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The potential of East Africa's secondary cities
Harness the rapid growth of East Africa's secondary cities to stimulate economic transformation
Secondary cities are an overlooked key to inclusive economic transformation in East Africa. Governments and development partners need to start thinking on a different scale about secondary cities or they will miss the massive opportunity they present.
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Urbanisation has the power to drive positive economic transformation. Under the right conditions and management, the growth of cities can be the engine of inclusive and sustainable economic progress. Yet it can equally subvert the shape of transformation into an unsustainable and exclusive process that fails to deliver broad-based prosperity.
Historically, urbanisation has reflected structural change in the national economy, with agricultural productivity growth driving growth in manufacturing and subsequent migration into cities. In East Africa, however, rapid urbanisation into primate cities has occurred in the context of stagnant agricultural productivity and low levels of manufacturing. The result has been cities that largely fail to provide their burgeoning populations with either basic services or good jobs.
According to UN estimates the current EAC Member States’ combined urban population in 2050 will be 190 million, up from 50 million in 2018: secondary cities will expand rapidly to absorb the vast majority of these new urban residents across the region. For example, UN DESA (2018) expects Mwanza’s population to more than quadruple in less than a decade, growing from 437,000 in 2021 to 1.793m in 2030. Zanzibar City (Stone Town) is expected to grow from 404,000 to 1.144m in the same period.
In Uganda, an additional 8.1 million people are projected to migrate into cities by 2030, growing the urban population by 69% in a decade. Secondary cities will have to take centre stage. Uganda’s National Physical Development Plan recommends that four key secondary cities grow to at least 1 million inhabitants each in the next two decades. The colossal challenge these cities thus face cannot be understated: they currently contain just 3% (Hoima) to 15% of their target 2040 populations. What’s more, given Uganda’s urban areas already account for a disproportionate share of economic output (urban areas currently account for 70% of GDP but only 24.4% of the population), the management of these secondary cities will become ever more important to the whole country’s prosperity.
But the region’s secondary city municipal governments are woefully ill-prepared to effectively manage rapid growth (often 10-fold in 20 years), let alone become centres of inclusive, sustainable economic transformation. They tend to lack human resource capacity for economic development strategy design and implementation, urban planning, and revenue collection. For example, in 2016 Jinja and Arua, which are expected to grow 5-fold to 9-fold by 2040, had just one city planner each. Secondary cities from across the region frequently lack both strong economic strategies and the capacity to implement them. As the World Bank has identified, the growth of many secondary cities in Tanzania is occurring in the absence of any functioning economic plan. Where plans do exist in these cities, implementation has been poor due to low local capacity. Finally, ideas and approaches for harnessing the exponential growth of East Africa’s secondary cities for economic transformation have largely been externally imposed thus far.
The immense potential of East Africa’s secondary cities must be met with high-capacity local governments that can proactively envision and manage a rapid urban transformation in the coming decades. Rather than placing further strain on already stretched social and physical infrastructure, the forthcoming rapid urbanisation can be harnessed to drive broad-based prosperity. As the experience of East Africa’s primate cities shows, urban population growth will happen with or without economic transformation. There is thus an opportunity now to get out ahead of this growth and shape the future of secondary cities. At their best, secondary cities can become hubs where talent, businesses, and customers meet to create virtuous economic cycles. The development of future-oriented economic transformation strategies and delivery mechanisms now can positively shape the coming growth in secondary cities, ensuring the provision of basic services, boosting productivity, and driving the creation of good jobs.
This is a crosspost of an article published on LinkedIn. It was written by Max Walter (Co-founder & Executive Director of the Centre for Development Alternatives and Senior Industrial Policy Advisor at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change) and Andy Norman (The Global Prosperity Institute).