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AfriCities II

Promoting Sustainable Infrastructure to Underpin African Urbanisation



At the intersection of Africa’s urbanisation, employment, economic growth, cultural and environmental imperatives sit the question of infrastructure. Traditionally, development policy would simply advocate for the roll-out of modern network infrastructure, through, first, a focus on governance reform so that the country in question could be sufficiently credit-worthy to access the requisite development finance to implement infrastructure projects. This approach has demonstrably not worked in most of Africa for two main reasons. One, irrespective of the quality of governance, most sub-Saharan African countries are too poor to be considered credit worthy, and the prevalence of infrastructure poverty undermines political institutions. Two, modern infrastructure systems are often inappropriate not just because of costs, but also due to the associated negative environmental impacts: too resource-intensive and often a contributor to carbon emissions especially when coal and other fossil fuels underpin the energy infrastructure systems.[1] Today, these problems are well understood by African leaders, and institutions and a different approach is afoot that should be reinforced by European partners.

In light of this context, one can draw on the following operational definition of sustainable infrastructure:

"Sustainable infrastructure is infrastructure that is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable […] Sustainable infrastructure is inclusive and respects human rights. Such infrastructure meets the needs of the poor by increasing infrastructure access, supporting general poverty reduction, and reducing vulnerability to climate change risks […] It positively impacts GDP per capita and job outcomes. Sustainable infrastructure does not burden governments with debt they can never repay, or end users with tariffs they cannot afford including and especially the poor […] Environmentally sustainable infrastructure mitigates carbon emissions during construction and operation (e.g., high energy efficiency standards). Sustainable infrastructure is also resilient to climate change (e.g., by building public transport systems in less fragile places or to different specifications due to climate change risks)."[2]

This agenda is not unique to Africa but rather an imperative for the whole world. However, due to the extreme deficits in Africa and the extent of poverty and limited infrastructure finance resources, the challenges are unique. Since Europe is equally confronted with dramatically reconfiguring the material and carbon intensities of its aging infrastructure networks, there is indeed an integrated debate to be had about new priorities to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and low-carbon ambitions. Africa is confronted by four major infrastructural priorities.


Energy Transitions

Energy security is a precondition for economic prosperity and peace. Africa is hobbled by extreme deficits with regard to reliable and sustainable energy generation capacity. Addressing this issue ranks as a very high priority for all the key national, regional and pan-African institutions such as the African Development Bank (AfDB) and various infrastructure actors. Fortunately, the SDG agreement and processes have created considerable momentum to not only address energy deficits but to simultaneously consider the importance of building a low-carbon, future-proof system. Influential think tanks such as the Africa Progress Panel argue that: “Governments should aim at a 10-fold increase in power generation by 2040, while laying the foundations for a low-carbon transition. Public spending on energy should be raised to 3-4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), supported by measures aimed at raising the tax-to-GDP ratio and avoiding excessive reliance on bond markets.”[3] The emphasis on increased investment and building low-carbon systems are particularly important to ensure a more equal, inclusive and sustainable future.

This approach is being reinforced by the global platform Sustainable Energy for All (SE4-all) which operates under the auspices of the United Nations. Their mandate is to work: “With leaders in government, the private sector and civil society to drive further, faster action toward achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 7, which calls for universal access to sustainable energy by 2030, and the Paris Climate Agreement.” SE4-all operates through three regional hubs around the world, including Africa. The Africa hub is embedded in the AfDB which means that they are able to reinforce and influence the electrification priority of the bank. Practically, SE4-all is working with numerous African countries to develop an explicit sustainable energy strategy for their country, linked to the 2030 targets and translated into an investment plan. This is an excellent institutional platform to reinforce.


