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Group Looks for Ways to House Growing Urban Sector in Africa

A meeting on ideas to provide affordable housing in West Africa is under way in Ghana. A large majority of city residents in Africa live in slums or in very difficult conditions because they are unable to meet the high cost of housing. Efam Dovi has more on the story for VOA from the meeting in the capital, Accra.

As poverty and under-development force more Africans to migrate to cities in search of better lives, governments are increasingly facing the challenge of providing decent shelter for the growing urban population.

According to research by an agency called U.N. Habitat, in 2005, sub-Saharan Africa had nearly 200 million slum dwellers, constituting some 20 percent of the worlds' total. Africa also has both the world's highest annual urban and slum growth rates.

Participants are discussing how governments could work with the private sector to invest in low cost housing for this growing sector of urban poor.

Anna Tibaijuka, who heads U.N. Habitat, says a majority of these newcomers are unduly exploited by private landlords and have to accept unclean living conditions in urban slums that lack even the most basic services.

"The shack owners actually getting excessive profit, we like to cut into those profit margins, bring in basic services, like sanitation, water, like pavement, so that you cut into the profit margin but it is still profitable for those who have the capital to provide affordable housing for the people," she said.

"So basically it is lack of regulation, some of the problems are legal, you also need rule of law, property rights must be respected," she added.

Opening the conference, Ghana's President John Kufuor says Ghana's cities are already bursting at the seams from rural urban drift.

The president said that by 2025, Ghana's urban population is expected to be more than half of the national total. African countries have long had mostly rural populations.

These are now moving into cities which have very little infrastructure, let alone any decent housing for anyone who is not affluent.

President Kufuor said historically, house ownership in Ghana has remained the preserve of the well- to-do because it is done from personal savings, of which most Africans have none.

"The generally accepted view now is that since the majority of the population is within the lower income group of society who cannot mobilize the saving or credit to build their own homes or even meet the high rentals demanded in our towns, even in the slums, the government must team up with private developers to supply affordable housing to this category," he said.

U.S Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson, who was also present at the meeting, shared some experiences from the U.S. housing sector.

He said 70 years ago one in every seven American families did not own a home because of high down payments needed to purchase a home.

He talked about how it is important in the United States for many people to be homeowners.

"The impact of this innovative system we can see today because housing is a major portion of the gross national product and it is the greatest single source that has made our economy as strong as it is," he said.

Delegates from neighboring Nigeria and Senegal, both of which have some of the fastest growing African cities, as well as from other nearby countries, are also taking part in the four-day conference.