The world is moving to the city and Africa is the world’s fastest urbanising continent. In 1950, sub-Saharan Africa had no cities with populations of more than 1 million. Today it has around 50! The continent’s population is expected to double by 2050: more than 80% of that growth will occur in cities.
What’s striking today is the fact that urbanisation is not correlated with poverty reduction. The World Bank says that African cities « cannot be characterised as economically dense, connected, and liveable. Instead, they are crowded, disconnected, and costly ». This is mainly because they have grown without installing the infrastructure that makes cities normally work. But what I would like to emphasize today is that African development is highly linked to the fact that cities and rural or semi-urbanized zones cannot be thought of separately.
Let me explain: today, African cities are centres of consumption. Lots of them are built on commercial and administrative income and are characterised by the scale of informal employment. Urbanisation is growing in favour of the capitals, which further reinforces the territorial imbalances inherited from the colonial period, where the capital city was usually the commercial hub. This was amplified after the end of colonial rule.
Even nowadays, African states keep focusing on their capitals instead of considering small and medium-sized cities. It is a very real risk as it explains why these intermediary cities have grown in size due to population growth, but without benefitting from public investment in infrastructure and services. Thus, it keeps increasing the appeal of the big city which keeps enhancing population differences, etc. A real vicious circle.
Moreover, that leads to another effect: it is amazing to think that cities in Africa have become totally disconnected from rural areas instead of existing in a logic of partnership. As public authorities are paying more attention to urban matters, “rural affairs” are left out. It is of utmost importance to restore balance between regions: this is why priority must be given to the development of African intermediary cities but also to the reinforcement of rural dynamics.
Indeed, the challenge is not about creating an opposition between rural and urban but to identify and strengthen the necessary connections most notably from an industrialization perspective. Failing this, there is a major risk of large-scale migration towards the big cities, with the dramatic consequences that we can imagine (be it economic, social, environmental or political).
Nowadays, in Nairobi (Kenya), around two-thirds of the population occupy 6% of the land. Slums bring with them filth and disease. When we think that infrastructures are such a big issue, would you pretend that re-equilibrating regions is not a priority? Neglect of entire zone is an open door to long-term instability.
The areas of influence won over the last 10 years by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram in rural zones of the Sudano-Sahelian region stand as a strong reminder of this harsh reality.