Discover more from The Global Prosperity Institute
A Shining City on a Hill
The story of the 21st century will be the story of African urbanisation
Rama, Edbily, and Majaliwa were three friends with big dreams. While they had basic employment working in a tree nursery in rural Tanzania, like many young people in their 20s, the lure of the big city was eventually too strong. They quit their jobs, packed their bags, and headed to Dar es Salaam, one of the world's fastest growing cities, to try their luck and seek their fortune. They were not alone. Between 2015 and 2020 African cities added ~115M people. That’s almost the entire population of Japan upping sticks and moving to the city. And between now and 2030 another ~144M people will join them.
Cities attract, and then create, talent. They are the most productive parts of countries and an engine for economic growth; globally, just over half of the world’s population lives in cities but cities generate 80% of global GDP. Wages are higher and opportunities are more plentiful. In fact, people regularly underestimate the wage premium they can earn by moving to a city. Of course, life there can also be no picnic. Slums and other informal settlements can be tough places to live, and costs are generally higher which can be a tough for newly arrived migrants. But if broad based sustainable economic growth is to be achieved at a level which lifts millions out of poverty, urban centres will be its engine. However, if the challenges of urbanisation are left unattended to, this engine can splutter. Manilla, one of the fastest growing global cities in 2010-2020, was losing an estimated US$70 million per day due to congestion in 2017. African cities which are on average poorer than their friends in the Asia Pacific region can not afford to let this money burn up out of the tailpipes of gridlocked cars.
A shining mega-city upon many hills…
There are currently three megacities on the African continent: Cairo, Kinshasa and Lagos. None of these three are in the largest 10 cities in the world. But by 2050 Africa will be home to seven megacities with Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Khartoum, Luanda joining the aforementioned swollen trio. Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Kinshasa, Lagos and Khartoum are set to be the five fastest growing large cities in the world during this period with an average population increase of 93%. Many secondary cities in the developing world are projected to grow even faster. The story of the 21st century will be the story of African urbanization.
Previous periods of mass migration to cities have lead to huge increases in material well-being. In China an estimated 800M were lifted out of poverty as industrialisation, powered by tapping the deep pool of reserve labour in inland rural areas, boomed in the coastal urban centres. Governments across Africa, the last continent yet to urbanise, will be eyeing off a similar trajectory for their people.
This will not be easy and African governments won’t get this chance again; countries only urbanise once. Environmental damage can be hard to repair, cultural artifacts once gone are gone forever, jobs and industries that employ the 10s of 1000s of rural migrants are thin on the ground, and densely packed urban populations with large numbers of underemployed young people tend to protest. Luckily, as the famous sociologist Lisa Simpson tells us, a crisis can also be the seed of opportunity.
A great city is not to be confounded with a populus one…
Few countries would choose to be the last to reap the benefits of urban populations. However, it does give the governments of sub-saharan Africa the chance to potentially avoid some of the downsides of rapid urbanisation, but still create the conditions for economic growth.
The effects of climate change are already being felt across African agriculture. For many already flood prone cities such as Lagos, Dakar, Beria or even landlocked Ouagadougou, climate change will mean greater storm surges and heavy rainfall. As they grow, these cities and others should be incorporating the ideas behind Sponge Cities. This approach, whilst heavy on forward planning is light on the wallet, requiring a reduced number of expensive seawalls and large cisterns and more green roofs and preservation of riparian strips along natural water courses. Even without the avoided costs of future floods, sponge cities will save governments money.
The balance between development and conservation can be a tough one to find. But having a clear regulatory framework ahead of time would surely help. Many historical neighbourhoods and landmarks have been lost to the zeal of the bulldozer’s blade. The demolition of Penn Station in New York is widely seen as the catalyst for the architectural preservation movement in the United States. Cities with historic neighborhoods such as Mombasa’s Old Town or Accra’s Osu district need to be having the tough and contested conversations now about what sort of city they want in 50 years. Not everything is of equal historical value, but it is much easier to argue for the things that are when the bulldozers aren’t parked outside. Through inclusive planning with historians, architects, and most importantly communities, governments can have the hard discussions now about what to preserve and what to let go so that development rules are clear and projects will not be held up once undertaken.
One in three urban residents currently live in informal settlements or slums. Cities attract rural migrants and their first homes will often be in these cheaper parts of town. However, planning to make cities more inclusive as they grow will help reduce the total number of people living in these areas and reduce the time people stay there before moving on. Spatial inclusion; access to sufficient essential infrastructure such as water and sanitation, social inclusion; ensuring to political representation and equal rights, and economic inclusion; creating jobs or easy linkages to jobs should be front of mind for urban planners in the developing world. Efforts in Cameroon and Buenos Aires are an attempt to redress historical or ingrained urban inequalities.
Of our three intrepid young Tanzanians who chased their dreams in Dar es Salaam, Majaliwa returned to his home town whilst the other two continue to forge new lives on the edges of the city. Interestingly Majaliwa had the highest level of education but choose to return to his job managing the tree nursery. After six months without formal work suited to his skills, he decided his life opportunities were better in his small home town. Making cities work for the aspirational youth will power faster economic growth on a national level. Governments should be looking to invest in the cities they need in 40 years and not the ones they have now. This means viewing rail and urban transportation networks, ports and stormwater drains, and power plants and climate smart buildings as opportunities to save money over a generational investment horizon. Easier said than done for resource constrained governments but the returns to these investments far outstrip the costs. A historic crisi-tunity indeed.