Africa’s destiny is in its cities. Already the home of half of sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people, with untold more millions to come, some of the cities of Africa will soon be the largest in the world — with all of the possibilities and problems that pertain to megacities with high potential and inadequate infrastructures and deficient governance.
Lagos, Nigeria and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, already sprawl across a vast unplanned terrain, with spiffy, barricaded upper-class ghettos up against immensely crowded home-crafted shanty towns rife with the energy, discomforts and vices of squashed-together urbanites everywhere. But the African residents of these jerry-constructed enclaves are poor, often without formal employment, and readily neglected by their respective governmental power structures.
Lagos now has 21 million inhabitants; in 2050 it is expected to house 32 million Nigerians. Kinshasa holds 15 million people today; in 2050 it will be the home of 30 million Congolese. Nairobi, now with 4 million Kenyans, is growing at 4 per cent a year — faster than Houston, faster than Cairo, faster than Sao Paulo, faster than Mexico City. These large sub-Saharan African cities are but 3 among a total of at least 50 with populations of more than 1 million today. A full 20 of those conurbations are in Nigeria alone, a country that is destined shortly to become the third most populous on the planet, up from seventh today.
Even greater Gaborone, the smallish capital of Botswana, sub-Saharan Africa’s best governed, democratic nation, is already pushing 500,000 residents, up from a mere 20,000 when it was invented in the 1960s as the new country’s capital. Greater Gaborone houses about 20 per cent of the entire population of Botswana. Like Gaborone, African cities everywhere are growing inexorably, even if conditions within them are rough and sometimes inhospitable.
Blackouts and food and water shortages
Cities everywhere struggle to provide their populations with adequate amenities, even basic ones, such as water and sewerage. But in one African city after another — even Johannesburg — municipally supplied and treated potable water is often scarce or unavailable. In sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, only 70 per cent of homes have ready access to drinkable water, and the cities are more limited in that regard than many towns and villages. Even in Lagos, established for more than a century, homeowners must purchase precious water from entrepreneurs selling it in 25-litre plastic jugs if they lack access to a personal bore hole (artesian well.) Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, has long ago failed to replace its ancient, leaking, cast-iron water mains with more modern equipment and to chlorinate whatever water manages to find its way down those old arteries.
Only 30 per cent of Africans, fewer in jam-packed cities, have access to water-borne sanitary facilities. In future, as the cities of sub-Saharan Africa explode with new settlers from rural areas and from smaller towns and villages, the sewage problem will grow exponentially. It has already exceeded the capacity to cope of many urban agglomerations in Africa.
Electrical power availability is a further concern. It is hard to exist in cities without adequate power with which to light rooms or to cook and heat. Equally, factories function best when electrical power is abundant. But large swaths of Africa, especially the biggest countries with the biggest cities, have insufficient generating capacity, forcing industries to stand idle and citizens to experience unanticipated outages and frequent rotating blackouts, euphemistically termed loadshedding.
Transportation is another powerful issue, since most African cities have spread horizontally rather than vertically, without planning or zoning regulations. Densely peopled annexes (“suburbs” would give the wrong idea) spread inexorably outward from every rim of every central city, and those fortunate dwellers who have work, or need to shop, or those unfortunates who seek work of any kind, all have to travel by jitney, bicycle or on foot into older inner cities. Traffic is slow, often impossible. But the inner city is where prosperity is believed to lie, even if the many who trek there find more disappointment than opportunity.
All over the world, increasing urbanization has usually meant income growth and an alleviation of poverty. It has resulted elsewhere in connected rather than disconnected peoples, with increasing industrialization, with a corresponding provision of better and better infrastructure and with political and social growth based on the power of demanding middle classes. But not so much in Africa, largely because the movement from the countryside into the cities of sub-Saharan Africa has not been preceded by and driven by accelerated African agricultural productivity. In fact, African cities are the product of the reverse — of a drift from a land that has provided less and less well into cities where scrambling and informal economic entrepreneurial activities hold out the theoretical potential of better lives.
Africa imports a third of its food and drink
African cities are places of consumption rather than of manufacture. They also have schools, hospitals and centres of government. But they survive (as well as they can) by service — by dispensing governmental services, by banking, by selling and repairing consumer goods, by constructing dwellings, and so on. Here and there in, alas, too few places, there is light manufacturing for the local market — breakfast cereals or packaging materials. Sub-Saharan Africa imports more than a third of its food and drink (even water), a much higher total than that for Latin America or Asia. In Africa, unlike the other continents, agricultural productivity is a major problem, somewhat because of poorer soils and limited access to fertilizers, but also because poor governance, poor infrastructure and poor financial rewards inhibit farmers from growing cash crops efficiently.
Sub-Saharan Africa only has about 400 concerns with annual revenues of more than $1 billion and about 700 with annual revenues of $500 million. These are paltry figures compared to middle-income countries, such as India or Brazil. And, if South Africa is removed from the calculations, the continent has many fewer large firms even than the numbers above. There is ample room to grow manufacturing for domestic consumption, and to provide jobs for the now-unemployed millions in the cities. But both foreign and domestic investment are inhibited by the autarkic systems and policies practised by most of the governments of sub-Saharan Africa with the aim of promoting economic self-sufficiency and removing the need for imports, by a diminished rule of law, and by the presence of strikingly robust corruption. African cities need entrepreneurs and capitalists to take risks, but deficient infrastructure, weak national and municipal governance and largely self-serving leaders have so far contributed to urban population and geographic growth without urban prosperity or urban progress.
Middle class and politicians drive change
Too many of the nations of Africa are rentier states, that is, living (or trying to live) off the proceeds of abundant in-ground or offshore resources such as iron ore, copper, cobalt, cadmium, coal, diamonds, petroleum and natural gas. When countries and their leaders are content to benefit mostly from the mineral largesse of the soil or the sea, and not to build diversified economies, the result is an urban growth in poverty rather than out of poverty. The huddled masses, in other words, continue to huddle without much hope of advancement or of reaching the better lives and livelihoods that elsewhere have accompanied the agglomeration of cities.
Yet, the middle class in Africa is itself emerging as a new political factor. Where this emboldened middle class has made its political weight felt (as in Kenya or Cape Town), or when strong, positive leaders such as President Paul Kagame in Rwanda and President John Magufuli in Tanzania have attempted to rid their cities of crime and make them more livable, investment and new job opportunities have often followed. It is possible that the newly elected Democratic Alliance municipal reform governments in Johannesburg, Pretoria (Tswane) and Port Elisabeth (all in South Africa) will follow the same path, and provide good outcomes for their residents. The harbingers are positive.
Sub-Saharan Africa in 20 to 30 years will be much more urban than rural. The villagers of yore will have moved into large towns or larger cities. Generations will be born and raised with almost no connection to the old Africa. Leaders will appear who will turn these desperate and difficult centres of human aspiration into more viable and responsive accumulations of enterprise and progress. The future of Africa depends on uplifting its cities and the people who live in them now, and for decades to come.
Robert I. Rotberg is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and founding director of Harvard’s Kennedy School program on intrastate development.