Mobility Transition

The second binding constraint on African economies is undoubtedly limited and poor transport infrastructure. A number of African firms are rendered uncompetitive simply because of the time lost to get goods from point A to point B. This refers to the existence and quality of road and rail infrastructure, the limited capacities of ports, and the pathetic state of passenger transport, especially in terms of the public transport system.[4] These problems seem to be recognised by African development institutions and governments. However, it is striking that at present a lot of the emphasis from a pan-African perspective is being placed on regional transport infrastructures that need to be enhanced to enable the vision of strong trade corridors that propel the regional integration agenda of the African Union, which aims at establishing a Continental Free Trade Area (CTFA). This agenda translates into the Action Plan for Boosting Intra-Africa Trade (BIAT) which is supported and promoted by the AfDB. It is in this context that there has been a marked increase in foreign direct investments towards regional mobility projects such as rail corridors, road corridors and ports.[5]

This is indeed important, but it must be complemented with a much more ambitious package of investments to establish and grow integrated public transit systems in African cities and towns. Unless African cities are decongested, made safer for pedestrians and informal solutions are upgraded, it will be impossible to reap the urban dividend. Most African cities can be characterised in the following manner: Most urban trips are done by walking due to the unaffordability of private and public motorised transport. However, despite this fact, there is hardly any provision made for pedestrians in how roads are designed and built, nor is public or mass transit prioritised in land-use. Due to the lack of public investment in public transport, partially informal minibus taxis and motorcycles often provide the bulk of mobility for urban dwellers. Furthermore, due to a lack of investment, inappropriate regulation and control systems marked by arbitrary extortion, these para-transit systems are often dangerous and inconvenient. Yet, quasi-informal mass transit systems have responded to market demands and the sprawled urban form evident in most African cities. For this reason, they have to be central to a more sustainable, affordable and convenient future system.

There has been a significant growth in policy awareness and development to systematically solve public transport.[6] For example, there have been a number of attempts to introduce bus-rapid transit systems in various cities, as well as investments in light rail and tram-based systems in North Africa. There has also been a steady increase in policy awareness of combining public transport planning with land-use planning so that the underlying problems of urban sprawl and car-dependency can be addressed over time.


Housing and Land

Africa has the highest proportion of slum dwellers in the world. This stems from rapid and largely unplanned and poorly managed urbanization. It is also a function of low and variable household income, compounded by a skewed market. Formal mortgage finance reaches less than 10% of the population and most publicly financed housing programs that target the lower middle class and civil servants are very small and achieve limited impact.[7] Residents in informal settlements struggle to formalize their dwellings because of a lack of access to affordable finance, insecure tenure arrangements, overpriced construction materials and limited depth in the construction sector. Yet, despite these dramatic problems, housing and land regularization remains a policy blind spot for most African government and especially the pan-African policy agenda. This is reflected in the fact that housing and land access does not feature once on the Agenda 2063 portal of the African Union.

The de facto reality is that the majority of shelter provision and production is achieved through the efforts of urban residents against the odds. However, even though one can admire the ingenuity and thrift of these residents, it does come at an enormous cost. Living space in informal areas are small and marked by overcrowding, poor insulation, damp and leakage, bad air circulation, limited infrastructure and often no sanitation provision. Furthermore, the collective living spaces in these neighborhoods are also poorly lit, often dangerous for women and children, devoid of green and play spaces, prone to environmental disasters such as flooding and landslides, and overrun with solid waste that clog drainage systems and worsen environmental health problems. Most informal settlements exacerbate urban sprawl even though the occupational densities can be extremely high.

Given the youthful character of the urban population, the demand for accommodation and housing is not going to reduce anytime soon. It is remarkable that there is so little political and policy attention in the Agenda 2063 processes to address the housing and land crisis across the African continent. That said, there are three domains of policy advocacy and experimentation that can be aggregated and framed as a nascent African response. At the bottom-end of the income spectrum there are powerful social movements and support organisations that work with slum dwellers to address their housing needs through their own initiative and resources, but with an eye on catalyzing public funding to support their efforts.[8] The federations affiliated to Slum Dwellers International (SDI) is one example and the work they have done with Cities Alliance to mainstream slum upgrading programmes are an important reference point.

Since most working people in African cities cannot participate in the mortgage market, there is a massive need for subsidized housing for the middle-class in most African cities. Over the last decade or so we have seen a number of African governments such as Rwanda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Ghana establish such programmes. However, apart from Ethiopia and Angola, none of these programmes have achieved any kind of scale and they have definitely not been able to stimulate a secondary market that grows from this stock. As a result, the need for this class of housing stock and associated financing instruments remains vast. Lastly, there have been attempts to strengthen mortgage market instruments so that the coverage can expand beyond 5-10% of the population. Again, in this domain of reform, progress has been slow. According to the Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa the main reason for policy failure has been the lack of an integrated understanding of the full housing spectrum.[9]


Digital Revolution

The ubiquitous discourse on the so-called fourth industrial revolution reflects the extent to which digital platforms and technologies are seen as central to all economic sectors, global trade and future competitiveness. The intersection of urbanisation and economic productivity demonstrates the importance of place in a more globalised economy and labour market, which points to the importance of city-level strategies of investment and coordination. Digital technologies are not only the lubricant of globalisation, they also hold the promise of transforming the functioning and efficiency of urban systems. This policy conclusion is strongly projected in the discourse on smart cities and the potential of smart infrastructure combined with e-governance to change the fortunes of cities and regions.

