Oltremare – African cities: powerful development engines, rather than slums

by Massimo Zaurrini and Gianfranco Belgrano

• The future of Africa will be built in its cities. The growth of its population is being accompanied by a simultaneous growth in its rate of urbanisation: this poses urgent challenges that must be tackled immediately. It is in the cities that Africa’s future - and in many ways that of the rest of the planet too - will be decided... as the 2030 Agenda reminds us, with its SDG 11 goals. The image of rural Africa, with its tissue of villages, huts and dirt roads, will increasingly be replaced by Africa as the epicentre of global urbanisation.

In 2017 Africa passed a significant milestone, when the continent's total urban population passed Europe’s city dwellers. According to the United Nations, in 2017 Africa had 569 million people living in cities, compared to 553 million in Europe and 533 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the next few years, this already rapid growth trend will undergo further acceleration: it is estimated that in Africa the urbanisation rate will reach 50% in 2030, and reach 60% in 2050. By the same year, Africa’s population will be the largest and youngest of any continent in the world. And the number of young people in Africa will be ten times greater than the number of young people in the European Union.

For Africa this process of galloping urbanisation brings both great opportunities and great challenges. According to a study carried out by the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the urbanisation of Africa can become an exceptional driver to power the kind of overall "structural transformation" that will also allow the development of solid and stable rural living conditions.

In order for this to happen, and the phenomenon of African urban growth to become a catalyst for positive energy, it is essential to analyse and deal decisively with both the infrastructural and socio-political aspects, pursued in a context featuring overall sustainability. If we compare the data on total population growth with that on urban populations in many African cities, the urgency of rethinking the role and meaning of current urbanisation models becomes all too obvious.

Ensuring social and environmental sustainability in Africa’s developing cities is one of the key goals to be achieved if urbanisation is to become the positive force for change and improvement that everyone hopes for. The exceptional rapidity of urbanisation rates urgently demands an equally rapid response in terms of economic, social and environmental development.

To respond to the challenges facing Africa, as a prerequisite for collective social welfare "the continent's policies must focus on creating productive jobs and public facilities and services for the growing urban population", indicates the African Development Bank's report.

Among the clearest priorities is greater investment in urban infrastructure, which has completely failed to keep up with the expansion of cities. A third of the infrastructural needs of developing countries concerns urban areas. Across the entire continent, the cost of necessary urban investment is estimated at 30 billion dollars a year, of which 20 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa. At the top of the priority list is the urgent need to develop low-cost housing markets. This is because the construction sector in recent years has practically saturated the middle and upper middle class housing market, while neglecting the less affluent sector. The keystone to reversing this trend lies in the development of financial instruments, loans and mortgages, to enable the lower classes to boost the demand for decent low-price housing, and consequently to reduce the spread of unplanned settlements. This has been demonstrated by experiments in several African nations (e.g. Ethiopia, Kenya and Ghana) facilitating housing for public administration employees. According to the latest report by Un-Habitat, in 2014 56% of the urban population of Sub-Saharan Africa lived in slums. Positive examples of dealing with this phenomenon can be seen in Morocco, Tunisia or Mauritius, where 89% of the population own their own homes.
Another fundamental priority is the creation of public transport systems capable of providing urban and peri-urban mobility, guaranteeing social inclusion and dynamism. The development of road infrastructures and transport connections between cities and their vast surrounding peri-urban areas, known as "urban corridors", would also encourage smoother transitions in the overlap between urban and rural life peculiar to Africa, as classic urban centres spread chaotically outwards. In recent years many African countries have begun to pay increasing attention to the issue of urban and peri-urban public transport: e.g. Ethiopia (with the Addis Ababa surface metro) or Ghana (which has set itself the goal of building 1,200 km of railways to connect urban and rural areas). The speed of Africa’s urbanisation is generated above all by the growth of medium-sized cities and towns (50,000 to 500,000 inhabitants). The closely interconnected continuum of rural areas, villages, towns and cities brings with it the promise of development and growth for both 'poles' of the rural-urban axis. Today 82% of the continent's population lives in this mixed city-country area. The so-called 'intermediate cities' account for 55% of all African urban areas. Improved town planning for the development of intermediate cities and urban corridors is a key tool for tackling the challenges created by the urbanisation process. The interest of many African governments in the development of railway lines and underground lines connecting peripheral areas to urban centres, is driven by the need to ease the pressure of new arrivals on city margins, limiting the proliferation of informal and improvised agglomerations. These transport arteries also make rural areas increasingly attractive from an economic point of view: they enjoy the benefits of a concentrated economy typical of cities, but at the same time they maintain the benefits of lower suburban-model costs.

Another high priority is constructing infrastructures for the energy, water and sanitation sectors. These particular priorities are even more urgent in the light of the menace posed by climate change in Africa, and the direct impact this has on the health and living conditions of whole populations. Then there are the rising health consequences of exposure to the so-called "double air pollution burden”... an expression which describes the deadly health impact of the combination of Atmospheric Air Pollution (AAP) with Home Air Pollution (HAP). From an environmental point of view, sustainable urban development must focus on eco-friendly policy interventions, especially concerning architecture, and the installation of sustainable systems for water management and energy consumption, which today are still mostly based on burning coal and wood in domestic contexts. In this area, there are experiments underway in various areas of the continent (e.g. Senegal and Kenya) on the domestic use of gas (natural and liquid) or the rising use of renewable energy and off-the-grid systems to meet the energy needs both of urban and rural areas. Investments in "greening" measures, and strategic management of waste disposal (preferably through incinerator plants that produce energy) represent two other key priorities in the management of urban issues. A steady improvement in water and sanitation services is taking place in many urban areas of the continent. Examples of significant growth (+ 40%) have come from some of the countries that began with very poor figures (Guinea, Mali, Niger), but more generally, constant and significant improvements have also been recorded in Angola, Cape Verde, the Central African Republic, Mauritania and Tanzania. Angola, in particular, represents an interesting case, both for its infrastructure investments in water and sanitation services and for the decentralisation of these services, frequently operated by autonomous or provincial commercial structures with assistance from the central government.

It is also important to emphasise the role that information and communication technologies (ICT) can play in identifying solutions to many African problems: in this field also, ICT can enable many cities to "leapfrog" their problems, as they already have done in other sectors. The innovative potential of this particular 'Smart City' approach is already visible in many of the continent’s cities, with practical applications that range from infrastructural planning to mobility to the provision of prepaid energy in slums. However, technological innovations are also leading to new initiatives in the services provided to the population, e.g. providing more public information, more participation and more sharing in decisions taken by the authorities, thus turning African cities into citizenship laboratories. Just think of 'conTEXT', the data collection and information service experiment in a slum in Kigali, implemented via an sms exchange platform connecting the city administration with the inhabitants of the pilot project district.

Africa’s new cities can become real engines of development, laboratories for governance and citizenship, stimulating training, innovation and culture in a context of social and economic growth... but only if these things are accompanied by the creation of productive job offers, the provision of public goods and services, and improved planning of links with rural and productive areas.