Urbanisation in Africa: A Blessing or a Curse?

As at 1950, there were only 27 million people in Africa's urban population. By 2015, there were over 560 million, and Africa will continue to have the fastest urban growth in the world, according to a recent OECD report. However, for some reason, Africa has been experiencing rapid urban population growth but slow urbanisation. Simply put, the number of people in urban areas is increasing rapidly but these urban areas are not developing well enough to accommodate them.

The major drivers of urbanisation in Africa are migration to urban areas and development of rural areas into more urban areas (rural transformation). So yes, more Africans are moving to cities, with the aim of getting access to better economic and social opportunities. And yes, some countries such as Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania have made significant efforts to urbanise rural areas. However, the glaring truth is that Africa is not urbanising as fast as it's people are flocking to urban areas. What this means is that factors such as infrastructure, healthcare, industrialization and education are not expanding fast enough to absorb the population growth. Migration to urban areas is meant to expand citizens' access to infrastructure, healthcare, education etc. But with the rapid urban population growth and not-rapid-enough urban infrastructure, people are forced to live in slum houses and settle for low income jobs in urban areas. According to the UN, over 50 percent of urban dwellers in Sub-Saharan Africa live in slums and only 40% of the urban population has access to improved sanitation facilities. As a result, Africa's urbanisation has not been a direct indication of economic growth and development.

As stated earlier, africans majorly move to cities to look for all things better. Better living conditions, better employment opportunities, better service delivery. Also, moving from agriculture to industry and services is supposed to create more productivity. Thus, urbanisation and economic growth are expected to be two peas in a pod. However, World Bank data revealed that several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa such as Liberia, Zimbabwe, Congo and CAR have experienced decreased average incomes as urbanisation increased. This emphasises the broken relationship between urbanisation and economic growth in Africa as this is the opposite of what is expected when countries urbanise.

Gaps to be filled

Clearly, what is important is not rapid city growth but that this growth is channeled towards economic development. Only a handful of African countries (such as Rwanda, Ghana and Namibia) have been able to use urbanisation as an opportunity for growth through investment in infrastructure, education and other factors that make urban areas truly urban.

Hence, for starters, there is a need to make African cities more livable and productive. Investment in the housing sector is one key aspect as 60% of the urban population in Africa still live in slums (shacks and households with no access to improved water, sanitation and house durability). Housing in urban areas should not only be livable but affordable. On the other hand, improved welfare and increased labor demand are just some of the benefits of investment in housing development. Similarly, driving investment to infrastructure projects and educational opportunities will go a long way to bridge the gap between urbanisation and economic productivity in Africa. Of course, not everything can be solved through investment, as policymakers still play the major role in a country's urbanisation dynamics. For instance, land planning and regulatory functions can only be performed by policymakers.

Nonetheless, the desire for access to opportunities is one main reason for rapid urban growth in Africa. If African cities keep growing without significant economic growth, urbanisation will end up being a vicious cycle of poverty and scrambling for insufficient opportunities. Thus, urbanisation in Africa can only be a blessing with the collaboration of policymakers and the private sector through adequate investment in infrastructure and developmental projects.