It is well known that African urban populations are growing. Almost every article or policy document on the topic is foregrounded with this point. Very often there is an explicit forecast of when this or that country's population will become at least half urban. Usually it is presumed that this will be soon.
There is no doubt that urban populations in sub-Saharan Africa are usually growing. This is a challenge to national governments and city authorities because it means there are more urban residents each year who need houses, clean water, sanitation, transport and, above all, employment. However, whether most African countries will fairly soon be mainly urban is another issue. There is now plenty of data to suggest that in many cases, they will not.
A perusal of UN-HABITAT's 'Urban Indicators' database reveals some curious statistics. The proportion of Kenyans living in urban settlements seemingly reduced from 34% of the total population in 2001 to 22% in 2010. Was it really possible that such a huge number of people had left Kenyan towns for rural areas in the first decade of the 21st century? After all, it is 'common knowledge' that Kenya is urbanising rapidly.
The proportion of Kenyans living in urban settlements seemingly reduced from 34% of the total population in 2001 to 22% in 2010. Was it really possible that such a huge number of people had left Kenyan towns for rural areas in the first decade of the 21st century?
The UN-HABITAT data indicated a reduction in the urbanisation level of 11 other mainland countries in sub-Saharan Africa between 2001 and 2010 — Tanzania, Uganda, Benin, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. The declines in Tanzania (from 33% to 26%), Mauritania (59% to 41%) and Senegal (48% to 43%) were as startling as that in Kenya.
This may come as a shock because of the way so much of the mainstream literature and agency reports portrays African urbanisation. But the data on urban populations in sub-Saharan Africa for many years were generally poor. There were often some censuses immediately after independence but then a hiatus as public sector expenditure came under pressure. Some censuses were taken and not made available; others were hotly disputed as resource allocation is always so bound up with the numbers of how many people are living where. Nigeria is the most obvious example of this. Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have not had censuses for decades but confident predictions are made about the size of Luanda and Kinshasa, which should really be flagged as guesstimates.
A number of censuses taken in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and research on urban settlements using remote sensing, have demonstrated that urbanisation — in the sense of a shift from rural to urban — has slowed significantly in several large mainland sub-Saharan African countries.
In this light, the declines noted above do not represent real collapses in levels of urbanisation, but collapses in official estimates as earlier overblown projections are succeeded by recent, more accurate data.
Time to rethink urban poverty in Africa
Why does this matter? It matters because of what it tells us about the economies of the African towns in these countries. It matters, above all, because of what it tells us about the livelihoods of town residents. Research on rural-urban migrants, urban livelihoods and rural-urban linkages across sub-Saharan Africa has shown how hard urban life has become. Structural adjustment policies beginning in the 1980s lead to economic changes that devastated urban economies in the name of trade liberalisation and the tenets of 'comparative advantage'. In crude terms African countries' economies began to be re-structured back to the patterns typical of colonialism: as primary commodity exporters.
The income and employment-generation patterns associated with this are bad news for most urban residents. De-industrialisation occurred in many African cities at the same time as mass industrial employment was being created in those in Asia where the laws of comparative advantage favoured industrial employment creation.
As a result African cities have informalised. But most work in this sector is poorly paid and the income gap between rural and urban areas has narrowed sharply; urban services have also worsened. Migrants to town are logical and many leave if they feel their lives have not been improved; as there are scarcely any welfare services in African cities those who cannot find work may have little choice.
It is largely this process of faster out-migration driven by weak urban economies that is slowing the pace of urbanisation.
It is largely this process of faster out-migration driven by weak urban economies that is slowing the pace of urbanisation. The list of countries where urbanisation has been measured as slowing so much that the proportion designated as urban has been increasing by as little as one or two per cent per decade, or even less, is long: Zambia, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Malawi, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Senegal, Mauritania, Nigeria, Togo and Benin. If these dynamics continue, then it will be many decades before these countries will become at least half urban; indeed in many it might not occur this century.
It is time for policy-makers to realise these dynamics and to differentiate between countries which really are urbanising rapidly or are already more than half urbanised (these often being very small countries with a tiny fraction of sub-Saharan Africa's population) and those where urbanisation has slowed. Above all it time to think much harder about urban poverty in Africa. The presumption of rapid urban growth can distract from the realities of how poorly African cities have fared under the pressures of globalised economies.