Why Most African Cities are a Mess

By Sam Stewart Mutabazi

Ever since development economists learnt the importance of cities and urban areas in the advancement of a country and its people, many world leaders gave a lot of attention to ensuring that these places are better organized as to make them more productive and orderly. That cities engines are the engines of growth of any country is a foregone conclusion. However how to make the cities productive such that they can serve the interests of the people is the greatest hurdle facing many cities and governments especially in the global south and specifically in Sub Saharan Africa. Whereas cities in many parts of Africa are expanding in population size, majority of them have not devised means and mechanisms first, to deal with the swelling numbers that come into the city, secondly to put up infrastructure that matches these numbers and thirdly creating jobs for the young people.

While one of the key attributes of a city is its people, it doesn’t inevitably mean that cities with bigger populations are better cities. Healthier cities are those that support the people who live and work in them and are able to enjoy better life with improved infrastructure, good jobs, access to markets, great transportation systems and infrastructure including buildings, residential places as well as opportunities. In most parts of Africa it seems that majority cities are growing with less and less intervention from governments as people on their own seek solutions based on individual interests. This has ultimately led to confusion and mix-ups. Numerous studies have indicated that Africa will be urbanizing at a much faster rate than any other continent in the world in the next fifty years. Some cities in Africa could see their populations more than triple. About ten cities in Africa will graduate to the category of mega cities in the coming twenty years. This would typically mean that the current infrastructure needs of these cities should correspondingly grow in tandem with the population. Sadly this is not happening and most cities cannot adequately provide services the great numbers that come into the cities annually.

The challenges that cities in Africa face are not necessarily unique compared to those faced by cities in Western countries. The difference is that governments in the latter case are aware that failing to plan adequately for an increasing population in an urban areas soon has irreversible negative consequences on not only the city in question but on the county as a whole. If a city contributes a big percentage of it production output to the overall national GDP, then it is imperative that that measures have to be sought to make sure that that city becomes even more efficient so as to produce more. Efficiency in cities is largely determined by how livable they are. It therefore follows that functional cities attract more and better investments compared with those that are disorganized. Countless times leaders in Africa focus on increased population growth which they claim translates to bigger markets. Yet a bigger population doesn’t necessarily mean a bigger market as majority of people may simply have less purchasing power leave alone possessing income to purchase the goods and services.

The problems of cities in Africa are many but there are the common ones which, in our view when addressed will start disentangling the countries hence guaranteeing coherent growth and better prospects for respective countries. Some of the problems include; complex land markets which impinge private investment and capital accumulation. The land market systems in most cities are as complex and confusing as a cobweb. A few investors are willing to invest their time and resources since the market is as unpredictable as it is multifaceted. Some of the land problems have existed for many years and therefore it has become very difficult for countries to even think about addressing the problem. After all when a problem persists for too long it becomes compounded that some managers feel it’s not necessary to deal with it. In fact sometimes the problem becomes very normal. The issue of land in some countries is quite touchy that governments have resigned it to fate. It’s like an old wound.  They would rather not deal with it at all than attempting to solve it anyway.

The other serious problem of African cities is the challenge of poor connectivity and transport in general. The connectivity between residential areas industrial and commercial areas is at best very poor in most cases or very inconveniencing to travelers. Commuting times between different nodes of the city are ever increasing thus reducing on the efficiency of delivery of goods and services. Most streets are crowded with traffic jams and disorderly movement of vehicles and people. There is mixed traffic on most roads which compromises the safety and security of pedestrians thus setting their lives in danger of being killed in road accidents.

In addition the tradable goods in most African cities are not competitive enough for outside markets. Many cities in Africa have very limited foreign trade or trade with the outside countries. Most goods produced within the cities are either exchanged locally since they are of less value. Majority of the cities however are net importers of other goods which seriously tilts their Balance of payments and makes it unfavorable. Most city markets are always flooded with cheap Chines products which are imported at unreasonable rates. On the other hand, the local population is always engaged in agricultural produce and other merchandises which have had the least value addition and are in most cases perishable in a very short period.

Some cities in Africa have leapfrog developments with many patches of undeveloped land or land that has been developed but with low value buildings and activities. It’s common to find very old and dilapidated buildings right in the center of a city. It’s also common to find large tracts of land that is idle and not being utilized because of either unresolved conflicts or where the owners don’t have enough resources to develop it. Some vacant land can stay unutilized in the city for many years yet it could have been put to good use. The issue of leapfrog development pushes the boundaries of the city outwardly thus further complicating and increasing commuting times in form of high transport costs. A compact city with a good layout plan is more advantageous than a sprawling urban area that is disjointed and unstructured.

Another problem is that though some African cities have high rise buildings and quality housing especially in city centers, the quality of infrastructure in most parts is of low value. Some cities have big slums right in the middle of the city which is in itself part of poor land utilization. Property development is not homogenous and at worst of low quality. People without adequate capital continue to own large pieces of land yet they cannot develop them at the moment. They keep waiting to accumulate resources before they can develop such land.

Lastly, one of the foremost challenge African cities have to address is that of insecurity in their cities. An unproductive city is simply an insecure city. When a lot of people are idle and not engaged in meaningful production, the likelihood of such people resorting to crime becomes high. The crime rates in many African cities is ever increasing. Whereas insecurity used to be mainly rampant at night it’s now apparent that crime rates in Africa are shooting up even during day time because of poor set-up of cities and high rates of unemployment.

In conclusion, the mess in which most African cities find themselves in, has everything to do with land use and lack of goodwill by leaders to introduce sustainable land reforms.  Land is inelastic and government should be at the forefront in seeking for better means and ways of how land in cities could be better utilized. Basic economics teaches us that the most important factor of production is land. If governments in Africa cannot fix the land use problem, it’s more likely that the cities will take much longer to resolve other matters afflicting their cities including creating jobs for the people and attracting genuine investors. In short, most African cities are in a mess for the reason that their land management practices are quite messy themselves.

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