The role of cities in Africa’s rise

Under the theme “Delivering on Africa’s Promise”, the 23rd World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa will provide an important platform for regional and global leaders from business, government and civil society to deepen the continent’s integration agenda and renew commitment to a sustainable path of growth and development. 

New dynamic markets around the world are offering boundless opportunities. With returns on investment far exceeding those of mature markets in Europe and North America, firms are gravitating to new markets in the south and the east where inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) now exceed those of traditional western markets.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Africa. Widely regarded as the next frontier of growth and opportunity, firms across a range of sectors are enjoying exponential returns. With a billion-strong youth population and an economy likely to double from $2 trillion to $4 trillion before 2025, Africa has quickly emerged as the next great economic hope for the global economy.

But with 54 countries and over 1,000 spoken dialects across the continent, Africa is perhaps the most diverse region of all, and certainly one of the most complex investment destinations. While the bullish sentiment around Africa’s rise is well-founded, a far more granular approach to grasping the nuances and realising the opportunities is essential.

Africa’s emerging cities

“Cities are…the cause of the good life. They are the centres of wealth creation, creativity, innovation, and invention. They’re the exciting places. They are these magnets that suck people in.” ~ Geoffrey West

This goes beyond country-by-country assessments, drilling yet deeper to the new dynamos of economic energy and growth – Africa’s emerging cities. The nature of the business environment in Africa will increasingly demand a far more city-centric orientation toward investment decisions and day-to-day business practices.

The rise of cities and their role in economic development is a global phenomenon. Today, over half the world’s population are urban dwellers, generating, in some cases, up to 80% of a country’s national production and income. By 2025 cities will house over 4 billion consumers, a significant increase from just 1 billion in 1990. Over 2 billion of these consumers will be in emerging market cities.

Urbanisation: cities in Africa

This shift from rural to urban centres is the largest migration in human history. Africa will be leading the charge for the coming decades in a similar way to China’s economic transition since 1980. By 2030, Africa will be an urban continent, with more than 50% of the population living in cities. And over 60% of Africans will be living in cities by 2050.

Global growth in urbanisation will be almost exclusively in Africa and Asia over the next 40 years. Together, these two regions will account for 86% of the world’s urban population growth, which, as Geoffrey West, the theoretical physicist and scholar of city systems, insists, ultimately bodes well for economic prosperity.

But this comes with unprecedented challenges around jobs, housing, and infrastructure, not to mention the obvious scarcity of water and other resources, and the impact this will have on the environment, health, and safety.

African Cities


Urbanisation and infrastructure

“The world today is more about cities than countries.” ~ AT Kearney, 2012 Global Cities Index

Cities are the highest form of social organisation and often associated with advancing human development. Cities incorporate an intense combination of economic, cultural, and political factors, in combination with varying degrees of urbanisation and infrastructure, defined by geography and history.

In Africa, the emergence of cities is no exception. From the coastal estuaries of Lagos in Nigeria, which has boomed and sprawled from 300,000 inhabitants in 1960 to over 17 million today; to Kinshasa, which was established on the banks of the powerful Congo river, nearing 15 million; and Johannesburg, reputedly the largest city that is not located strategically on a river, port or coastline – but which boasts some of the richest mineral deposits the world has ever seen.

These cities are forged by their history and geography, and exude truly unique cultural traits that influence their national geographies well beyond the city limits.

David Okwara

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