As Africa's cities empty for the holidays, what Addis, Johannesburg and Dakar reveal about how to make them better

One third of cities built in Africa haven't been a success. In Ho Chi Minh city 23% of the land is industrial and commercial – Kigali has only 0.9%

AS city folks take their Christmas and New Year in their thousands, the streets of Africa’s cities are beginning to slide into in an eerie silence. It won’t last; in less than a week the madness will be back in full swing.

But this emptiness is often a good time to reflect on the meaning of our cities, and how they can be made to work better.

Discussing Africa’s urban transition at the recent Africities summit, it became clear that Africa needed to form its own transformative path – but that the path needs to build cities that work.

Paul Collier, a Professor of economics and public policy at Oxford University, said that “one third of cities built in Africa so far have not been a success.” Addressing a session on urban transitions at the Africities summit, he did however say that “in the remaining two-thirds we can get it right.”

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, a Senior Director at the World Bank, explained that three pillars are enough to make Africa’s cities work; jobs, housing and infrastructure.

Currently, Africa’s cities are growing but at lower income levels - manufacturing is declining and the population is sprawling away from the central business districts.

This makes it difficult for job creation. Jobs will pop up in a city where there exists commerce and industry – but in the case of many African cities there is a lack of commercial and industrial land in the city centres. In Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam for example, 23% of the land is industrial and commercial – while Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, has 0.9%.

Most jobs informal

Also, 60% of urban jobs in Africa are informal and there is a need to move people into higher productivity, manufacturing jobs – because a city will thrive when people have good jobs, not just barely surviving day to day on petty trading.

South African Tourism promotes Johannesburg gay pride event, making the point that it’s a sophisticated liberal city. (Photo/SAT/Flickr).

When looking at how people get to their jobs, the infrastructural shortcomings are evident. In Nairobi, Kenya, for example, 70% of people walk or take a matatu (public mini-bus) to work – yet only 8% of those walking and 14% of those taking a matatu can reach their jobs within an hour. This is a loss of opportunities. According to Vasquez, a city that works has infrastructure that allows you to reach jobs within an hour of commute.

Clearly succeeding in achieving one, let alone all three, of the pillars requires policy level interventions at all levels of government and increased financing to support reforms. 

So what strategies are cities using to try to “make it work?”

In an exclusive interview with Mail & Guardian Africa, the Mayor of Johannesburg, Mpho Franklyn Parks Tau, said that “we have to accept the reality, that there are people on the lower scale of trading and we need to ensure that they have access to the appropriate amenities, opportunities and support systems from government.” 

To this end he described how the local government responded in “providing facilities that range from storage to trading facilities so that we are able to enable the informal economy to be a part of Johannesburg”. 

Other cities across Africa have also sought to regulate this relationship. 

Dakar’s case

Dakar’s deputy mayor, Cheikh Gueye, explained at the Africities summit that Senegal has a very developed informal sector - accounting for 32.6% of the GDP in 2010. The city created geographic zones for commercial activities, allowing the city centre to recover an administrative function since “street trading can be an obstacle to urban movement.” Anne Diouf, a representative from the Association of informal traders in Dakar vouched for this process. 

In the case of one of the city’ commercial centres, which was launched in October, the traders chose the land themselves. They used an informal contractor and 2,000 traders already registered and ready to trade. It will eventually give a premises to 3,800 street traders who will be formally incorporated into the city’s economy. 

A performance outside the Goethe Institute in Dakar: The hardware of a city is important, but among the things that makes it a social success is the culture. (Photo/Goethe Institute/Flickr).

Monrovia’s Mayor, Clara Mvogo, described a different approach. In Monrovia petty street traders make up half of those doing business in informal sectors so they set up a memorandum of understanding with the National Petty Traders’ Union of Liberia. Specific zones and streets, at certain hours, are “given to informal sectors” to avoid police harassment. The traders are also members who pay taxes, giving them a voice and recognition. 

5 storeys

When looking at infrastructure it’s vital to get transport links into cities - initiatives such as bus lanes and light railway to move the masses, because currently the typical African city is one big private traffic jam. There also needs to be high density building that is liveable. Collier explained that in Africa’s context this is best served be a 5 storey apartment building, the cheapest build per unit - higher than 5 lifts are needed, lower than 5 and it won’t cover the costs of foundations and land. 

The city that is a star performer in these reforms is the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. The city has launched a light-rail system, which has a capacity of 60,000 passengers per hours, and erected housing estates which are close to amenities. The local government even assists low-income earners in the purchasing of affordable housing. 

These urban development projects also offer opportunities for work; in Addis more than 95,000 jobs were created in the cobblestone paving of streets whilst in Nouakchott, Mauritania, the informal settlement upgrading of 40,000 houses resulted in 4-5 jobs per unit.  

Resource collection

The key factor in making this all possible is a sustainable source of money. From the Africities 2015 summit it was clear that more debates were needed with regards to the creation of a fiscal system that would underpin a local government system, though a key message was that there had to be predictable transfers by the government and that local government also had to generate their own resources. 

In Arusha, Tanzania, a geographic information system is used to ensure that all properties – commercial, residential and others – are mapped and assessed for their tax revenue potential. The ability to recognise tenure of property is an important mechanism in raising local revenue through property tax. 

A key issue in tax collection are often delays and constraints in collecting them. In Arusha the city uses technology instead of old paper and cash-based systems. This more transparent (a key factor in ensuring more accountability at local levels) and convenient means of payment has seen Arusha’s own source revenue collection increased by 76% in 15 months and they were able to self-finance 90% of the annual development projects in the city.

Though Africa’s cities face huge and complex challenges, there are many cases which show how local governments have developed their own innovative ways of coping, dealing and thriving. These cases are just a few of many, demonstrating just how far Africa’s systems can come in a short space of time. 

Article from our “Insida Urban Africa” ebook, a comprehensive look at Africa’s urbanisation story

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