Urbanization: The Rising Tide That Will Lift All Boats…or Sink Them

Urbanization: The Rising Tide That Will Lift All Boats…or Sink Them

by Conor Godfrey on March 22, 2011

When I lived in Guinea I would make a trip to my regional capital once a month to meet with other Peace Corps volunteers, chat in English, and buy beer and toilet paper.

A lot of volunteers would note that coming into the city felt like entering “real Africa.”

This is obviously a nonsense term, but let me explain why it felt reasonable to say it: while I loved my sleepy little agricultural village, there was not a whole lot going on.

The only thing that had changed in the previous century was probably the use of cell phones. Now you could climb a mountain 5 km away for spotty service.

But things were constantly happening in the cities.


People watched the news on T.V. and talked about current events; entrepreneurs hawked any and everything on the street; people played live music at cafes and restaurants; and young, sharp looking men and women brimmed with self confidence.

It felt like the “real Africa.”

Statistically, this will be true by 2025, when ~60% of Africa’s population will live in urban areas.

Africa is now in the grips of one of the fastest urbanizations in history.

From the turn of the 21st century to 2030, the continent’s urban population will increase by over 150%, rising from around 300 million today to over 740 million.

Read a great Afribiz article on this transformation here.

The economist Africa blog also ran an interesting map on the growth of African. Look here to find out which cities will overtake Cairo as the continent’s largest.


Africa is just now reaching the levels of urbanization that fueled growth in China and India.

By 2025 some parts of Africa will actually be much more urban than their Asian counterparts. See the table on the 2nd page of this UN Habitat report for comparisons.

African cities are not ready for this influx.

Underserved slums will expand and get slummier.

The classic examples of sprawling African slums such as Kibera in Nairobi, or this neighborhood in Kinshasa, will multiply.
Kinshasa Neighborhood

There is a chorus of experts who claim that urban design and city planning will top the list of Africa’s challenges from 2000-2050. Find another good blog entry from the Economist here.

The challenges posed by cities are obvious: how can relatively poor countries furnish new city dwellers with adequate health, sanitation, and security services?

How will all those people be fed and educated? And what will this mass of young, often unemployed men do when these services are not adequately provided?

These cities will be hotbeds of everything from HIV to insurrection. They will, however, also be hotbeds of innovation and investment.

One of the largest problems with investing in Africa is the fragmented nature of the markets.

It does not pay to bring a fiber-optic internet cable to a village of 500 people, but supplying the two dozen or so African cites that will be bigger than Rome in the next 20 years will certainly create viable revenue streams.

Dar es Salaam
Entrepreneurs will meet financiers in these new cities; financial services will expand to meet the needs of city dwellers; health insurance and other risk pooling schemes will function; technology will become more affordable; and ubiquitous, foreign companies that sell consumer products and services like purses and cell phones will set up shop (as they already are doing) and create jobs….the benefits of urbanization cannot be exaggerated.

The wave is already beginning to crash on underprepared African cities. But- If African leaders can mitigate some of the consequences of urbanization with forward thinking city planning, than I think urbanization on the continent will continue to drive a period of growth unprecedented in Africa’s history.