Mainstreaming Sustainable Infrastructure Investment: Synthesis and Reflections

The strength of this series rests in its commitment to unpack the monolith of sustainable infrastructure – what it means for different actors, across various sectors and at different scales. This focus is augmented by moments of synthesis and generalisation. Paper 1 frames the series and this paper (Paper 6) summarises and positions the work in future-looking debates.


The information and communications technology (ICT), sanitation, mobility and energy sector reports provide a rich and varied discussion on Africa’s sustainable infrastructure challenge from sectoral viewpoints. This latitudinal approach provides several vital insights, as follows:

Existing infrastructure delivery models fail on their own terms. The status quo approaches for investment in urban infrastructure in Africa has not – and likely will not – result in universal coverage. From energy to transport, large-scale investment programmes in many countries have made significant impacts on the quality, affordability and accessibility of service delivery systems. So too have innovative finance mechanisms. Progress is notable in the ICT and energy sectors; however, these investments (and the concomitant innovations that underpin them) are unable to keep pace with the need for services, affordable service delivery, ensuring progress towards the various global sustainability metrics – such as the 1.5 degree world – or delivering on the targets outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Africa is a long way off from achieving the SDGs that pertain to access to basic services, especially in the sprawling informal settlements that mark urban landscapes and peri-urban zones.

Scale matters for investments in infrastructure. Owing to the incredible need, infrastructure investment programmes tend to focus on large-scale infrastructure. For example, the papers show that industrial energy generation, transnational logistics corridors, or undersea cables are the core focus areas of donors and lenders. These are essential parts of infrastructure systems, supporting economic development and ensuring that the backbone of large networks are in place. However, the lack of focus on distribution, and connection – the last mile of service delivery to homes and small firms – has resulted in significant gaps and fractures in infrastructure systems at the local level. The outcome is that many areas in cities are not serviced by the grid. As noted in the sanitation paper, most African cities are not covered by networked sanitation and are using on-site services instead. In some cities, the entire city uses on-site sanitation solutions. Even where large-scale treatment has been developed, few are connected to it and the plants function at a fraction of their capacity. Moreover, even in places where bulk capacity has been extended and connections made, service provision may be inconsistent or unaffordable. This is the case across infrastructure sectors. As shown in the papers, these overburdened and poorly maintained systems leave urban dwellers with clogged toilets (sanitation), rolling blackouts (energy) or insufferable commute times (mobility). There are also vital interdependencies. When the electricity grid is unstable and prone to power cuts, it impacts the operational efficacy of water treatment plants, exacerbating the negative health impacts of limited or poor sanitation services. Energy-related challenges can disrupt data network services and mobility systems.

Off-grid, private and informal provision methods fill gaps. The limitations of the network – particularly its breakdown at the last mile of delivery – have given rise to makeshift and informal solutions. Demand for services still exists, even where the network cannot supply. From home generators to pit latrines, economies for the delivery of services to individual businesses and households have evolved over decades to fill the gaps in formal and State-driven delivery systems. In some African cities, states themselves – realising that they cannot provide key services – have encouraged decentralised solutions, such as mini-grids or community scale sanitation treatment. However, generally, makeshift solutions have been tolerated and framed as interim solutions. These vernacular service delivery systems ‘work’ as they are flexible and responsive. They rarely require large outlays of capital and can circumvent cumbersome bureaucracies.

Nevertheless, they are costly, consequently making everyday life expensive and small-scale businesses less efficient. They do not benefit from economies of scale or enable large capital costs to be spread over many generations of users. Mini-grid tariffs, for example, tend to be much higher than utility provided services. Diesel home generators are even more costly per unit and in terms of their environmental impact. These diverse service systems dominate delivery, particularly for the urban poor. It raises the possibility that so-called decentralised sustainable technologies can be more expensive per unit cost than network infrastructure systems.

The development sector is driving new technologies. While the substance and scale of these diverse service systems are poorly documented, the reality of their costs and risks are acknowledged by the development sector. Donors and lenders have become increasingly interested in technologies that are more flexible, dynamic and responsive. From ‘BRT-lite’, to high-tech on-site sanitation systems, to e-mobility, a whole plethora of technologies are being imported and tested in African cities. A key part of this technology push is a drive for digitisation and ‘smart services’, such as smart meters or smart batteries. Some of these technologies have the potential to address key environmental risks and sustainability challenges. However, it is important to ensure that excitement over new technologies, especially digital ones, do not militate against robust engagement with the social, political, privacy and environmental implications of their deployment.

Ensuring diverse investments that create real long-term value requires strong institutional skills and coordination. Careful governance of these complex infrastructural systems – made up of large networks, informal gap filling, and new technologies – is required. However, the existing intergovernmental arrangements that structure infrastructure planning and delivery are messy and inefficient. The role of local governments vis-à-vis utility companies, private operators and development finance providers is generally weak. Different actors respond to their own plans, incentives and log frames, with little coherence or explicit vision for the future infrastructure systems of cities. There is even less consideration for the overall spatial development and form of the city. This is one of the contributing factors to the ineffectiveness of urban master plans in most African cities. The sectoral nature of infrastructure planning and its disconnect from spatial planning is a recipe for contestation and stagnation.