

    In fact, one might say that it is this rural population reality that will characterise the African urbanisation story more than anything else. For example, the countries that lack the most rural infrastructure are incidentally the same nations with the highest percentage of rural populations. Professor Juma’s citation that only 10% of rural Ethiopians live near an all-weather road is doubly coloured by the fact that 83% of Ethiopians today live outside of cities.

    As macroeconomic trends lead to urbanization in Africa to the level described in the previously-referenced KMPG report, nations with very little rural capacity such as Zambia or Ethiopia might see a much higher level of concentration in their urban growth patterns. Given the highly entrepreneurial nature of Africans as Juba describes, the degree of urbanisation overall will occur regardless of (or perhaps even in response to) a lack of rural infrastructure; but the choices for economic relocation become much more limited, as most secondary cities and towns are highly competitively disadvantaged. This in turn places massive strain on certain singular cities to absorb vast numbers of rural migrants–exacerbating the difficult proposition they already face in terms of capacity.

    Surely understanding the nature and scale of rural-urban migration will be a key determinant in the future of African cities–and nations.

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