Sustainable Growth: Supporting Urbanization in Africa

The size of urban populations in Africa is projected to triple in the next 50 years, but African countries are not prepared to deal with the challenges urbanization will bring, according to a working paper.
Sustainable Growth: Supporting Urbanization in Africa

The goal is to make Africa’s cities more “efficient, sustainable, and inclusive,” say authors Maria Emilia Freire, senior advisor of Growth Dialogue, a nonprofit supporting smart global economic growth; Somik Lall, a lead economist for urban development for the World Bank; and Danny Leipziger, managing director of Growth Dialogue and professor of international business at the George Washington University School of Business. Growth Dialogue and GWU are both based in Washington, D.C.

With only 77 people per square kilometer, Africa has the lowest average population density in the world.

In most regions, urbanization is an effect of industrialization and economic development. But in Africa, the authors write, “urbanization is occurring at lower levels of income and with far less investment in infrastructure.”

For instance, they note that while capital investment in China has increased from 35 percent of GDP in 1980 to 48 percent in 2011, capital investment in Africa has held at 20 percent of GDP for the past 40 years.

In addition, more than 70 percent of the continent’s urban population lives in cities of fewer than 500,000 people. Without larger city centers, the authors note, African countries will have difficulty attracting investments, boosting productivity, and spurring economic growth.

Africa also faces problems of densification— meaning that its population is not well concentrated in its urban centers. With only 77 people per square kilometer, Africa has the lowest average population density in the world. The authors argue that fast-growing cities must achieve more efficient densification, perhaps by “relaxing regulations so that cities can grow in height and capture the benefits of density.”

Countries that currently have the lowest levels of urbanization—such as Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda—have the greatest opportunity. Policymakers can focus on policies to minimize urban sprawl; plan roads and services; perfect the delivery of education, healthcare, and other public services; and preserve the environment.

“Africa is both the poorest continent and the one urbanizing most rapidly,” Leipziger says. “Neither global trade nor regional trade is providing the growth drivers necessary to avoid the creation of slums and the movement of the populations from being rural poor to being urban poor.”

That’s why Growth Dialogue has made Africa’s urbanization a priority. “Not to deal with urbanization,” the authors write, “will retard development prospects and prove costly” long term.

“Africa’s Urbanization: Challenges and Opportunities” will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Africa and Economics, Vol. 1: Context and Concepts (Oxford University Press, 2015). It is also available at