The pace of urbanisation in Africa is bewildering. In 1950, no city in sub-Saharan Africa had a population greater than one million. It is now estimated that over 50 cities have a resident population of over one million people.
As a consequence of dizzying population growth, city and municipal authorities are overwhelmed. City leaders and managers 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 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 six per cent of the city’s land. These informal slum neighbourhoods lack basic services such as water and sanitation, schools and hospitals.
New urban growth is essentially unmanaged, disastrous sprawl. Owing to the lack of planning and inefficient land markets, peri-urban neighbourhoods 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 jams under the gray cloak of vehicular emission, selling chewing gum, water, fruits, car accessories and pornographic videos compact discs.
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 as jua kali industry. 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 urbanisation has not been accompanied by economic growth. Cities in this continent are largely metropolis of concentrated consumption. Our urban centres 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 urbanisation has not been associated with economic growth.
My sense is that Africa is 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? and how can cities attract investors and skilled workers, with a more affordable and livable urban environment?
Perhaps there is hope in emerging cities such as Machakos, Arusha and Jinja. But these towns 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.
Dr. Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University