Africa’s cities are about to boom – and maybe explode

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Africa is rural. Or that’s what senior Western officials envision when they talk about the continent. America’s top diplomat for the region, Tibor Nagy, recently said that Africa is “by and large an agricultural society”. He isn’t alone: Germany’s recent Marshall Plan with Africa insists that “rural areas will determine Africa’s future”.

This is wrong. Dangerously wrong.

Africa is increasingly urbanised, and its future will be shaped not in sleepy remote spaces but in the dense vibrant clusters of Lagos, Addis Ababa and Kinshasa. Big cities are becoming the engine of the continent, with huge implications for future energy needs, security, governance and public services — as well as rising risks if urban growth is poorly managed.

According to the World Bank, urbanisation is the single most important transformation the African continent will undergo this century. Sub-Saharan Africa is already 40% urban, while tens of millions of people are flooding into cities every year. By 2050, it’s estimated that the continent will host at least nine “megacities” of more than 10 million people and more than two dozen in excess of five million, about the size of metropolitan Washington. Many are far off the current radar: Antananarivo in Madagascar; Guinea’s capital of Conakry; and N’Djamena, Chad.

Cities, of course, have for millennia been the locus of economic activity, wealth creation and especially jobs. By one detailed measure, Africa’s consumer class is already more than 300 million and heavily concentrated in a handful of large metropolitan areas such as Cairo, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos and Luanda. The African Development Bank estimates that up to 12 million young Africans finish school and join the job market each year. The most attractive, well-paid and high-productivity jobs — in finance, IT, creative arts, data processing and even manufacturing — will nearly all be in densely populated clusters.


But, of course, urbanisation has serious downsides. On average, 60% of Africa’s city dwellers live in slums, and they suffer disproportionately from communicable and non-communicable diseases. Aids prevalence is generally higher for urban populations than rural peers; and obesity is rising.

Africa’s path to joining the global economy rests on the success or failure of its cities, not on its rural communities. Despite breathless press — such as a New York Times article on efforts to “make farming sexy” — agriculture provides poor employment prospects, especially for the young and educated. Similarly, a wave of new donor efforts to electrify Africa are mostly focused on delivering small solar home systems in rural areas. These can provide a few lights for poor remote households, but they are inadequate for the needs of city lifestyles and useless for industry and commerce where jobs are created. Given all this, it’s shocking that Western efforts to aid the continent continue to be focused on an outdated rural paradigm; they must reorient toward the cities.

According to the US Agency for International Development’s foreign aid dashboard, Washington spends more than twice as much on rural areas than urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 16 compacts made by the Millennium Challenge Corporation that don’t directly address energy, only Zambia’s programme is focused on urban challenges rather than rural poverty, agriculture, health services and the like. Among individual donors, only the UK’s department for international development is committing significant resources to programming and research targeted at municipalities.

Meanwhile, US security forces are fixated on ungoverned spaces in the Sahel or Somalia, while some of the most devastating terrorist attacks have occurred in cities, including in Bamako in 2017 and Nairobi in 2013. This is only going to get worse as extremist groups base operations in urban areas to tap into financial networks, get access to airports and other ways to transit international borders and waterways, and exploit a rich set of soft targets such as hotels, shopping centres and diplomatic facilities.

How can the US and its allies change their approaches to face the challenge Africa’s burgeoning urban areas will pose? Here are four good ways to start.

First, U.S. policy and investments should be shifted heavily toward major urban clusters, rather than to countries as a whole. USAid could programme more funds to tackle urban development, while the Millennium Challenge’s city programme in Zambia could be replicated with subnational compacts across the continent. The new US Development Finance Corporation, launched by the Trump administration, will have even more tools at its disposal to support investments in urban infrastructure, technology and services. It could even organise a Smart City initiative to accelerate partnerships between African cities and US technology companies on security, traffic, water and power services, and more.

Second, the US could boost diplomatic engagement with municipal leaders. US embassies can develop closer ties to the region’s governors and mayors, while senior US policymakers could welcome high-performing municipal leaders to Washington and visit African city halls during foreign trips. In February 2019, the mayor of Paris hosted her counterparts from Cape Town and Durban, South Africa, and other international cities led by women to discuss climate-change challenges.

Third, Power Africa, a multi-agency US government electrification initiative launched in 2013, needs to make large-scale power for big cities a priority. All successful urban areas are energy intensive, while the cost and reliability of energy is a top constraint to job creation. Much of Power Africa’s attention has been on “last mile” rural connections. Indeed, it’s important to get electricity to communities that have never had it, and energy-intensive agriculture will be needed to boost food production to feed all the new city dwellers. But in too many places, rural electrification has come at the expense of tackling high costs and low reliability for industrial and commercial energy consumers — they are the anchors for any modern power system and will be the lifeblood of the rising megacities.

Badly misaligned

Finally, the US has to increase the money and training it provides to African police forces, not just militaries. According to the Security Assistance Monitor, police received less than 2% percent of US funding for sub-Saharan security services. Of the five sub-Saharan African countries in the Security Governance Initiative, a joint endeavour launched by the Barack Obama administration to increase counter-terrorism capacity, only Kenya has a policing component. Far more funding should be redirected from the military to police, as well as to enhanced police participation in UN missions. There’s also utility in producing more city-level analysis of security trends.

American and other Western aid for African economic growth and security isn’t simply a giveaway to poor nations — it can create new markets for companies and be a vital component of national security in the age of global terrorism. Yet US policies are badly misaligned with Africa’s future. Washington must shed outdated notions that Africa is composed of farming villages and empty deserts, and follow the data showing the continent is becoming younger, more dynamic, more energy-intensive and undeniably urban.  — By Judd Devermont and Todd Moss, (c) 2019 Bloomberg LP

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