The new path of African urbanization

da – 31 maggio 2019 (insieme a Giovanni Carbone)

Pliny the Elder wrote it first and it is still confirmed today: something new always comes from Africa (ex Africa semper aliquid novi). Looking at the extensive urbanization process that crosses the continent, at least three elements seem indeed unprecedented: 1) urbanization is not a consequence of industrialization, but runs parallel to it; 2) urbanization occurs regardless of the creation of infrastructures, which on the contrary remain rather lacking; 3) technological innovation in the urban areas does not follow a gradual pattern, as occured in the Western world, but proceeds by jumps: for example, bytes do not transit through the landline telephone network, which is lacking, but directly through mobile phones and broadband submarine communication cables.

The Global Cities Desk, launched by ISPI in September 2018, publishes its first dossier with a territorial focus and, significantly, decides to begin exactly with Africa. An area to which ISPI dedicates constant attention, as it is shown by the report “A Vision for Africa’s Future”, a wide overview of the main transformations occurring in the sub-Saharan region and of expected scenarios. A concern that can also be observed in the greater consideration of this topic by many opinion leaders within Italian society, from institutions to non-governmental organizations to companies and even media.

This dossier is the outcome of collaboration with the African Center for Cities (ACC) of the University of Cape Town, which is a reason for satisfaction: in any area, no progress in relations with Africa can be achieved without an effective partnership with the increasingly dynamic energies that are active on the other shore of the Mediterranean Sea.

Data is macroscopic and essentially well acknowledged: if the African continent will, as it seems, double its population from now to 2050, growing from the current 1.2 billion people to around 2.5 (approximately a quarter of the world’s population), the urban component in 2030 will already exceed a billion people (currently it accounts for a little less than 500 million), overtaking the rural. However, as an example, Gabon is already around 87% “metropolitan”. As is known, in 1900 the ten biggest cities around the world were in Europe (eight) and in North America (New York and Philadelphia); instead, in 2030, the same ranking will be entirely located in Asia and Africa, with at least six African cities having more than ten million people (Cairo, Lagos, Kinshasa, Luanda, Dar es Salaam and Johannesburg). The problem is that currently the inhabitants of “informal” contexts, such as slums and shanty towns, account for more than half of the total (at a global level, they represent one in every seven people): this amount is expected to increase – in percentages or in absolute data – in the coming decades.

These slums, inhabited by very poor and young people, are at the same time the effect and the cause of urbanization: the effect, since people abandoning the countryside and lacking resources go to these urban areas searching for better living conditions; the cause, since the sprawl further worsens territorial conditions, increasing desertification and climate emergencies, and producing a vicious circle that multiplies migrants and climate migrants, threatened by dangerous environmental conditions (already today the World Bank estimates that 40 billion euros worth of real estate assets are at flood risk in Dakar, an amount approximately twice Senegal’s GDP). Certainly, the enormous differences between countries, regions and cities are not to be ignored: keeping them in mind can help us predict some of the migration flows inside the continent and prevent possible conflicts.

Therefore, going back to the initial argument, the urban development of Africa needs to be planned in a creative way, so that this phenomenon does not become traumatic and deleterious for the whole planet but instead contributes to the growth of a continent that has shown enviable development rates for several years. First of all, urbanization without industrialization poses an enormous employment challenge. While in Charles Dickens’ novels the omnivorous factory exploited non-urbanized farmers as if they were parts of a machine, in the African case, the cities risk “ignoring” millions of unemployed young people with large families, even without an exploitative master. To mitigate the consequences of this type of situation, enormous investments in human capital and training are needed, in demonstration that Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals (which directly deals with urban settlements) cannot be achieved without a holistic prospective, which should concern societies’ and people’s development. An explosion of social conflicts seems inevitable without such an effort: industrialization in Western cities caused exploitation, but also demands for rights and social liberation; in a non-industrialized but very urbanized context, we do not know the characteristics that possible collective conflicts might have – perhaps the so-called “Arab Spring” can partly anticipate them.

Regarding infrastructures, all of the research shows that they are essential to achieve growth both in an urban and at a general level. Africa is still very lacking in infrastructure, even though in recent years global players such as China have intervened in this sector, led more by the logic of investment and no longer by that of aid. The regional consortia, as well as the “corridor” projects, can virtuously influence infrastructure projects, provided that we do not lose sight of the other side of the coin. To be sustainable, future African cities will also have to deal with the social and environmental costs produced by urbanization and infrastructure: for example, the enormous difficulty in accessing proper accommodation or obtaining credit, the obstacles in mobility and the challenge of energy supply (in this dossier Marco Alberti discusses this, explaining the need for a new model based on renewable and decentralized sources).

Lastly, technological innovation. Two economists, Jonas Hjort and Jonas Poulsen, have recently demonstrated a direct correlation between the arrival of submarine cables, and therefore broadband, and an increase in employment (skilled and less skilled), in productivity and in the exports of the urban areas where cables arrive and in their interior regions. As has been said, Africa is skipping some steps compared to the West: if in 2000 broadband all over Africa was less than that of Luxembourg alone, in 2017 78% of Africans owned or had access to a mobile phone/smartphone, which is radically transforming some sectors such as financial services, personal services and transportation. Like in the West, many areas are directly served by airports, subordinating railway construction, so that in Africa technology has become immediately intangible, bypassing the previous step. The consequences that this will have on urban economies are yet to be discovered.

In conclusion, this dossier is about asking questions rather than providing answers. What the development model of African cities will have to be from now to 2063 – the horizon on which, six years ago, the African Union proposed scenarios and outlined development goals for the continent – is a very interesting matter that requires intelligent and innovative devising and planning. What is certain is that Europe, and Italy in particular, can make valuable contributions: from an economic prospective, by enhancing the growth of small and medium enterprises, and districts, which can positively influence the business model in the expanding African economy; from an urban prospective, by proposing the reticular paradigm of European cities, rich in tradition, as a benchmark, not to be completely reproduced (which would be impossible anyway), but as a source of  inspiration in order to have more sustainable urbanization.

Tobia Zevi

Italian Jew, Jewish Italian. PhD in Linguistics. Adviser to the Italian FM, Association of Jewish culture Hans Jonas' Chairman - Rome.