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Africa's new cities – smart, eco, tech and hub

HOUSING BUILDING / Urban growth in Africa is faster than in any other continent. At the same time, one can find corridors of cities with the world's largest footprint of poverty, created by refugees and migrants on their way away from war and conflict, drought and floods.


In the research literature on the modern Africa the term 'new cities' took much of its starting point in the year of independence in 1960. In the decades that followed, several young states started building new capitals. The purpose was to promote national identity, highlight unity and lay the institutional basis for modern, economic development.

The capitals Gaborone (Botswana), Lilongwe (Malawi) and Dodoma (Tanzania) are best known among this first generation of new cities. About forty years after the year of independence, especially in countries with oil, gas and mineral income as security, a new wave of construction is gaining momentum. With Dubai and Singapore as models, the African 'fantasy city' is emerging. The term was launched by professor Vanessa Watson (University of Cape Town) in 2014. Under designations such as smart, echo-, hub- og tech-cities segregated, high-tech luxury enclaves are now being planned and built at a suitable distance from the capital's slums.


The alliance of foreign property speculators, who after the 2008 financial crisis saw Africa as one last frontier, and prestige-fixated African heads of state in need of worldclass cities, has grown into. States with free investment capital such as Russia and China also lend large sums for planning and construction.

Angola launched the first phase of Nova Cidade de Kilamba in 2008 based on $4 billion in Chinese loans. Plans are developed i.a. for Dar-es-Salaam, Kinshasa, Kigali, Nairobi, Accra, Lagos and Cairo.

Between 1960–2017, 148 new cities with a total population of 47,5 million have been built within various African socio-cultural contexts.

Foreign commercial investors

Currently happening byvekstone in Africa faster than in any other continent. The UN estimates that the number of urban Africans will increase from 471 million in 2015 to 1330 million in 2050. This means that the continent's cities will have to accommodate three times more inhabitants than today.

This can be done by densifying, rehabilitating, expanding (city limits) or building new. In countries with a higher gross domestic product, the approach has become to build new cities. But with a huge housing shortage as a backdrop, authorities and investors thus only focus on a small segment of the population – probably less than 10 per cent. It is built only for a presumed purchasing power middle class, especially the upper one. It is not so much the authorities that drive development forward as foreign, commercial investors. Exceptions are countries such as Ethiopia, Algeria and Gabon, where 1,7 million city dwellers can get mortgages at 2,5 per cent interest.

A continent of slums

80 percent of urban population growth in Africa occurs in slumsareas. It happens at a pace that is difficult to understand. Lagos, Africa's largest city, has grown from 30 inhabitants in 000 to 1950 million today. The city is expected to increase further by 20 inhabitants every hour until 77. For UN demographers, one scenario is that the city will reach 2030 million at the turn of the millennium (Hoornweg et al.).

Globally, the ten fastest growing cities are in Africa, according to the UN. Most are coastal towns. In Tanzanian Dar-es-Salaam, the largest (coastal) city in East Africa, the population increased from 2000 to 2018 by 166 percent – ​​to 6 million. Mining towns such as Mbuji-Mayi in DR Congo are also growing exponentially. From 30 inhabitants in 000 to 1960 million in 2,3.

The number of urban Africans will grow from 471 million in 2015 to 1330 million in 2050.

Growth weaves new urban corridors and hierarchies, particularly in the coastal areas. Along the Bight of Benin in West Africa, according to the OECD, we find 300 cities with more than 100 inhabitants. In just a 000 km long stretch from Benin City in the west to Accra in the east, it gives a population that is 600 million larger than that of the entire East Coast of the United States. It is a corridor of cities with the world's largest footprint of poverty, created by refugees and migrants on their way away from war and conflict, drought and floods – as well as failed agricultural policies.

The cities' self-generated population growth is also accelerating. The slums become a springboard for further development migration both regionally and globally. No provision is made for either national or global development actors. Cities must fend for themselves, it is claimed. The result: "a man eat fellow man society".


The urbanization of poverty

The new cities of the last two decades in Africa were not built to house a growing population. The motivation is the needs of a growing middle class, commercial incentives and government subsidies. Economic stagnation elsewhere in the world also plays a role.

A number of multinational corporations with headquarters outside Africa have discovered that building new cities is profitable. It is not only about private, but also state-owned companies in China, Korea and Singapore. Having developed standardized urban development models themselves, they aim to copy the success where opportunities arise. In countries such as Nigeria and Kenya, in recent years entire communities have been razed and thousands of families thrown out of their homes to facilitate such opportunities.

Smart-byen Konza Tech City

The latest African wave of new cities reflects changing global conditions. Since the financial crisis in 2008, property and housing are no longer social goods. They have become investment objects.

Since the financial crisis in 2008, property and housing are no longer social goods.

Neoliberalism with global deregulation and free movement of capital has given multinational technology companies such as Cisco, Google, Microsoft and IBM room for action, not least within the many "Special Economic Zones" that have been created. Here, they benefit from advantageous company and tax legislation, where plots and infrastructure are arranged by local authorities.

Since 2008, Kenya has planned the most "new cities" – 16 in total. The smart city Organize Tech City outside Nairobi was expected to revolutionize Kenya's ICT sector. It was to become a technology park with world-class infrastructure. Construction of the so-called 'African Siliconsavannah' began in 2016. It is still far from being completed and operational.

Chronic poverty

Foreign speculators and investors may have miscalculated their market. Although Africa's gross domestic product has tripled since 2000, the middle class lacks purchasing power. There are no resources for public funding schemes. In Kenya, only 8,1 percent of households can afford to buy the cheapest houses built by an approved developer. In Tanzania it is 1 percent. According to the African Development Bank, the annual income of the middle class starts at $736 – i.e. $2 a day. References to it make little sense when the loan interest rate is in double digits. In 2016, Malawi had the highest interest rate at 33 percent. Followed by Ghana with 28 percent. Here, the average cost of a residential unit is 20 dollars. Of Ghanaians, 220 percent can afford this.

To build inclusive, robust, safe and sustainable cities.

There is no agreement among African leaders about and how to build inclusive, robust, safe and sustainable cities in line with the UN's Sustainable Development Goal 11 (the Urban Goal). Decisive factors such as land and infrastructure issues are often unclear. Housing finance systems are lacking everywhere. Nor are there regional or global access to such. For decades after decades, the UN has discussed ideas about a global housing bank without being heard among the member states. The UN's resettlement program's attempts to mobilize domestic capital – in the form of pension and savings funds in conjunction with local housing associations, authorities and international aid – have, apart from some pilot projects, not succeeded.

Such actors must first and foremost accept chronic poverty as a reality. Before more new cities are built, they must be planned based on the needs of ordinary people. An immediate change of mentality is needed.

The hierarchical, 'top-down' approach that has characterized urban planning in Africa must allow for the vitality and dynamism of the informal sector. It is necessary that youth and women's self-organisation and resource mobilization – the self-help tradition – come along. Both authorities and the private sector must recognize the power of local organization – such as housing associations and savings groups – and assist them in thinking bigger. Herein lie distinct African experiences that have not been copied from European, Chinese or American models.


Eric Berg
Erik Berg
Erik Berg worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs / NORAD from 1978 to 2013. He now heads Habitat Norway.

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