Since The Economist declared Africa “the hopeless continent” a decade ago, profound change has taken hold. The authoritative weekly has flip-flopped and now believes that Africa’s lion economies are on the prowl. McKinsey Global Institute, a business think tank, shows that sub-Saharan Africa’s real GDP growth rate jumped to an annual average of 5.7%, up from only 2.4% over the previous two decades.
But there is another dimension to the African saga. The continent’s population is set hit 2 billion over the next four decades. Such doubling will transform irreversibly, Africa’s demographic structure. Africa’s extra people will likely flock the cities. Today 40% of Africans are city dwellers, up from 30% a generation ago. By 2025 the number is likely to be over 50%. We will end this century as homo urbanus.
According to a notable think tank, Monitor Group, Africa’s growth is inextricable bound to competitive clusters based in cities rather than to nation states. Cities generate most of Africa’s wealth. For instance, Nairobi employs 23% of Kenyans who generate 45 % of Kenya’s GDP. In contrast, Agriculture employs nearly 70 % of the population who contribute 29% of national GDP. The urbanization dividend is real.
Although African cities have become a potent magnet for millions of ex-rural folk, urbanization’s welcome association with increased prosperity has turned in a tale of woe. Mismanagement of Africa’s rapid urbanization has led to a proliferation of slums. Informal housing, insecure tenure and lack of access to water and sanitation characterize Africa’s slum settlements.
Located just 5 kilometers from the leafy and sunny allure of Nairobi’s city centre is Africa’s most charismatic slum, Kibera. It is home to hundreds of thousands of families who live in numbing squalor; no water and sanitation, residents pay to use the few communal toilets. When it rains raw sewage drenches the neighborhood. Wet or dry, Kibera stinks. Recent estimates show that over 60 per cent of Nairobi’s residents live in places like Kibera. At the national level between 30 and 40 per cent of Kenya’s urban population live in slums.
Slums are a testament to the failure of Kenya’s political and policy elite to come to terms with the material realities of urbanization, especially its infrastructure, service and human well-being imperatives. There is little acknowledgement that a weak economic base, rapid population growth over last 40 years, collapse or rural economy, high levels of income inequality and a lack of affordable stocks of quality land and housing creates a fertile substrate for slum proliferation.
But slums are also the hallmark of incredible social response by the poor to catastrophic political, policy, and market failure. For the poor, nothing is expected from the state. Nothing is anticipated from the formal private market. In slums, poor urban residents club together in various assemblages, leveraging social capital and ingenuity to stretch their meager incomes.
Places like Kibera are not fetid ghettos of discontent. They are a furnace of white heat of resolve and indomitable entrepreneurship. The narrow and squalid street corners of slums are a complex interchange of retail and services – one-chair
barbershops and three-bench bars interspersed with racks of used clothes and stalls of groceries. For hundreds of thousands of families, life in the slums is an opportunity to partake of the humblest yet most grace-filled benediction; an opportunity, through hard work, to join the ranks of the urban working class or to start a business.
At the risk of simplifying a complex problem, I suggest two approaches to dealing with slum urbanism. First, we must urgently invest in growth priming urban infrastructure like water, sanitation, energy, recreational parks, public transportation, education, health, security and equitable housing.
Growth-stimulating investments inevitably catalyze larger processes of economic development, which raise property values, attract capital investment, create high quality jobs and increase asset and revenue tax base of cities. Cities could recoup their investment through tax revenues, which can fund systematic and sustained in situ slum upgrading. Furthermore, tax revenues accruing to city governments could underwrite a stable market of affordable stock of housing and land for the low-income urban households. This approach depends on appropriate governance reform, which includes decentralization of authority, fiscal control and accountability to cities.
Second, we must slow down rural-urban migration to manageable levels by improving conditions in the countryside. This means more than providing basic social services like education and healthcare for children. It means using tax and infrastructure incentives to encourage industrial and service sector investment in small towns rather than just in large cities like Nairobi and Mombasa.
The easy solution is to bulldoze slums out of existence. More importantly, families who lose what little they have invested in housing are not richer as result of the demolition, but poorer, as is the city itself.