Back in 1972, Fela Kuti struck the exact right note when he described the already awful crawl of Lagos’s perpetual traffic jams in his epic “Go Slow” track. The song meaning has never been truer than today and could be even sung in every corner of Africa. Our continent is the world’s fastest urbanizing continent and it is not always a force for good. Nairobi is expanding at rates of more than 4% per year. Lagos, on its own, is the seventh largest economy in Africa. Urbanization is an essential element of a prosperous continent. The gathering of economic and human resources in one place is stimulating innovation, development, technology and industry in an unprecedented way in Africa. Our cities are opening up access to education, health, social services not readily available in rural areas.
We must, however, admit that our growing cities are not always the accessible, connected spaces of equally shared opportunities and benefits that we would have liked. To start with, our cities are unable to accommodate the influx of migrants subject to the pull of the city and the push of rural areas. Lagos alone is injected with 1200 people a day. This migration results in slum and squatter settlements, causing extra stress on the resources of the city. The increase in urban demand for food combined with the loss of agricultural land also puts pressure on a dwindling rural population to produce food. To top it all, those left behind in the rural areas are often the elderly, women and children.
Urbanization has not led to wide poverty reduction and is not the result of industrialization. That means that there is little investment in the infrastructure and governance that would make African cities liveable and productive. The lack of building safety, homeless children, refuse disposal, power deficits, rare formal jobs are just a few of a long list of problems we have yet to solve. Let alone connectivity. In Nairobi, a 5 hour commute is not unheard of. So far only South Africa and Addis Ababa have a light-rail system in place. Dirty second hand cars from Europe and Japan exacerbate the situation, causing air pollution.
Every historical leapfrog requires that we break through established patterns and invest in innovative approaches. Clearly, there are a number of infrastructural and policy frameworks we must work on. Alternative energy, solar panels, tidal turbines, water harvesting are vital. We will need innovative, safe, affordable housing made from low-cost but durable building materials. We will need financial institutions to help urban dwellers make their way up the property ladder and policies in place to secure property ownership of the citizens. Above all, we will need to provide training to our urban decision makers.
Empowering our people with information is another key to building the cities that we dream of. A five-hour commute to work in Nairobi is neither acceptable nor sustainable. Urbanization management needs to produce open data which will play a crucial role in creating effective solutions to ease commuter pain. The access to centralized transport data will allows users to plan the speediest and most cost-efficient journey to work. Solving the transport issue, in turn, enables many other services and products to succeed.
We have set off on an exciting promising journey and building resilience in African cities will require a holistic approach. It will involve the efforts of Governments, the private sector, NGOs which support the most vulnerable groups. Location management and the management of the interdependent dynamics between town and country are essential. To build resilient African cities, we will need to stay alert, receptive to the needs of our people, and evolve in a spirit of constant renewal and innovation. For this last bit we can at least relax and be inspired by the great Fela.