*African cities Left behind/ The Economist 17.09.16*

All over the world, people escape poverty by moving to cities. Why does
this not work so well in Africa?

Sep 17th 2016 | LAGOS | From the print edition

IT HAS been a week since Mohammed Sani moved to Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial
capital. A scrawny 22-year old from Kebbi State in the north-west, he came
looking for work. He has certainly found it. At 5am each morning he fills
ten 25-litre plastic jugs with water from a borehole, paying 20 naira for
each one (about $0.05). He then pulls them around Yaba, his new
neighbourhood, on a cart, selling each one for 25 naira. By sunset at 7pm
he has perhaps 700 naira of profit ($2) in his pocket—not much in Lagos.
“If I find a better business, I will try it,” he says. But for the moment,
this is as good at it gets.

Young people migrate to cities the world over looking for opportunity.
Lagos, a sprawling lagoon city of some 21m people (pictured), is no
exception. In dense traffic jams, young men weave through the cars selling
plastic pouches of drinking water and tissues. On street corners they run
generators and will charge your phone or photocopy a document. But most
people never get much further than where they start: working
extraordinarily hard for very little. Migrants to African cities are not
worse off than they were in the countryside. If that were the case, they
would move back. But urbanisation in Africa does not provide nearly as good
a ladder out of poverty as it does elsewhere.

Africa is the world’s fastest urbanising continent. In 1950, sub-Saharan
Africa had no cities with populations of more than 1m. Today, it has around
50. By 2030, over half of the continent’s population will live in cities,
up from around a third now. The fastest growing metropolises, such as
Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, are expanding at rates of more than 4% per year.
That is almost twice as fast as Houston, America’s fastest-growing

In most parts of the world, crowding people together allows businesses that
wouldn’t otherwise exist to thrive. In Africa this process seems not to
work as well. According to one 2007 study of 90 developing countries,
Africa is the only region where urbanisation is not correlated with poverty
reduction. The World Bank says that African cities “cannot be characterised
as economically dense, connected, and liveable. Instead, they are crowded,
disconnected, and costly.”

Not all African cities are the same, of course. Kigali, Rwanda’s capital,
is amazingly clean—the result of having a stern disciplinarian as a
president. South Africa’s big cities somewhat resemble American ones, only
with shanty towns at the edges. What ties them together, and sets them
apart from cities elsewhere in the world, according to the Brookings
Institution, an American think-tank, is that urbanisation has not been
driven by increasing agricultural productivity or by industrialisation.
Instead, African cities are centres of consumption, where the rents
extracted from natural resources are spent by the rich. This means that
they have grown while failing to install the infrastructure that makes
cities elsewhere work.

In Lagos, the island of Ikoyi, which was once a garden suburb for British
colonial officers, is now a wealthy residential area lived in by oil
executives and politicians, with a golf course. But if you want to live
here, you must “bring your own infrastructure”, jokes Giles Omezi, a
Nigerian architect. Every private home or apartment block has not only its
own security guards and generator, but its own borehole and water treatment
system too. Even street lighting and roads can be privately provided: a
thriving business in Lagos is reclaiming land on which to build fancy gated
communities. The biggest of them, Eko Atlantic, is being built by a
Lebanese family business, and stretches way out into the Atlantic Ocean.

The poor new arrivals, meanwhile, get by with almost nothing. Underneath a
bridge that connects the Nigerian mainland to Lagos’s islands, the slum of
Makoko sprawls out into the lagoon—the houses at the edge are built on
stilts in the water on foundations of rubbish. Once a fishing village, it
is now home to anywhere between 80,000 and 300,000 people from all over
west Africa. Water has to be brought in by cart. Sewage runs in the narrow
streets. The police, when they come in at all, do so mostly to demand
bribes. “The government doesn’t want us to be here,” says Isaac Dosugam, a
resident who works as a driver. In 2012 part of the slum was indeed
demolished by the authorities. But it has grown back since.

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital, 28% of residents live at
least three to a room; in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s economic hub, the figure
is 50%. In Nairobi, around two-thirds of the population occupy 6% of the
land. Slums bring with them filth and disease. Across sub-Saharan Africa,
only 40% of urban residents have access to proper toilets—a figure that has
not changed since 1990.

Formal jobs are rare. Most slum dwellers scrape by on informal work in
their neighbourhoods. Those who can find jobs with salaries usually have
long commutes to distant city centres. In Nairobi, the primary means of
transport is on foot. In South Africa the average commute by bus is 74
minutes each way.

The unequal distribution of land doesn’t just create slums: it also raises
costs for businesses. In Lagos, expat tenants of new apartment blocks are
typically expected to pay an entire year’s rent in advance. For a modest
three-bedroom apartment on Ikoyi, this might come to $65,000. And yet the
city is littered with empty and half-finished buildings, even in the most
fashionable districts. Much of it is government-owned: office blocks
abandoned since Nigeria moved the capital from Lagos to Abuja in 1991. But
privately owned land is often underdeveloped too, partly thanks to a law
which requires any sale to have the governor’s consent.

There is some progress. Traffic in Lagos is no longer as punishing as it
once was, largely thanks to new roads built by Babatunde Fashola, the
city’s previous governor. A light-rail system—expensive, long delayed and
badly planned—is almost complete. When it opens, Lagos will join Addis
Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, which opened the first sub-Saharan metro system
outside of South Africa last year. In cities such as Abidjan and Kampala
expressways funded by tolls are easing bottlenecks and opening up
agricultural land to developers, fuelling suburban construction booms.

But the trouble is that changes often seem to benefit the relatively rich
most. Better roads typically do not reach into slums; new apartments are
never targeted at people earning a few dollars a day. Politicians across
Africa often seem to see the poor as a problem to be swept away, rather
than people whose lives need improving. In Lagos, the state government
frequently bulldozes slums, but almost never provides alternative housing.
In Kigali, according to Human Rights Watch, a lobby group, unsightly street
traders are often beaten up and imprisoned without trial.

Real change is possible, but politically hard. If Africa’s wealthy paid
more taxes, the extra cash could pay for infrastructure that would
eventually benefit everybody. Clearer land registration would lower the
cost and risk of building new homes. Devolution that made city leaders more
accountable might produce planning policies that help the poor. Some of
these reforms are being tried in a few African cities, but rarely all at

So most African city dwellers have to rely on their own hard work and
enterprise. In his tiny shop on the Lagos mainland, Colin Alli is one of
the luckier ones. He explains how he built up his bedsheets business from a
single market stall. Now he employs four men. “Tomorrow I can be governor,”
he jokes.

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