African Urbanization and its Challenges/Opportunities

Nowhere else is the trend of urbanization more apparent than in Africa. According to the 2001 World Bank Regional report on Africa, by 2025 more than half of the African population will be urban and the urban population will be growing almost twice as fast as the general population. This means that by 2020 (5 years before the “half-way” mark), Africa will have 11 megacities with over 5 million inhabitants, and 59 cities with populations between 1-5 million. This, however, has not contributed to overall GDP growth. When compared to East Asia, which urbanized at a very similar rate (4-5% per annum), Asia’s GDP growth accelerated by 3.7%pa, Sub-Saharan Africa’s declined by .66%. However, there has been a boom in investment (largely Chinese) to boost productivity by building newer modern cities. These projects are now gaining speed in countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda and Angola.

According to the World Bank report, poverty has become an urban issue as years of “immigration of destitute citizens due to wars, drought and famine, [and] difficult transitions from neo-apartheid colonial regimes” have driven millions into the already underdeveloped and overcrowded population centers looking for work, security and some relative stability. This wave of migrants has caught local government’s off-guard as population skyrocketed and basic access to social goods, which was already lacking, has now been stretched past the breaking point. This has led to sprawling slums in some of Africa’s largest cities: Lagos, Brazzaville, Dar-es-Salaam and Nairobi. Using the definition of slums as being “urban settlements that lack basic services such as water and sanitation,” almost half of Africa’s expected 2020 population of 300 million will be living in slums. Going beyond living arrangements, given the current level of investment on even the water infrastructure, the 30% of Africa’s population that was left without access to a safe water supply will grow to 50% by 2020.

This development must remain sustainable as the trending wave of urbanization cannot be stopped. With centralized governments, this sort of intuitive policymaking is very difficult. The World Bank addresses the problems as “opportunities” and brings about some issues that are present in the argument for improved urban planning:

  1. Decentralization of policymaking and investment authority as well as control over local resources. These practices are both unsustainable from both a financial and human capacity viewpoint, as well as promote rent-seeking behavior and prevent the creation of markets that allow the free exchange of land.
  2. Recognition of the undeniable trend of urbanization. Many cities’ planning and land use policies have remained unchanged since independence (as a result of strong central control over lawmaking processes), and the opportunity to recognize and embrace community based, sustainable and innovative strategies to evolve with the rapidly changing demographics that face these crowing polities.

The application of the above recommendations will help to propose and commit to infrastructure and improvement projects that are driven from the bottom-up rather than as a result of political-based decisions made by a city or central government. The population’s shift from rural to urban reinforces the need for cities to remain the primary engine of economic growth for the continent. However, it is important that policies reflect lessons learned from the past and that improvement projects are driven from the bottom, reflecting ownership by local stakeholders in cooperation with effective and autonomous city management. This relationship is critical to allow for the creation of land markets, and the eventual ownership of inner-city property that allows for the private-driven development by formalizing the informal economies that drive life in the inner city slums. The demographic shift in Africa offers the opportunity for governments to embrace decentralized authority, and forward-thinking land-use policies and incentive structures to promote the incorporation of the slums into the national economy.


The World Bank Regional Report


About glacandia

International Relations & Peace and Conflict grad interested in everything from violent non-state actors, reconstruction in conflict zones to health and human services with a little bit of art theft, pirates and hip hop thrown in. Retired artisan baker, avid cyclist and mountain climber. Currently planning my escape...
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