How carefully managed urbanization can help African nations prosper

Published 5 years ago

Dr. Cheick Modibo Diarra, former Prime Minister of Mali and Chairman of ALN. The ALN Africa Investment Conference takes place in Dubai on 7-8 November 2018. More details can be found here.

Sub-Saharan Africa is in the midst of a huge wave of urban growth. The African Development Bank suggests that 760 million people will be living in African cities by 2030, a figure that will rise to 1.2 billion by 2050. In the face of such dramatic pressures on our continent’s cities, the requirement for fast, comprehensive management of growing urban centers is needed now more than ever before.

For many, urbanization presents challenges. As the number of people living in urban centers increases, so too does the demand for adequate housing, access to utilities (electricity, water and sewerage), education and jobs. If this demand cannot be met, or managed effectively, the result can be catastrophic. Nowhere is the rise of inequality clearer than in urban areas, where more affluent communities coexist alongside, yet separate from, informal settlements.


Africa is no stranger to unplanned development in urban areas. In Mali, for example, our capital Bamako has one of the fastest growing urban populations on the continent, and accounts for 34 per cent of Mali’s overall GDP. Yet, such rapid growth has led to the development of pockets of crowded informal settlements in the city. And whilst these settlements are positioned in our bustling capital, a lack of connectivity isolates these areas. In reality, this means that for the many Malians residing there, they are unable to access quality education, health services, and ultimately, realize  their true potential. Yet, despite these challenges, settlements like these should not be perceived with pity or frustration, but as untapped potential.

If managed correctly, urbanization can provide citizens with access to these basic opportunities.  According to the World Bank, 80 per cent of global GDP is derived from urban centers. And it’s easy to see how cities play a key role in fostering economic growth and self-development. Commuting to work becomes cheaper and faster. There are greater job opportunities and easier access to schools. Cities are home to a high concentration of consumers whose demand for goods and services promotes business growth. Over the next 15 years, consumer spending in African cities is estimated to reach a staggering US$2.2tn.

Sustainable cities – that is those designed with consideration for social, economic and environmental impacts for current and future populations – are the cornerstone of prosperous and strong nations. For example, African cities are, on the whole, inadequately equipped for the needs of the older population and governments must make provisions in areas including geriatric healthcare and access to services such as public transport and libraries.  As such, it is imperative that governments create long-term plans for the development of urban and industrial areas. The key is that these plans are unique to their respective cities, and urban planners are fully integrated in the planning process.  Effective spatial planning facilitates sectoral coordination, as businesses in close proximity to each other are able to develop practical synergies, allowing for specialization, growth and increased profits.

Informal economies that exist in locations such as Nairobi’s Kibera settlement have the capacity to breed entrepreneurship and innovation. Businesses, in turn, gravitate towards a growing pool of highly-motivated and skilled labor. Local governments officials must therefore work hand-in-hand with central governments to harness the potential that lies in these areas. They must channel human capital away from informal trade, towards official platforms by providing connectivity, resources and opportunities. Such localized economic prosperity is contagious: higher incomes lead to higher spending, kickstarting a process of growth that ripples throughout the city, the nation and the wider region.


That said, effective spatial planning is difficult to implement retrospectively. Yet, many African countries are positioned relatively early in the urbanization process. Approximately 70 per cent of Mali’s population, for example, is rural. Another significant advantage held by ‘less-urbanized’ countries is their ability to bypass the many inefficient systems that more mature cities have evolved through, leapfrogging to implementing environmentally, economically and socially sustainable solutions. From developing infrastructure grids conducive to renewable energy sources, to using mobile phone networks to measure migration patterns, young cities have the potential to learn from the mistakes of others and leverage the benefits of modern technology to guide their expansion.

It is vital that those driving and managing urban growth today, recognize that they are not pushing a city towards a defined end point but engaging in an ongoing process. And this is the very theme which will be discussed at the ALN Africa Investment Conference in Dubai later this year. Short sighted projects that stretch resources to their limit must be rejected. Stakeholders must remain aware that one day they will have to pass on the baton of development to future generations. When considering the future of Mali, it hinges on equal opportunity for all and preserving an environment for the happiness of generations to come. And with this in mind, cities must plan for tomorrow as they build for today, only then will sustainable development be achieved and maintained, rewarding Africa, and its citizens, with the prosperity it deserves.

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