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An aerial view of Nairobi.

An aerial view of Kenya's capital Nairobi.

Africa’s Future Will Be Decided in its Cities

Blog Joint Futures 33, 08.12.2023

Africa is urbanising at an unprecedented pace and scale. Despite all the challenges, urbanisation represents a unique opportunity for the structural transformation and development of the continent – if the right measures are taken and supported in time, writes Michael Roll (IDOS).

With annual population increases of 7 per cent, Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, has become the fastest-growing city in Africa in the past 20 years. A population of a mere 880,000 people at the turn of the millennium will have grown to more than 5 million by 2030. Abuja thus embodies the continental trend: Africa is urbanising at an historically unprecedented pace and scale. The world’s 10 fastest-growing cities are all in Africa, and the urban population will increase by around 900 million people by 2050, thereby nearly tripling. And two-thirds of the African cities that will exist in 2050 have yet to be built.

Since more than half of the residents in most African cities currently live in informal settlements with limited access to basic services and jobs, this rapid urbanisation is a daunting scenario. However, the positive social and economic effects from Africa’s urbanisation in the past decades are often overlooked. They offer insights into the opportunities and necessary steps needed to make Africa’s future urbanisation a success.

The overlooked successes of Africa’s urbanisation

Based on the most comprehensive analysis of Africa’s urbanisation, the report “Africa’s Urbanisation Dynamics 2022” provides a new, more positive understanding of urbanisation on the continent during the period between 1990 and 2020. Compared to rural regions, cities offer significantly better living conditions, especially regarding job opportunities and higher wages, but also better public and private services. Although larger cities are better off overall, the conditions in small and medium-sized cities are much better than in rural regions. These advantages that cities enjoy over rural regions have been maintained, despite a tripling of the urban population since 1990. The underlying expansion of urban infrastructure, services and economic opportunities to the approximately 500 million new urban dwellers during this period is, for all its shortcomings, an often overlooked achievement.

Urban population growth has also directly contributed to the economic growth of African countries through economic agglomeration effects. Almost one-third of Africa’s average annual per capita growth since 2001 can be attributed to this alone. In rural areas, too, urbanisation has improved income opportunities and living conditions by creating rural–urban value chains, especially around smaller cities. City clusters also promote trade and growth.

Despite these positive developments, many African cities are characterised by high levels of inequality, poverty and an insufficient number of formal and well-paid jobs, all of which has been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. These factors are related to the biggest weakness of the urbanisation process in Africa so far: urbanisation without structural economic transformation. Increased productivity, diversification, and thus growth in manufacturing and higher-value services, which lead to significantly more and better-paid jobs, have mostly failed to materialise. However, for the successful urbanisation of the continent, such a structural transformation is necessary.

Africa’s urban future as historic opportunity

There are two scenarios that can help with imagining the possible changes to Africa’s cities through urbanisation over the next two and a half decades. In the first scenario, the growth and emergence of cities is largely unregulated and without sufficient investment. This would exacerbate already existing urban problems. Inequality would be even more extreme in 2050, with extraordinarily rich residential and business districts being separated from the rest of the city, including the poorer neighbourhoods where the majority of the city’s residents live. These neighbourhoods would sprawl much further into the urban periphery than they already do now, housing standards would remain low as costs rise, public services would be almost non-existent, traffic jams would become even longer than they already are and insecurity would increase. People would also suffer more from the increasing effects of climate change, such as floods and life-threatening heatwaves. These living conditions could lead to political instability and increased migration to neighbouring countries and beyond.

In the second scenario, urbanisation would be planned in advance and supported through public and private investments. A structural economic transformation with a growing manufacturing sector and higher-value services could create many jobs and improve living conditions. These cities would stimulate economic growth in rural areas as well, and local revenue would finance the expansion of urban infrastructure and public services adapted to climate change. Political stability would be more likely and migration pressures would decrease.

These extreme scenarios show the range of possible developments over the next two and a half decades. Some structural conditions favourable to the successful governance of urbanisation include the fact that Africa has by far the youngest population, the increasing availability of alternative energy sources, digitalisation and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

What to do

Whether Africa’s urbanisation will be a success or not depends on how it is governed in the coming years. But time is running out – cities grow and develop, creating material structures every day that limit the room for manoeuvre. For example, one of the decisive factors for the economic performance and climate impact of a city is its agglomeration. Simply put, a high density strengthens economic performance and reduces climate damage. Uncontrolled urbanisation, on the other hand, leads to urban sprawl. This is not only harmful to the climate in itself, but subsequent adjustments to the infrastructure are much more expensive and often politically challenging to enforce. Therefore, with every year that urbanisation proceeds without proactive governance, the negative scenario described above becomes more likely.

African and international organisations, think tanks and academics have developed recommendations for governing Africa’s urbanisation. There are four key aspects:

  • Governance: The role of cities and local governments in national development planning should be significantly upgraded. In a multi-level approach, they should be understood and supported as central, independent actors of economic and social development. Small cities in particular, which have a strong impact on rural areas, have an important role to play. More local autonomy, revenues, and the use of participatory and experimental formats such as “urban labs” are important to promote local embeddedness and innovation.
  • Planning: Due to the diversity of cities, planning should be based on local urban characteristics and potentials. Western planning paradigms should be questioned, and locally appropriate approaches and resources should be prioritised. For example, cooperatives and religious organisations play a major role in the provision of housing and infrastructure in many African cities. The inclusion of women and disadvantaged groups as well as the consideration of nature-based solutions are of particular importance.
  • Financing and investment: Based on the calculations for selected countries, the resources needed to finance the climate-friendly growth and construction of new cities in Africa until 2050 amount to trillions of euros and cannot possibly be raised by African countries alone. Public and private as well as national and international investments are needed, while at the same time cities need to increase own-source revenues, which are comparatively low in Africa.
  • Infrastructure and services: The proactive provision of urban infrastructure and services is the most important and most cost-effective lever to positively influence the productivity of cities as well as their climate impact. In addition to secure land tenure, electricity and transport routes, this includes education and health care, affordable housing and social protection systems, which increase productivity and quality of life.  

Apart from the people and countries most directly affected on the African continent, the consequences of successful or failed urbanisation in the coming decades will also be felt in Europe. It is therefore in Europe’s and Germany’s interests to more systematically and comprehensively support the proactive governance of urbanisation in Africa. One new approach for doing that would be Just Urban Transformation Partnerships (JUTPs), based on the model of the Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETPs). JUTPs would be multilateral, multi-actor cooperation and investment agreements in which a group of countries would work with national governments, including relevant national actors such as the Ministry of Urban Development and the Association of Cities or Mayors’ Forums, for example, and selected cities as well as local governmental, non-governmental and private-sector stakeholders. JUTPs would complement the cooperation of national governments with a more territorial approach. Germany could also build on existing city partnerships and its longstanding engagement in decentralisation processes. Another possibility would be to support international city networks more strongly (“urban diplomacy”). There are many potential approaches for collaborating on urbanisation. First of all, however, actors need to realise what a unique opportunity Africa’s urbanisation presents for the continent’s structural transformation and development.

Michael Roll is a researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS). He currently works on the governance of urban sustainability transformations in the Transformative Urban Coalitions (TUC) project.

Responsibility for the content, opinions expressed and sources used in the articles and interviews lies with the respective authors.