Urbanization in Africa

Dec 13th 2012

Urbanization is growing in both developed and developing countries. The proportion of the world’s urban population is expected to increase to about 57% by 2050 from 47% in 2000. More than 90% of future population growth will be accounted for by the large cities in the developing countries. In the developing world, Africa has experienced the highest urban growth during the last two decades at 3.5% per year and this rate of growth is expected to hold into 2050. Projections also indicate that between 2010 and 2025, some African cities will account for up to 85% of the population. As shown in figure 2, in 2010, the share of the African urban population was about 36% and is projected to increase to 50% and 60% by 2030 and 2050 respectively. This rapid expansion has changed the continent’s demographic landscape. Yet, urbanization in Africa has failed to bring about inclusive growth which, in turn, has resulted in proliferation of slums, urban poverty and rising inequality. Inequality in African cities remains the second highest in the world with an average Gini coefficient of about 0.58, well above the average of 0.4. Rural-urban migration and natural population growth rates in cities are the major causes of the increasing rate of urban growth and slum proliferation in Africa. 

Africa’s Urban Challenges

Urbanization in Africa has largely been translated into rising slum establishments, increasing poverty and inequality. However, there are large variations in the patterns of urbanization across African regions. North Africa has a higher proportion of urban population (47.8%) relative to Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) (32.8%). The relatively fewer slums in North African countries is mainly attributed to better urban development strategies, including investment in infrastructure and in upgrading urban settlements. In contrast, SSA has the lowest proportion of urban population (32.8%), but the highest proportion of slum dwellers (65%). Most SSA cities are characterized by insufficient basic infrastructure, particularly in low-income areas. Only 20% of SSA’s population has access to electricity, and in 2010, 3% and 53% of Africans had access to fixed or mobile phones, respectively; 84% of the continent’s urban dwellers have access to potable water while 54% to sanitation (AfDB et al., 2012). More broadly, 60% of African citizens live in places where water supplies and sanitation are inadequate.

As most of the migrants from rural areas are uneducated/unskilled, they end up in informal sector which accounts for 93% of all new jobs and 61% of urban employment in Africa. Since incomes from the informal sector are by their very nature low and intermittent, most migrants naturally seek for shelters or become tenants of slum landlords. As a consequence, many African cities have to deal not only with slum proliferation but also with increasing insecurity and crime. Weak institutions have contributed to poor urban enforcement, resulting in dysfunctional land and housing markets, which in turn has caused mushrooming of informal settlements. Furthermore, African governments have neglected the key drivers of productivity which include small and medium-size enterprises, human resource and skills development, and technological innovation. These factors are essential in advancing predominantly informal, survivalist and basic trading activities to higher value-added work.

Another challenge from Africa’s rapid urbanization is the increasing pressure of urban populations on natural resources and the environment. The expansion of cities is generally at the expense of destruction of forests and other natural environment or ecosystems, and increasing pollution (especially air pollution) with the related diseases. 

Policy Responses to the Expansion of Urbanization in Africa

In order to address the challenges of urbanization facing many African cities, some key reforms should be pursued by governments. These include (i) upgrading informal settlements through the provision of integrated infrastructures and services that target the marginalized groups, including the poor, youth, women and elderly people. In addition, governments should act proactively to ensure orderly urban development by defining and implementing clear urban development strategies; (ii) mobilizing urban financing from local and foreign investors. These resources should be efficiently and adequately allocated between central and local governments’ urban projects and should encourage strengthening the role of municipalities; (iii) improving human capital through equal access to education and healthcare services and facilities for all categories of citizens in order to meet labor market needs; (iv) diversification of economic activities through the creation of new economic hubs oriented towards high sustainable and value-added production and exportation. These reforms should be more inclusive to ensure that all categories of citizens, regardless of their age, race, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic conditions, have equal access to adequate housing, basic infrastructure and services and equal job opportunities.


