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Africa Macro 22 October 2020

Ten years on - a review of the trends driving Africa's allure

Simon Freemantle

Trend 2: Africa’s transformative urban swell

  • In this report we continue our review of the five trends that we initially outlined almost a decade ago to be behind Africa’s enduring structural potential. Having recently published an update on Africa’s demographic (as well as institutional and income) potential (see here), we turn now to the advantages and risks inherent in the continent’s rapid urbanisation.
  • Quite clearly, Africa continues to urbanise at a rapid rate. Today it is estimated that 44% of Africa’s population is urbanised, up from 39% in 2010. This means that, since 2010, Africa’s total urban population has grown from 408m to 588m – a quite staggering 44% increase (and a rise of 180m people). This is by some margin the largest urban swell that Africa has experienced in any ten-year period in its history. Today, Africa has 63 cities with populations of over 1m people – up from 49 in 2010 and 30 in 2000.
  • Looking ahead, between 2020 and 2050 Africa’s urban population is expected to increase by around 800m people. This means that, by 2050, 22% of the world’s urban residents are expected to be based in Africa, up from 14% today. Also, by 2050 it is expected that 11 economies on the continent will have urbanisation rates of over 80%; and a further 20 economies will have urbanisation rates of between 60% and 80%.
  • A range of clear economic and institutional advantages emerge as a result of this trend. Indeed, and as we discuss in this report, a rising body of research has added weight to the suggestion that rapid urbanisation in Africa is delivering some meaningful economic and institutional gains. Recent survey data shows that urban residents in Africa have substantially lower levels of ‘lived poverty’ than rural residents, as well as greater access to cash income; food; and medical care. Also, around half of Africa’s urban residents have a bank account, compared to around one-fifth of rural residents. And 41% of urban households own a computer, compared to 13% of rural households.  
  • Further, urbanisation, in tandem with sweeping demographic changes, continues to support the deepening of political participation across the continent. Urban, youth-led protest has delivered profound political change across Africa over the past decade.
  • However, the risks presented by Africa’s rapid urban growth are as compelling as the opportunities. We discuss five of these deep impediments in this report: (1) chronic infrastructure weaknesses; (2) poor urban planning; (3) the mushrooming of urban slums; (4) climate risks; and (5) political and socio-economic instability. Many of these challenges have become more pronounced over the past decade as rates of urban growth across the continent have not been met by commensurate improvements in urban planning and infrastructure; as well as in the context of limitations in the creation of new work opportunities for the continent’s urban youth. Further some of the most rapid urban growth on the continent is taking place in a way that amplifies ecological harm, and in areas that are particularly prone to the kinds of natural disasters that are, as a result of climate change, far more prevalent than before.
  • In sum, few areas represent the complex blend of opportunity and risk facing African economies as potently as the continent’s rapid urbanisation. We know that Africa’s towns and cities will continue to grow at a rapid rate, but we also know that not all the continent’s economies will be able to handle this swell effectively. To be sure, managing this dual risk and opportunity will be one of the most pressing and complex challenges for Africa’s leaders and policymakers in the decades to come. As such, the ability of certain countries to harness the clear potential of their urban nodes will be a key institutional and economic differentiator, particularly when considering the fiscal limitations that will be imposed as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, and the fluidity of new risks emerging as a result of climate change.

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