Africa needs better cities, not more cities

Everywhere one looks in Africa, they’ll notice a new planned city cropping up that promises to be a utopia not plagued by the challenges the continent’s cities currently face.

Kenya’s Konza Tecnocity which promised to be the biggest smart city south of the Sahara is still struggling to prove to investors why they should inject capital in it nine years after it was conceived.

In 2010, Nigeria’s Eko Atlantic City promised to house 250,000 citizens on land reclaimed from the sea but it is still empty.

Ghana’s Hope City and Ethiopia’s Wakanda City aimed to transform urbanization. “Akon city” in Senegal promises to run on Akoin cryptocurrency, despite unsupportive government regulations around crypto. None has made tangible progress.

Last week, 11,000 delegates from 100 countries including 53 African countries gathered in Kenya’s western lakeside city of Kisumu to rethink the feasibility of elevating Africa’s major towns into cities.

The ninth edition of the Africities Summit prodded this idea which, according to policy experts, would create more jobs and unlock economic potential in the continent’s rural zones.

Most existing African cities are already struggling to function properly

In his opening remarks, Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta urged participants to make the conference a questioning forum on how national governments can support a mobilization of resources to unlock effective delivery service in intermediary cities.

“Time is ripe for scaling up the role of intermediary cities as the next frontiers of African urbanization and development,” said Kenyatta.

But is time actually ripe for more African cities?

He added that an unprecedented rate of urbanization has seen 1,086 intermediary cities become home to 174 million people “representing 36% of our continent’s total urban population and contributing about 40% of our continent’s GDP.”

While the overarching message was that the continent needs to upscale its towns to be at par with the rest of the world, the problem with that narrative is that deep within Africa’s existing cities there are enormous hurdles.

From Lagos to Dar es Salaam, Dakar to Mogadishu, Windhoek to Asmara, Africa’s cities are grappling with the challenges of poor sanitation, disorganized and unsafe public transport, insufficient water, pollution, dirty energy sources, insecurity, unemployment, corruption, poor drainages and expensive housing.

Most African cities are insecure

Even as delegates spoke on intermediary cities’ potential to create business opportunities, the snags in the big cities are already making Africa score low in the global index of ease of doing business. Many cities score high on the global corruption index chasing away foreign investors.

Combating the threats of radicalization, terrorism, armed robbery, and petty theft in Africa’s urban areas has been one of the toughest tasks for governments.

With little progress to show in tackling these constraints, Africa’s march into making intermediary cities the new centers for economic development will only end into a stumble.

While the idea of decongesting large cities is a commendable one, making life in existing cities better should be at the forefront of the discourse especially now that Africa has the highest population growth rate in the world.

Africa needs $170 billion per annum to meet its infrastructure needs but has a deficit of about $110 billion.

The danger is that the structures in the capital cities will be replicated in new cities.

African cities have failed to learn from Kigali’s progress

In the whole of Africa, only one city—Kigali—seems to understand the whole concept of sustainability of cities as it has shown real efforts in addressing the muddle. This is a model the rest of the nations can follow because it also takes into account what future cities may look like. But no country is taking notes from the Kigali Innovation City.

Most cities don’t even do an Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) audit to control pollution and carbon emissions, but will be fast to construct skyscrapers and expressways that only raise city temperatures as they use high-carbon cement in their construction.

When hit by the sun, carbonated cement emits carbon dioxide (pdf) which raises the temperatures of the surrounding environment. Most carbon capture technologies have failed.

Globally, cities produce between 71% and 75% of total greenhouses gas emissions (GHG) and the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a global umbrella of organisations that defends the interests of cities says the battle against climate change will be lost or won in cities.

Solutions for Africa’s cities

Former President of Seychelles Danny Faure spoke of the need for bankable strategic infrastructure based on data.

“It is important that we back up our interventions based on facts and data that shows us where we are in terms of development.” Most city public transport in Africa is yet to go cashless, causing traffic congestion where petty thieves thrive.

By 2040, two-thirds of the people who move to urban areas will be moving to intermediary cities. Amid growing investment needs, the challenge for Africa will be how to guarantee basic social services and higher quality of life that is already lacking in main cities.

And then there is the challenge of Google mapping. Peri-urban areas in Africa are not well mapped on Google Maps meaning online car hailing companies like Uber, Bolt, Tag Your Ride, Little, Yookoo Rider, Lefa and Smart Cab cannot operate in intermediary cities.

Again, how can Africa finance all that is needed to improve its existing cities? African Union High Representative for Infrastucture Development Raila Odinga says Africa needs an African Infrastructure Fund to fund the monetary deficit needed to build Africa’s infrastructure.

“Africa needs $170 billion per annum to meet its infrastructure needs but has a deficit of about $110 billion dollars,” he said at the summit. There is money in the form of sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and insurance funds, but most governments have shown low commitment in stamping out corruption which eats into every round of project financing.

Africa needs to first focus on improving its existing cities, before it begins creating new ones.