Urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa

Population estimates for 2016 and projections to 2050 by the Population Division of the United Nations display the phenomenal growth expected to occur on the African continent. Of the 2.3 billion increase in world population by 2050, 55% is expected to be in Africa. Africa’s population will more than double, to 2,478,000,000, and Africa will be home to a quarter of the world’s total population. Nigeria is projected to displace the United States as the third most populous country, following India and China.

But while the African continent has 16% of the world’s population, according to the World Bank the Sub-Saharan portion of Africa is home to 43% of the world’s 700 million people living on less than US$1.90 a day. Poverty is generally concentrated in rural areas. Although Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is mostly rural, it is urbanizing rapidly. Lagos, Nigeria and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) each house over ten million people. Urbanization presents both opportunities and challenges, as noted in a Brookings Institution report: “Access to jobs, public goods, infrastructure, and health care are better in cities. However, if city populations continue to grow without economic transformation, a vicious and persistent cycle of high fertility, low wages, and persistent poverty could result.”

Sub-Saharan Africa’s population went from 14% urban in 1950 to the current 40%, but infrastructure and services did not keep pace. So 50% of the urban population live in slums and 60% do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. The Brookings Institution report title asks, Can Rapid Urbanization in Africa Reduce Poverty? The report discusses the process of “structural transformation,” how an economy moves from agricultural to industrial production, and brings increased incomes and improved living standards. That process results from some combination of labor push and pull factors. “Push factors refer to increased agricultural productivity or crop failures releasing rural labor to cities, while pull factors include urban industrial development attracting agricultural workers with higher wages.”

But Sub-Saharan Africa has had neither substantial improvements in agricultural productivity nor a significant industrial revolution. Employment growth has instead been in the service sector, with a majority of that employment being in the informal economy, the part of an economy that is neither taxed nor monitored by any form of government. (See African Development Bank at http://www.afdb.org/en/blogs/afdb-championing-inclusive-growth-across-africa/post/recognizing-africas-informal-sector-11645/) Urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa has also been impacted by natural resource extraction, which tends to deter growth of other industries. A paradox known as the “natural resource curse” occurs when a country focuses its energies on a single industry, such as mining, while other industries are neglected.  The challenges to improving living conditions are also addressed in a report titled African Economic Outlook 2016: Sustainable Cities and Structural Transformation, by the African Development Bank, OECD Development Centre, and United Nations Development Program – Africa. This and the Brookings report have similar public policy recommendations. They include ensuring that safe housing and infrastructure keep up with urban growth and urban centers are linked; promoting urban planning; improving agricultural productivity; encouraging shifting from the informal sector toward higher productivity services; reducing fertility and child mortality; improving health care; assuring access to education especially for girls and women; and calls for foreign direct investment in urban areas. Many examples of local initiatives in entrepreneurship, technology, and education support optimism for success of these focused policies. (See reference to Andela technology training at http://fiftyyearperspective.com/preparing-for-industries-of-the-future)

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