Bold Plans Needed for African Cities

African cities scaling up on large infrastructure development projects are at the crossroads. Will dominant private sector interests overshadow the needs of everyday citizens? Or is there a window of opportunity to turn attention to real urgent urban issues?

Crumbling infrastructure in Africa results in losses of up to $40 billion in economic activity each year. In 2010 the World Bank estimated that Sub-Saharan Africa should be spending $93 billion per annum (15% of the region’s GDP) to close the infrastructure gap compared to other parts of the world. At the moment, domestic expenditure is $45 billion per annum. This is not even half of what is required. Improving the performance and efficiency of existing infrastructure at a cost of $17 billion could be captured, but this still leaves a funding gap of $31 billion per annum.

A number of multilateral and multi-agency investment programmes -- on the continental scale, such as the Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa, and various country funding programmes -- aim to stimulate growth, create jobs, and generally contribute to more sustainable growth.

Sectors most in need are energy, connective infrastructure (roads, rail, ports, airports, ICT), and water and sanitation. Investing in these fundamental economic infrastructures will catalyse larger processes of economic development, resulting in increased land and asset values, which can be recouped and reinvested through taxation, transfers, and levies.

The modernization of infrastructure and development of new edge cities are highly contested, though. Professor Vanessa Watson of the African Centre for Cities recently reviewed a number of "urban fantasy" masterplans, in the style of Dubai and Singapore. These plans, developed by international architecture firms, are quite misleading in their representation of current living conditions.

Konzo City on the outskirts of Nairobi seeks to become Africa's Silicon Valley. (Source:  Konza City ) 

Konzo City on the outskirts of Nairobi seeks to become Africa's Silicon Valley. (Source: Konza City

Such plans have been developed for cities in Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Tanzania. Konza City, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, for instance, aims to become Africa's Silicon Valley. Local reports have already indicated that Konza City's construction has been stalled due to lack of government funding of the required infrastructure.

"Cities have to be seen as integrated and inclusive wholes, recognizing the interdependency of their parts," writes Watson. "Current thinking will greatly increase inequalities, social breakdown, more deprivation, more wasted public resources, and less environmental sustainability."

Preoccupation with large-scale, internationally competitive growth strategies is often blind to real local issues. In order to make room for these large developments, slum clearance is the order of the day. Badia East, a slum in Lagos, Nigeria, was recently razed to the ground, leaving 10,000 people homeless -- in order to make room for modern shopping malls and a new light rail network.

An architectural render of the proposed Konza City. (Source:  Konza City )

An architectural render of the proposed Konza City. (Source: Konza City)

Rapid rural-to-urban migration will be a massive driver of slum growth in the next two decades, during which Africa will become a majority urbanized continent. Infrastructure development that is spatially planned to have the greatest impact will go a long way to ensuring inclusive and pro-poor city growth. Policy makers planning infrastructure need to consider:

  • Focus on integrated human settlements through citywide slum upgrading and higher-density housing, including security of tenure and land reform policies that will build resilient and people-friendly cities
  • Promotion of civic participation in decision making and planning of project phasing and rollout, and an enabling environment for ongoing community monitoring to ensure transparency
  • Creation of jobs through improved infrastructure, providing tax incentives for industrial parks, and promotion of an enabling environment boosting higher productivity in informal slum economies

There are exciting prospects of alleviating slum conditions through citywide infrastructure development. But without such far-reaching reforms, social inequalities will be deepened, and development plans will largely benefit international companies rather than citizens.


  1. This article first appeared at UBM Future Cities