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Monday, February 27, 2017

Africa’s urban growth inefficient and unsustainable

The pace of urbanization in Africa is bewildering. In 1950, no city in sub-Saharan Africa had a population greater than one million. It is estimated that over 50 cities now have a resident population of over one million.

As a consequence of dizzying population growth, city and municipal authorities are overwhelmed. City leaders are unable to respond with sufficient planning and regulatory tools, as well as services to harness this phenomenal demographic change.

Our cities are drowning in municipal garbage. Nairobi, Kampala and Dar es Salaam are a gridlocked disaster. Commuting in our cities is miserable and expensive. Housing is scant and squalid. It is estimated that about two-thirds of Nairobi’s residents live in just 6 percent of the city’s land. These informal slum neighborhoods lack basic services such as water and sanitation, schools, health and education.

New urban growth is essentially unmanaged, disastrous sprawl. Owing to lack of planning and inefficient land markets, peri-urban neighborhoods have turned into bourgeois slum cities. In Kenya, Kitengela, Ongata Rongai, Ngong Syokimau and Ruiru are perfect examples of bourgeois shantytowns. They lack roads, public schools, open public spaces and sewerage services.

Many of Africa’s youthful urban workers are in the low wage service sector. You see them in food markets, on the street or traffic-choked highways where young men and women weave through dense traffic under the gray cloak of vehicular emission selling chewing gum, water, fruits, car accessories and pornographic videos.

Many young urbanites are low-skilled construction workers. A sizeable proportion of workers in our cities are in the semi-skilled low technology fabrication sector known a jua kali in Kenya. Africa’s urbanites work so hard and so long for so little. Hence, a defining characteristic of Africa’s urbanism is low productivity and low income. A majority of Africa’s urban workers live below the poverty line.

Rapid urbanization has not been accompanied by economic growth. African cities are largely metropolis of concentrated consumption. Our cities are the epicenter of non-tradable goods – public service, big hotels, plush suburbs and fancy retail shops with imported cloths and shoes, and fancy schools. Hence, it is easy to understand why rapid urbanization has not been associated with economic growth.

My sense is that Africa entangled in an unsustainable path of urban development. The cost of cleaning up the mess is in my view incalculable. A new report by the World Bank and UKaid, “African Cities: Opening Doors to the World”, concludes that African cities are crowded, disconnected and costly.

The report asks three questions, with which we must grapple: How can cities become economically dense, not crowded? ; How can cities be more connected? ; How can cities attract investors and skilled workers with a more affordable and livable urban environment?

Perhaps there is hope in emerging cities like Machakos, Arusha and Jinja. But these cities will not be nodes of equitable prosperity unless urban growth is led by planning. Only then can we build cities that are integrated, affordable, economically dense and prosperous.

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