Kelvin Obaka - Nigeria 11/11/2014 12:23
The bar of urbanization in Africa is rising. You can call it urban expansion or an increasing proportion of people living in towns and cities. This increase is either by birth or through rural-urban migration. The truth is that the poor of the world are increasingly concentrating in cities, both large and small particularly in Africa. As much as I agree with you that most of the migrants from rural areas are uneducated/unskilled, there are several sociological theories that attempt to explain urbanization. The educated and skilled people are also migrating. The reason that factors such as: The Pull factor and The Push factor are at work. The former says "urban centres pull people to leave rural areas. This either to unite with their spouses or family members and also the prospect of economic and social opportunities (employment, higher incomes, better healthcare and education, urban facilities and way of life, protection from conflict, etc) in urban areas. The later factor (Push) explains that people relocate from rural areas urban cities in order to escape from political and other forms of persecution, ecological disasters, wars and conflict as a result of boundary and land disputes, poor leaving conditions – housing, education and health care, unemployment, famine, drought, natural disasters, and agricultural change.
Policy responses to the (pull and push factors) of expansion of urbanization in Africa are either not properly monitored, handled or out rightly abandoned by the next captain of the ship. Given a population that exceeds that of any other country in Africa, urbanization is a common phenomenon in Nigeria, now that we are going through security challenges in our country.
Devin Chali - Namibia 07/04/2014 16:39
If African remained Africa after colonisation of the whites we wouldn't have those challenges and consequences of urbanisation mentioned above. So matter how hard we try to combat African urbanisation we will still fail because we are still following a western path which is not the path we suppose to follow.
zivisai patience - Zimbabwe 11/02/2014 11:06
the rapid rate of urbanization in Africa is characterised by a sharp decline of the standards of living for the general populace
AYALEW MOLLA - Ethiopia 04/02/2014 07:08
i like it
francis mwakayoka - Tanzania 18/12/2013 09:07
The article is really reflecting African continent situation and the globe at large. for the case of Tanzania the urbanization has more influenced by poor life which a large percent of Tanzanians they tend to live. A bout 80% of people in Tanzania lives in rural areas were there is great scarcity of human basic needs and that act as a push factor to most of the youths who tends to migrate into towns where they think that they can gate those lack provisions. Therefore there is a need for all African countries to oversees and provide those special basic need and also to proved education to rural people about the impact of rural-urban movement. like wise the lack of enough education and bad altitudes to most of the people is among of the causes of urbanization.
hamisi hamadi - Tanzania 11/06/2013 08:53
yes,the phenomeno of urbanization is a threat to economic growth of tanzania.still poor perception due to lack of awarenes of rural dwellers(mostly young segment) and poor policy of government to strengthen the rural economies and improve rural welfare.it is my advice that mechanisms to check rural urban migration be in place so as to solve the problem,if this will not done we will only address the symptons and not the real problem
Joseph Asare - Ghana 05/05/2013 13:15
This is an enlightening article that all African governments must read to help them in their effort in fighting urbanization.
Permit me also to add my little observation in Ghana to yours:
In Ghana one of the major causes of urbanisation is the perception about those who live in the rural communities in Ghana. Those living in rural areas in Ghana are perceived to uncivilized, less privileged, and narrow-minded and are being looked down on. As a result every youth wants to travel to the city in other to avoid the humiliation. Even in the home parents pressure their children to travel to the city so that they (the parents) would be respect by the people in the village.
It is in light of these that l have set up an NGOs (Asaasiam Vision International) to support and promote rural education among the youth in Ghana and also to encourage and help them to identify their potentials instead of travelling to waste their time and resources in the city. I therefore want to take this opportunity to ask for your support to our program.
Thank You.
Mr. Asare Joseph ( Program coordinator – Asaasiam Vision International)

Mthuli Ncube

Professor Mthuli Ncube is the Chief Economist and Vice President of the African Development Bank, and holds a PhD in Mathematical Finance from Cambridge University, UK, on “Pricing Options under Stochastic Volatility”.

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