Urban Economic Growth in Africa: Analysis of the African Urban and its Implications

Urban planning and management are key development challenges and require a better understanding of urbanisation in order to design appropriate targeted policies

RRUTERS/AKINUNDE AKINLEYE  -   Market near the central business district, near Marina in Lagos, Nigeria

Africapolis , a new urban geography

Africa is today the region with the highest urban growth rate in the world. The continent's population is expected to double by 2050 according to OECD data. Sub-Saharan Africa's urban population now stands at 41.25%, with a growth rate of 4.5% per year.  In 2015, Kenya already had more citizens than the entire continent in 1950. Africa's urban population in that year was 567 million people compared to 27 million in 1950. By 2050, African cities should be home to 950 million additional inhabitants. Much of this growth is occurring in small and medium-sized cities. The African urban transition brings great opportunities; it also poses major challenges. But African urban agglomerations generally develop without benefiting from policies or investments commensurate with these challenges (see: OECD 2020 Dynamics of African Urbanisation).

Urban planning and management are therefore key development challenges, requiring a better understanding of urbanisation, its drivers, dynamics and impacts, in order to design targeted, inclusive and forward-looking policies at local, national and continental levels.

Asentamiento marginal de Makoko, en Lagos AFP/PIUS UTOMI
AFP/PIUS UTOMI - Makoko slum settlement, Lagos

Note: This document essentially reflects statistical information with additional commentary; the information comes from various sources essentially Africapolis, OECD, African Development Bank, World Bank, United Nations, French Development Agency, African Union, Jeune Afrique, as well as some demographers and researchers.

(Percentage of urban population per country in Africa: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1223543/urbanization-rate-in-africa-by-country/ the percentages range from 14% to 90% in the different countries. https://africapolis.org/en/data?country=Angola&keyfigure=totalPop&type=abs&year=2015


African urban diversity is not sufficiently explained in the different analyses and narratives. This is partly explained by an urban development that is outside the scope of statistical measurements. The latter are mainly based on administrative divisions and only show a part of the urban phenomenon. Administrative limits are generally immovable and precise. Cities, however, are living objects that develop and evolve beyond these limits. Africa is a clear example of this.

Today Africa is still largely rural, but tomorrow's Africa will be decidedly urban, more than half of the population by 2037. Thus the number of African citizens will exceed the number of Chinese citizens by 2041 (UN/DESA: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2017).

1. Urban Africa, measures and definitions

It is not easy and it is not definitive. We can integrate urban into three categories: cities, agglomerations, and metropolitan regions. (Moriconi-Ebrard, 2000).

The notion of a city generally refers to a political-administrative unit. An agglomeration is an environment defined as a group of dense buildings; and that density is measured either in terms of number of inhabitants per unit or by a maximum distance between buildings. The metropolitan area is therefore neither a city, nor a region, nor an agglomeration, but a collection of more or less polarised flows.

Definitions of the urban vary in Africa.

Un hombre camina sobre residuos de plástico, utilizados para recuperar un pantano para que el terreno pueda ser desarrollado para viviendas, en la zona de Mosafejo, en Lagos AFP/YASUYOSHI CHIBA
AFP/YASUYOSHI CHIBA - A man walks on plastic waste, used to reclaim a swamp so that the land can be developed for housing, in the Mosafejo area of Lagos.

A few examples.

South Africa: urban is an area with a local administration.

Algeria: urban is the delimitation of urban and rural areas following a census based on the classification of agglomerations. Grouping of 100 or more buildings, separated by not less than 200 metres from each other, considered as urban areas.

Ethiopia: locations with a population of 2,000 or more.

Kenya: an area with a population of 2,000 or more with transport links, built-up areas, industrial or manufacturing structures and other modern facilities.

Niger: capital, departmental or district towns.

