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Africa Faces Urban Challenges

Africa is the world's fastest urbanizing continent. According to a recent United Nations report, some urban centers are growing at an annual rate of more than 4.5 percent. But many experts who see urbanization as an engine for economic growth warn that unchecked expansion could create new problems for the region.

About 40 percent of Africa's population lives in cities and that figure is expected to double by 2030. Lagos, Kampala and Addis Ababa are among the world's fastest growing cities. By 2020, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Abidjan will be home to more than 10-million people each, and 77 other African cities will have one-million people each, according to the United Nations.

But this trend is not unique to Africa. More than three-billion of the world's people already live in cities and the United Nations expects the number to surpass five-billion by 2030. But most analysts say that Africa, which is one of the world's most underdeveloped regions, is the least equipped to meet the demands of its growing urban population.

Rural Challenges

Naison Mutizwa Mangiza of UN-HABITAT, the United Nations Human Settlements Program, says Africa's cities are expanding because of natural growth and migration from rural areas. The latter, he notes, is draining the agricultural sector of skilled labor. "You have a kind of urbanization of rural life. As people move into cities, the patterns in Africa are that these people maintain their contacts in rural areas. So that linkage between rural and urban areas is strengthened," says Mangiza. "And therefore, urban patterns begin to diffuse into rural areas in terms of consumption patterns and aspirations. But it also means that the rural areas will be deprived of the most educated of the population. So basically, it's an issue of whether rural areas will have adequate skilled human resources to develop agriculture and rural industrialization."

Mangiza, the Chief of UN-HABITAT's Policy Analysis Branch in Nairobi, Kenya, says some African countries are encouraging migration from rural to urban areas to spur overall economic development. But that, he argues, can be achieved only if the pace of urbanization is measured. "Cities and towns are really engines of growth. Well organized, they can contribute a lot to national economic development. Certainly, in countries where there is a shortage of land, we already are seeing some African governments encouraging faster rates of urbanization. Such is the case in Uganda, which is a small country. The Ugandan government has been quoted as encouraging urbanization as a solution to development challenges," says Mangiza. "A country like Rwanda, for example, which is a small country, is placing a lot of emphasis on urbanization because of a shortage of land. And in fact they are going for a service and information-based economy."

But many analysts say rapid urbanization has compounded the continent's problems of poor governance and disease, and increased crime and poverty. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, at least one-third of the population lives in cities. More than 70 percent of these people live in slums, according to the U.N.

Finding Solutions

But development expert Sally Merrill of the Washington-based Urban Institute says several African governments are dealing with the problem. "South Africa is now completely redesigning its slum upgrading and urbanization programs. For many years, the government of Kenya did nothing. I think its slums are the largest in Africa. And the government is now stepping up to the plate along with UN-HABITAT. That's true in Ghana. Tanzania is working with UN-HABITAT to develop some innovative housing and land strategies," says Merrill. "So it varies across Africa as to whether the government has the means to deal with it or the strength to bring legal frameworks and civil societies to bear on these problems."

To do that, most analysts say, authorities in African cities must provide their citizens with basic services and job opportunities. But many African cities have aging infrastructures that cannot support additional expansion. According to the United Nations, at least one-quarter of African city dwellers do not have access to electricity. Fewer than 45 percent have indoor plumbing and waste disposal poses major health risks in many urban centers.

According to Zoe Chafe, a research associate with the Washington-based World Watch Institute, "I was in Nairobi a few months ago and there was a huge rainstorm. And, literally, all the gutters and drains became clogged because of the number of plastic bags that were caught in the sewer system. And we experienced flooding because of that. And that's a perfect example of an outdated piece of infrastructure - - the sewer system - - which is now faced with more people, more trash. And so all of this is going to come together to either provide an opportunity for us to invest in new infrastructure or we are going to be faced with a growing number of urban disasters."

Slow Progress

Countries like South Africa and Nigeria have the resources to deal with some of these issues. But Late Lawson Lartego of the U.S.-based non-governmental development organization CARE says urbanization has stressed resources in many parts of Africa. "In West Africa, they have a huge shortage of water supply and also power supply for those countries. West Africa, for the past four months, [has] had a power gap [i.e., power shortage.] And this is correct [i.e., true] of most countries in Africa. So the population increase and the urbanization are going very quickly compared to the readiness of most of the governments to accommodate that."

Some analysts maintain that African development has lagged because urbanization has been too slow. But the Urban Institute's Sally Merrill says there are no clear-cut answers. "There is some sense that one reason that the correlation that you see in Asia, for example, between urbanization and macro-economic growth hasn't happened in Africa is because the rate of urbanization has not been fast enough. That's just a hypothesis from looking at these huge cross-regional time-series studies. But the trade-offs there, of course, are for the governments to mobilize donor assistance more effectively to enable this [i.e., urbanization] to happen without all of the negative side effects getting even worse," says Merrill.

Most experts agree that urbanization is here to stay. But for Africa to cope with its increasingly urban character, many say better governance and urban planning are key to harnessing the skills of the continent's new urban workforce.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.