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Growth Beyond the Capital: Understanding Africa’s Secondary Cities

Megatrends spotlight 33, 18.06.2024

Secondary cities in Africa are increasingly central to discussions on urbanisation. At the same time, capital cities maintain their economic and political significance. In this Megatrends Afrika Spotlight, Lena Gutheil and Sina Schlimmer argue for policies that address the complementarity of both city categories.

Over the past decade, researchers and policy-makers have increasingly highlighted the role of secondary cities in Africa’s broader urbanisation trends. This is mostly based on demographic facts: secondary and intermediate urban agglomerations are the continent’s fastest growing cities. With annual population growth rates reaching up to 9 per cent, intermediate cities reflect rapidly transforming territories. The demographic trends have led some experts to conclude that secondary cities are “Africa’s next big investment opportunity”.

But there are also other opportunities associated with secondary cities. As their territory and governance structures are not yet as developed as those of megacities, policy analysts assume that there is still room to conduct appropriate urban planning, for example, by adopting more inclusive and participatory approaches. This is also because secondary cities usually have more land available for urban development. In addition, as secondary cities become more attractive destinations, the policy community expects them to reduce some of the migration pressure on megacities.

What is striking about the renewed interest in secondary urban agglomerations is that it shifts the focus away from Africa’s political and economic capital cities, such as Dakar, Nairobi and Lagos. In this spotlight, we critically assess this increasing interest in secondary cities by first looking at the different meanings and definitions of this city category. We argue that secondary cities are best understood by functionality and not by demographic characteristics.

Secondary cities’ functions differ from those of capital cities, yet their development cannot be planned in isolation. Hence, urban policies should not overemphasise one city category or another, but rather offer a holistic approach, taking into consideration interactions and complementarities.

The Politics of Categorizing Cities

Apart from the fact that secondary cities are growing faster than capital cities, there is little consensus on how to define them. In essence, they are defined by what they are not: the terms “secondary city” and “second-tier city” are mostly deployed to refer to larger cities that are not the economic or political capital.

As the term implies, secondary cities are part of a hierarchical classification of cities, which is mostly determined by population size or density and by functions or other administrative or historical factors. According to UN-Habitat, a secondary city comprises 100,000 to 500,000 inhabitants. This definition originated in the 1950s; it is questionable to what extent it is still applicable today. Secondary cities’ population sizes differ vastly from one country to another. China and Nigeria’s secondary cities, for instance, host several million people, whereas secondary cities in Djibouti have fewer than 50,000 inhabitants.

The term “medium-sized city” refers to the demographic variable, while “intermediate cities” are also characterised by their geographical position, history, or economic and social characteristics. Intermediate cities often play specific roles within the broader urban network, for example, as economic and administrative nodes between bigger cities and the rural hinterland. The term “intermediation” also stresses the interaction between a given city and its surrounding immediate and remote environment, which is similarly reflected in the term“ urban middle ground”. More nuanced functional classifications, based on spatial characteristics, define specific types of cities, such as subnational urban centres, metropolitan clustered cities and corridor secondary cities.

While the fuzziness of these denominators makes city classifications appear random, they tend to have serious political implications. When agglomerations of villages are officially transformed into urban zones by becoming a municipality or joining a metropolitan region, governance arrangements shift. These processes involve institution building and political power shifts, which in turn create fertile ground for competition and overlapping responsibilities. Research from the Democratic Republic of Congo shows how the process of transformation from village to town has incited violence. In the case of metropolitan mergers, research from South Africa indicates that not all merged municipalities benefit in terms of service delivery or political representation.

Competition happens not only between administrative layers, but also between cities, especially when it comes to attracting national resources. Even in decentralised contexts, municipalities mostly lack the capacity to generate their own financial resources and depend on often irregular and unpredictable transfers from the national government. 

Capital Cities Host Most Inhabitants, Yet Secondary Cities Grow the Fastest

Despite their rapid demographic growth, secondary cities are no stand-alone category and need to be understood as part of broader urban dynamics. For example, if we look at the distribution of the urban population, African metropolises still stand out: in more than half of all African countries, 30 per cent of the urban population lives in the largest city.