In addition, there is a lack of capacity in the administrations in charge of statistics. Data collected and known at the local level are not always transmitted or integrated at the national level, revealing a discontinuity of scale in the representation of countries and their population. In most countries, urban statistics are neither accessible nor available. Statistical gaps impact on other sectoral development plans and strategies. This can lead to a gap between decision and action logic. Moreover, as a result of the rapid population growth of the African population, in entire regions, it is increasingly difficult to isolate urban and rural areas. However, while the level of development is certainly not comparable, the population continues to grow at a steady pace. Agriculture, industry and services are developing and globalising, so continuing to classify certain areas as "rural" would no longer be strictly appropriate.

crecimiento economico africa

2. Level and pace of African urbanisation

Half of Africa's population lives in one of 7,617 urban agglomerations. In 9 countries, the level of urbanisation is above 66%, and in 30 others it is between 33 and 65%. In 1950, only 4 countries had a level of urbanisation above 33%, and 35 were below 10%.

In 2015, half of Africa's population (50.4 %) lived in an urban area with a population of 10,000. North Africa is the most urbanised region on the continent (78%), with Egypt and Libya having the highest levels of urbanisation at 93% and 81% respectively. The other 2 countries with urbanisation levels above 80% are Gabon (81%) and Sao Tome and Principe (80%). The countries with the lowest levels of urbanisation are Niger (17%), Burundi (21%), Eritrea (24%), Lesotho (26%) and South Sudan (27%).  Outside Africa, the only countries with such low levels are Nepal, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. In 2015, 22 African countries had an urbanisation level above 50%. In general, countries with higher income levels tend to have higher levels of urbanisation. The only 2 low-income countries (in gross national income per capita) with a level of urbanisation above 50% are Rwanda, the most densely populated country, and Gambia, one of the countries with the smallest land area. Likewise, the countries with the highest level of urbanisation - Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon and Libya - are middle-income countries with almost deserted or heavily forested territories, as in Gabon. This factor is explained by the low number of farmers, the largest group of active people in the rural population; an activity that also tends to decrease in more developed countries, with the mechanisation and intensification of agriculture, such as South Africa (70%). The pace of urban transition has been accelerating over the years, especially in Africa. Africa was essentially agrarian in 1950 (and still is as a sector contributing to higher employment) but there has been a dramatic transformation in the last 25 years. For the continent as a whole, the level of urbanisation has increased from 31% in 1990 to 50% already in 2015 (see map 2015) and this is mainly due to strong population growth.

Examples of urbanisation levels (see maps)
crecimiento economico africa

crecimiento economico africa

crecimiento economico africa

Examples are Egypt with a population of 91 million and an urbanisation rate of 93% (85 million urbanites), Gabon with a population of 1,866,000 and an urbanisation rate of 81%, Nigeria with a population of 187 million and an urbanisation rate of 53% and so on.

crecimiento economico africa
AFP/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI - Workers lay interlocking tiles to construct a road in Eko Atlantic City, Lagos, on November 22, 2016.
3. The rural and the urban. Transgression/rubarnisation (rural densification)

Africa has long been essentially rural, but the boundaries between town and country have been transgressed by a dual belonging and displacement from one side to the other. Farmer-marketed agriculture has increased as the ratio of non-farm to farm population has increased, following the path and development of urban markets, except in oil-producing countries and conflict zones. There has also been a value added from rural areas to urban areas in agri-food chains (processing, stocking, distribution, etc.) and, conversely, food imports have been the response to urban food risks. Between 1930 and 2030, the urban environment is expected to absorb 70% of population growth. Urbanisation is driven by three factors: natural population growth, rural out-migration, and the agglomeration of rural areas by territorial extension. In contrast to other continents, African urbanisation is little linked to industry and is growing in absolute terms. A relevant process is the densification of rural villages that have become towns, either simply by natural growth or by coalescence or clustering between several villages that have grown. This trend is particularly important in the Sahel countries, where the population is expected to quadruple between 2000 and 2050 from 58 million to 241 million inhabitants.

In Niger, the population density is 6,000 inhabitants/km2 in towns and cities compared to 16 inhabitants/km2 in the rest of the country. 

Which urban regions are the most densely populated? North Africa undoubtedly has the highest rate of urbanisation on the continent (over 60%) and the highest density of agglomerations, such as Egypt, Morocco and Algeria. A second most densely urbanised area is the Gulf of Guinea coastline along the Abidjan-Lagos corridor over some 600 kilometres, a third most densely urbanised area is the high plains of Ethiopia, as well as the Great Lakes (Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania).

