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World Bank: Land Rights Key to Fixing Africa's Crowded, Costly Cities

People and vehicles are seen on a road under construction in Nairobi, Kenya, Jan. 25, 2017.
People and vehicles are seen on a road under construction in Nairobi, Kenya, Jan. 25, 2017.

Africa needs to reform its systems for buying and selling land and invest aggressively in urban infrastructure to create jobs, end poverty and reduce cities' high living costs, the World Bank said Thursday.

Africa's urban population will double over the next 25 years, reaching 1 billion people by 2040, it said.

But complicated procedures for land transactions, a lack of urban planning and under-investment in infrastructure connecting homes, jobs and shops are hampering development, the bank said.

“How can we best prepare for the unprecedented wave of people moving to towns and cities to pursue their hopes and dreams?” asked the World Bank's vice president for Africa, Makhtar Diop, via videoconference. “African cities, in order to be drivers for economic growth, in order to be the platforms for poverty elimination, they really need to be connected and open to the world.”

Network of trains, buses needed

The bank called on governments to make transport connections in rapidly growing cities a priority, saying the lack of a reliable network of buses and trains had a negative impact on the economy.

In the Kenyan capital Nairobi, seven out of 10 people either spend an hour walking to work or on a minibus, which means they can only reach about 20 percent of the city's potential jobs, the bank said in a report.

“Nairobi — a metropolis of 3 million people — in reality functions as a set of villages with very local markets because people cannot move efficiently across the city," said Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, the bank's director for Social, Urban, Rural, Resilience Global Practice.

Vicious cycle

African cities are almost 30 percent more expensive than other countries at similar income levels, the bank said.

Housing is 55 percent more costly, and food prices are 35 percent higher than in other low- and middle-income countries.

This creates a vicious cycle, driving up wages, reducing business profits and deterring investment.

“It's by reducing the cost of living in African cities that we will be able to create the type of jobs that are needed for Africans to escape poverty,” Diop said.

Land prices in some African cities are as high as in the United States because there is a shortage of land that can be easily and safely traded, the report said.

“There is enough physical land; there is not enough tradable land with clear property rights,” said Ijjasz-Vasquez. “Therefore the prices have gone absolutely crazy.”

Corruption, inefficiency major problems

Corruption and inefficiency are major problems in many African land ministries. Investors risk being given fake title deeds, or finding their plot has multiple titles, experts say, with swathes of land being traded informally because they have not been demarcated.

Urban plans, that lay out zones for houses, streets and public spaces, must be respected, Ijjasz-Vasquez said.

“The efficiency of Manhattan today was due to a very simple urban plan, on one sheet of paper, that was agreed and enforced by everybody,” he said. “They were able to grow a city in an organized way that allowed it to be efficient for the next two centuries.”

Lack of decent housing an issue

Money also needs to be poured into decent housing, with up to two-thirds of residents in cities like Lagos living in slums where more than three people share a room, the bank said.

Ijjasz-Vasquez praised Senegal for introducing a law enabling people with temporary occupancy permits in urban areas to convert them into permanent title deeds at no cost.

“They can start investing in housing because their properties are more secure,” he said.

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