In terms of the number of cities, the overwhelming majority (91%) of all urban agglomerations in Africa have fewer than 100,000 inhabitants. At the same time, these 91 per cent of agglomerations only host 31 per cent of the urban population (see infographic).

If we look at annual growth rates, smaller and mid-sized cities are the ones that grow fastest. Smaller cities can easily double their population in 10 years. This is due to natural population growth as well as rural-urban migration. Metropolitan areas have already experienced their major growth, but this does not mean that they take a back seat in terms of absolute numbers. Big cities count the largest number of newcomers per year in absolute terms. For instance, Kinshasa received on average 410,000 new residents each year between 2000 and 2020. In sum, while secondary cities have higher urban growth rates, capital cities continue to attract a significant part of the urban population.

Hence, in order to formulate meaningful and fit-for-purpose approaches, national and local policy-makers need to lay a conceptual groundwork, using appropriate and clear definitions of different city categories that correspond to the demographic, social and economic realities of their urban network on the ground. At the same time, they need to address the interrelations between cities of different sizes.

Towards Holistic Urban Policies

Secondary cities in Africa have functions that are different than and sometimes complementary to those of capital cities, but secondary cities should be understood as part of a broader urban and economic network.

Metropolitan regions are responsible for much of Africa’s economic growth and serve as export hubs for national supply chains. Secondary cities on the other hand act as distribution and logistics centres for metropolitan regions and depend on imported consumer goods and services. Some of these cities export agricultural products or natural resources, others only act as administrative centres for the surrounding villages. Thus, they contribute differently to the national economy, while interacting with and relying on each other.

These interrelations are reflected in the rural-urban continuum: urban and rural areas are socially and economically intertwined, especially through people and goods that move between cities and the rural environment. It is in rural and peri-urban areas that stretch from urban centres up to the rural periphery, where small agglomerations transform into secondary cities.

For secondary cities to thrive, they need to develop specific economic profiles in relation to metropolitan areas: they need to invest in value-adding to production and develop inter-regional links and improve connectivity. This requires not only the development of physical and social infrastructure, but also national urban policies that address the urban network as a whole while tapping into the complementarity of the different categories of cities.

Only a few African countries, such as Morocco, Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda, have designed national urban policies that specifically address the development of secondary cities. Rwanda and Senegal both have a high degree of urban primacy (demographic concentration in one or two cities) and stand out in having developed specific policies for the priority development of selected secondary cities. Rwanda developed a National Roadmap for Green Secondary City Development. The roadmap envisions six priority secondary cities that are going to develop niche economic activities from which surrounding areas are expected to benefit. By 2050 these cities are envisioned to be net zero carbon.

Policies that take into consideration the specificities of secondary cities should also be based on the lessons learnt from the shortcomings of primary city governance, especially in terms of urban planning.

Invest in Decentralised Governance

Cities also need the right institutional environment to implement such ambitious policies. A UCLG assessment of the institutional environment for cities and subnational governments in Africa comes to the conclusion that only 12 out of 53 countries have a favourable or rather favourable environment for their cities and local governments to manage urbanisation and implement the SDGs.

While local democracy has progressed significantly, it is fiscal decentralisation especially that lags behind. Many cities and subnational governments must deal with opaque and erratic transfers and do not have the right to define and collect local taxes and revenues. This leads to a situation in which African cities have the highest spending needs in global comparison but make in fact the lowest investments. Reflections on the governance of a heterogeneous urban network composed of both capital and secondary cities goes hand in hand with the implementation of sound decentralisation reforms.

Providing more data on different types of cities is overdue. However, beyond the renewed interest in secondary cities, African governments need sound urbanisation policies that cater to the system of cities in their specific countries. Here, functional definitions are a better fit for targeted policy-making than rigid demographic classifications.

At the same time, the differing labels should not hide the fact that city classifications come with important political implications. Cities will only be able to address the challenges they face if they create a conducive political and institutional environment.

Dr Lena Gutheil is a Megatrends Afrika researcher and research associate with the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS). Dr Sina Schlimmer is Research Fellow at the Institut français des rélations internationales (Ifri).