The number of people living in African cities is expected to triple between 2010 and 2050, totalling more than the number of people living in cities in North America, Europe and Latin America combined. Elsewhere in the world, urbanisation has driven industrialisation and rapid economic and developmental gain, writes Anton Cartwright in this article for ESI Africa.
Africa is urbanising late, fast and at low levels of income: features that have seen most governments struggle to meet the demand for public services (water, electricity, sanitation, solid waste management and transport) that new city dwellers require to live long and productive lives. The limits of continent-wide generalisations notwithstanding, urbanisation in Africa has seen people moving from primary activities in rural areas to tertiary activities in cities. In the absence of formal services, much of this tertiary sector activity is in what is termed the ‘informal economy’.
Informality places people beyond the reach of conventional government policy instruments and has proven problematic for urban planners seeking to create coherent and compact cities through the surveying, zoning and titling of land. It has also frustrated revenue collectors looking to property taxes and tariffs for financing infrastructure and service provision. The service delivery implications are aggravated by messy urban governance hybrids comprising mutually contested tribal, local and national authority.
It is no wonder, then, that some African leaders urge people to remain in villages, and prioritise rural development and new towns over the more complex challenge of engaging existing cities. In spite of this suasion, people continue to choose to live in Africa’s urban centres, often carving out service delivery solutions that support their hard-won livelihood strategies in spite of the State. Their quest has been enabled by new technologies that remove the ‘natural monopoly’ status of energy, water and sanitation supply. In the process, they provide clues as to how the financing and service delivery impasse afflicting centrally coordinated infrastructure and services in African cities might be overcome.
Scalable, modular renewable energy technologies obviate the need for mega-power stations and grid connections for the fast growing portion of urban households in Africa. Where they displace paraffin and charcoal, the developmental gains are immediate – in Malawi localised generation capacity now supplies hospitals and clinics. Similar innovations in water and sanitation are being used to compost sewerage without sludge ponds, reticulated water and masses of electricity. Drones are being used to transport medical supplies across congested cities in Rwanda and Tanzania. Drones are also proving valuable in surveying land and providing early warning of floods.
While the adoption of these service delivery innovations is driven by pragmatism and cost, many are also ‘low carbon’. This creates the intriguing potential that African cities could exploit their laggard status and associated lack of conventional industry to secure an unlikely competitive advantage in a global economy that will have to be carbon neutral by 2050 to avoid catastrophic warming (IPCC 2018).
Proponents of this ‘leapfrogging’ idea like to cite how mobile telephony has enabled communication and now financial transactions in Africa without fixed line telecoms infrastructure. Mobile telephony in Africa has been a developmental boon but is not a good analogy for all urban services. Preventing plastic waste from accumulating in storm water drains, the stomachs of livestock and roadside piles that incubate disease, for example, requires on-theground facilities and day-to-day labour. Low carbon service delivery in African cities must, and will, continue. Its ultimate measure, however, should be the extent to which it can combine technology, data and artificial intelligence to fill the void left by conventional services and associated lack of industry in African cities.
Thinking of low carbon service delivery as part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is useful if it forces proponents to reflect on the institutional and social preconditions that were absent when the previous three industrial revolutions passed Africa by. The need, then, includes:
• The importance of governance. This is not a popular message among the young, anti-establishment entrepreneurs developing new technologies. But whether drone couriers or electricity mini-grids, some regulation is necessary to ensure public benefit. As a minimum, the insights that off-grid operators (including Uber drivers) garner on what works and what people are prepared to pay need to be shared to enable government to design complementary public contributions such as roads, land zoning and water pressure management.
• New partnerships. While informality is a definitive feature of African cities, it is not one thing. Very few urban governments (or their law enforcement agencies) have the capacity to distinguish between counterproductive or criminal elements of informality and those that, while disruptive of the status quo, offer vital services and innovation. Companies and State Owned Utilities’ ability to engage, discern and support low carbon informal service providers will have to emerge if the best of their offerings is to be scaled to support industry.
• Using low carbon service delivery to create new types of work, new urban identities and novel pathways out of poverty. This is not a trivial challenge, but unless this mode of service provision goes beyond carbon and addresses underlying social conditions in African cities, it will not be scaled. This in turn will require experimentation by think tanks to test not just the technical merits of the respective options, but also their long-term implications for social justice, economic inclusion and well-being.
Understandably the rapid growth of African cities has spawned neo-Malthusian projections of social and ecological catastrophe. Malthus, however, was wrong for the simple reason that he underestimated the role of technological innovation. Smart African cities from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Zagazig in Egypt are drawing on new low-carbon technological innovations to bypass the need for mega-infrastructure and associated service delivery bottlenecks. The principal appeal is the speed and cost at which these technologies can be mobilised to support growing urban demand. Where their adoption is guided and supported by a vision of what these cities might become in a carbon-constrained world, however, they hold the far greater potential of globally competitive urban economies.