Africa's urbanisation defies all the old rules, as the continent does things its way

Africa's urban population will double in 25 years, and it will have a slum prevalence level of 61%.

COMING OUT of the conversations at the Africities summit it is clear that the African reality requires a new way of thinking to do with the transformation and growth of its cities.

These urban realities include a population that will double in 25 years, a slum prevalence level of 61% (higher than any other region in the world),  a labour force where 63% are in vulnerable employment, where congestion can equate to 2% of a country’s economy and where 400million more people will need water connections in the next 20 years.  

In a session on Africa’s priorities for a new urban agenda, Banji Oyelaran-Oyeyinka, Director of the Monitoring and Research Division at UN-HABITAT, explained how Africa has “defied conventional wisdom”. 

This is a form of urbanisation that doesn’t fit into the old paradigms of urban development. In Europe or the US, for example, people were pulled to cities by factory jobs, but in the case of Africa, people are being pushed out of rural areas that lack basic services and jobs, into cities which are simply not ready for them and where they don’t move into productive manufacturing or industrial sectors, but instead transitioning into service sectors that are low productivity. 

Next year at Habitat III, the United Nations conference on housing and sustainable urban development, countries will have the opportunity to discuss a “New Urban Agenda” that will focus on policies and strategies that can result in effectively harnessing the power and forces behind urbanisation.

Because of the unique challenges that the continent faces, African ministers of housing and urban development have put together a common African position for the conference, the first region in the world to do this.

The draft position is based on an agenda of 8 pillars which, amongst other things, pursue strong urban planning, the reallocation of economic activity away from the least productive sectors of the economy to more productive ones, and promotes inclusive and sustainable growth. 

No “right way”

But not everyone has the same vision in mind, because of the unconventional nature of some of Africa’s challenges and the massively different histories and economic realities from country to country, there is no clear blue-print for all cities on the “right” way. 

This could even be seen in the conversations that have taken place.

One example is the debate on the informal sector. Oyelaran-Oyeyinka said that he “[does not] glorify informal economies. It’s good for the short term, but we need to look to long term and what urbanisation is able to do through the creation of industrial processes and service sectors that have high productivity”. 

However, more than 90% of growth in African cities is informal and informality contributes to 55% of economic value in Africa today. So some cities are implementing open and alternative solutions which support the informal sector, working closely with petty traders’ unions as has happened in Monrovia, Liberia, and in Dakar, Senegal. Transforming them into more organised, taxable groups. 

There were also conflicting conversations around the type of financing cities should be looking for. 

UN-HABITAT for example has launched a new and ground-breaking programme for directing foreign direct investment (FDI) towards cities in cooperation with the AfDB, DfID, Erasmus University, Oxford Economics, NKC African Economics,UCLGA and Witswatersrand University. 

The overall aim of the programme is to inform cities and investors alike which particular sectors of the economy should be pursued to make best use of cities’ local advantages and what location factors need to be improved. 

The research is expected to increase foreign direct investment flows into and among African nations and to improve African cities’ economic performance and make inroads into urban unemployment and poverty.

On the other hand there were also sceptics of the push for FDI. 

Rich vs poor housing 

Participants at the summit raised issues concerning the quality of FDI and whether investors would not focus on priorities or only focus on one area, one class of people - pouring money into building expensive housing within gated communities as opposed to building low income housing for the huge number of migrants - considering that Africa’s urbanisation is happening at the low income levels. 

Though it can be argued that this is more of a governance issue - as pointed out by Edlam Yemeru of Uneca, in Addis, Ethiopia, the government ensures that investment at the local level is balanced. 

Nevertheless, these debates will rage on - because Africa’s urban development will not be a one-size-fits-all model. However, the common African position gives hope that these guidelines will help governments to frame the region’s priorities in the context of a new agenda that will define global priorities on housing and sustainable urban development for two decades from 2016 onwards.


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