4. The link between urbanisation and economic growth in Africa

Urbanisation is undoubtedly a factor of opportunity due to agglomeration and the matching of supply and demand for employment in services and infrastructure, as well as in learning. Most modern economies are urban and thus there is a correlation between urban growth and per capita GDP growth. Countries where the majority of the population resides in the countryside are those where per capita income is much lower (Malawi, Niger) while those with higher GDP are the most urbanised, such as South Africa or Gabon. This urban growth vs. GDP ratio has some distinctive characteristics in the African case. Examples: 

  • Unlike in OECD countries, urbanisation in Africa is not linked to a process of industrialisation (a process that is still pending) that could attract labour... only 13% of the African population is employed in the secondary sector according to the International Labour Office (www.ilo./ilosat/). Growth in the city is mainly fuelled by domestic consumption, as manufactured goods are largely imported due to a lack of local production, which in turn leads to a trade deficit. 
  • Urban growth in many cases is caused by births in the city and not necessarily by migration from rural areas. Between 2010 and 2014, the urban fertility rate was higher than 5 children per woman in Mali, Niger, Nigeria, DRC, and Burundi. 
  • There are countries that "live" from the extraction of natural resources that are not very redistributive/non-inclusive, such as Equatorial Guinea (GE), Angola, with a low human development index. Namibia and Swaziland have similar GDPs to Equatorial Guinea and Angola for the same reasons (mineral resources) without being highly urbanised countries.
  • Urban deprivation is widespread in AFRICA, with 43% of citizens living below the poverty line and in some cases, such as in the DRC, the poverty line is as high as 61% (World Bank 2013).
  • Most African cities lack capital, investment and infrastructure, and for UN-Habitat, the reasons for this lack are once again linked to corruption, insecurity leading to high urban poverty and poor governance.
5. The urban explosion and its management

The term African urban explosion fuels catastrophic visions. The lack of planning and the low density of some populations are the causes, but African cities are normally sufficiently dense and their ecological footprint is proportionally smaller than that of OECD countries. 

What will happen to suburbs and new cities?

The rate of population growth in Africa requires, according to UN-HABITAT studies, 4 million additional new housing units per year. If these dwellings are not delivered under a formal supply planned by public institutions, they will be developed by self-builders. This is why UN-Habitat predicts that the slum population worldwide should double between 2010 and 2030. So far, the only African country that has carried out a massive production of state-sponsored housing is South Africa: some 3 million new small houses distributed almost free of charge to the poorest families after apartheid between 1994 and 2015. However, it should be noted that this country has a higher GDP than the rest of the countries and a lower population growth. Its GDP per capita reached USD 13,500 in 2017, which is 20 times the GDP of the Central African Republic (CAR) or Burundi (in purchasing power parity). Its fertility rate was 1.9 in 2016, compared to an African average of 4.6. All this has to take into account the resources and financial facilities available to South Africa compared to countries such as Sudan, CAR, Chad, Mauritania or Madagascar.

Barrio de chabolas en Kliptown, cerca de Soweto AFP/ WIKUS DE WET
AFP/ WIKUS DE WET - Shantytown in Kliptown, near Soweto

Another important challenge is the integration of informal neighbourhoods into the city. The repressive policies that have been followed with these neighbourhoods have had negative social consequences: exclusion and inequalities, and are ineffective given that the development of these neighbourhoods responds to essential needs for populations that have no other way than self-construction (AFD the African economy 2020).

The high proportion of Africa's urban population living in slums and congestion in historic city centres has forced African governments to mobilise greenfield sites in large metropolitan suburbs to develop new large-scale urban development projects. In different parts of the continent, real estate projects financed mostly by private funds have taken place, such as the cases of

 En Eko Atlantic, anunciado como el mayor proyecto inmobiliario de África, la frenética construcción se ha ralentizado a paso de tortuga. Apodada la "Dubai de África", la llamada ciudad dentro de la ciudad se está construyendo en 10 kilómetros cuadrados (3,9 millas cuadradas) sobre toneladas de arena dragada del Océano Atlántico frente a la costa AFP/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI
AFP/PIUS UTOMI EKPEI - At Eko Atlantic, billed as Africa's biggest housing project, frantic construction has slowed to a snail's pace. Dubbed the "Dubai of Africa", the so-called city within a city is being built on 10 square kilometres (3.9 square miles) on tonnes of sand dredged from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast

New cities are emerging on the continent and the forerunner country has been Egypt with 22 new cities built between 1977 and 2000 (Pierre-Arnaud Barthel 2011). Some of them, built in the desert, have not been the solution in terms of population and relocation of economic activities (Sims D.2015 Egypt's Desert dreams American University of Cario Press, Le Caire).

On the other hand, in Greater Cairo, some of them have made it possible to accommodate the underprivileged classes by limiting themselves to being simply dormitory towns (see image).

Ciudad de los Muertos El Cairo Egipto  PHOTO/REUTERS
PHOTO/REUTERS - City of the Dead Cairo Egypt

The country has recently launched a new pharaonic project: the creation of a new capital 60 kilometres east of Cairo, as big as 7 times Paris within the walls. This new capital is expected to house 6 million inhabitants, whereas the current Cairo is home to 18 million people in a smaller area. The aim is to decongest the Egyptian megapolis and get rid of air pollution, but this will require the construction of long motorways, which could have a high environmental impact. The authorities themselves also want to provide a safe place for ministries, parliament and other public institutions. Some scholars argue that these new constructions do not attract large numbers of people as most are far from their places of work. Other cases are found in Morocco, Angola and Algeria, where Chinese developers are proposing low-cost projects that can be completed quickly.

6. Conclusion

African public authorities must decide on their position vis-à-vis in the informal sector: if they decide to control all activities that are not officially registered, including housing construction, they will have to invest heavily in integrating the emerging neighbourhoods into the formal city, i.e. public transport connections, construction of civil works, public facilities, access roads, etc. As always, all this requires funding, but this aspect needs to be significantly improved in terms of the financial resources of the actors responsible for the development of cities: central government, municipalities, local governments, local public and private companies.

Notes, references, bibliography

1.    Africapolis (www.africapolis.org) is a research and data visualisation tool used to map, analyse and understand urbanisation and urban growth in Africa. Its methodology includes aerial photos, satellite imagery, existing cartographic sources, etc. Africapolis defines an agglomeration as urban if its population is greater than 10,000 inhabitants and if its physical extent does not have a break in the built-up area of more than 200m.

2.    Africa's population clock at 27 December 2021 is: 1 392 849 488 at 13:48 https://countrymeters.info/es/Africa 

3.    In 1960, the percentage of sub-Saharan urbanites was 14.7%.

4.    https://www.oecd.org/fr/publications/dynamiques-de-l-urbanisation-africaine-2020-481c7f49-fr.htm
Dynamics of African Urbanisation 2020 OECD West Africa Papers.

5.    François Moriconi-Ebrard is a geographer born in Saint-Etienne, former associate professor of Geography and researcher at the CNRS (Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Tomorrow's Energies, University of Paris).
He is the creator of the global database Geopolis, the result of twelve years of work 1 , and co-author of the CD-ROM Europe of the Populations . He is the author of three books and several articles on the question of the urbanisation of the world.

6.    OCDE/CSAO (2020), Dynamiques de l’urbanisation africaine 2020 : Africapolis, une nouvelle géographie urbaine, Cahiers de l'Afrique de l'Ouest, Éditions OCDE, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/481c7f49-f

7.    Agence française de développement l’économie africaine 2020 (la découverte)

8.    The ecological footprint analyses the resource consumption and waste production patterns of a given population;

9.    Les nouvelles villes apportent-elle la solution ? (L’Economie africaine 2020 AFD)

Assemblé Générale des Nations Unies (2017) Conseil des droits de l’homme,43e sesion,27 février-24 mars
BARTHEL P.A.(2011) « Repenser les villes nouvelles du Caire »
ONU-Habitat (2010) The state of African cities. Governance, Inequality, and urban land markets.
Atlas de l’Afrique AFD pour un autre regard du continent. L’urbanisation une tendance forte du peuple africain.