The substance of the smart city agenda is highly contested, but there have been some important efforts on the part of the UN and International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to promote a public interest definition. They propose that: “A smart sustainable city is an innovative city that uses information and communication technologies (ICTs) and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental, as well as cultural aspects.” The reason ITU and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) promote this normative definition is because there are undeniable risks associated with an uncritical adoption of smart city rhetoric.

Most of the hardware and software that underpin the smart city is developed and supplied by private sector actors. In order to optimise value, these actors offer holistic propriety products which can lead to technological lock-in and skew the long-term investment priorities of city governments. Also, smart city dogmas tend to favour real estate and infrastructure proposals that service the (emerging) middle-class and formal businesses because they represent a viable market. This market bias can reinforce pre-existing urban inequalities or make them worse. It is also evident that smart city technologies can be used repressively through surveillance technologies that target independent civil society organisations and political opponents of the ruling party. In summary, smart city investments do not automatically represent progress, unless their impacts are seen as contributing to enhanced urban sustainability and equity.[10]

A significant initiative on the African continent that seems to be gaining traction is Smart Africa. According to the website, “SMART Africa is a bold and innovative commitment from African Heads of State and Government to accelerate sustainable socioeconomic development on the continent, ushering Africa into a knowledge economy through affordable access to Broadband and usage of Information and Communications Technologies.” It is spearheaded by President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and now includes at least 23 African Heads of State, the Secretary General of the ITU and the AU Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy on its board. Smart Africa sponsored an initiative: the Africa Smart City Blueprint. This sets out an African perspective on how best to promote smart city projects that is in line with domestic developmental priorities.

This piece draws on a longer policy essay: Pieterse, E. (2019) The potential of sustainable urbanisation in Africa. Berlin: Alfred Herrhausen Gesellenschaft.



[1] The evidence is set out in greater detail in: Pieterse, E. and Hyman, K. (2014) Disjunctures between urban infrastructure, finance and affordability, in S. Parnell and S. Oldfield (eds) The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South. London: Routledge.

[2] Bhattacharya, A., Oppenheim, J. and Stern, N. (2015) Driving Sustainable Development Through Better Infrastructure: Key Elements of a Transformation Program. Washington DC: Brookings Institute.

[3] Africa Progress Panel (2016) Opportunity Africa. Powering the Future Now. Geneva: APP, p. 60.[4] World Bank (2017) Africa’s Cities. Opening Doors to the World. Washington DC: World Bank.

[4] World Bank (2017) Africa’s Cities. Opening Doors to the World. Washington DC: World Bank.

[5] ICA, AfDB and Italian G7 Presidency (2017) Toward Smart and Integrated Infrastructure for Africa. An Agenda for Digitalisation, Decarbonisation and Mobility. Milan: Italian G7 Presidency. Also see the recent PIDA progress update: NEPAD Agency, African Union Commission, African Development Bank, (2018) PIDA Progress Report 2018. Midrand, Addis Ababa, Abidjan: NPCA, AUC, AfDB.

[6] Beard, V.A., Mahendra, A. and Westphal, M.I. (2016) Towards a More Equal City: Framing the Challenges and Opportunities. Working Paper. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

[7] Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa (2018) Housing Finance In Africa. A review of Africa’s housing finance markets. Johannesburg: Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa.

[8] Satterthwaite, D. (2018) Agency of Informality. In: Developing Urban Future. Urban Age Conference Newspaper, 29-30 November, Addis Ababa. Berlin & London: Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft & LSE Cities.

[9] Source: Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa (2018) Housing Finance In Africa. A review of Africa’s housing finance markets. Johannesburg: Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa, p. 18.

[10] For a useful overview of the risks and opportunities, see: Hajer, M. (2014) On being smart about cities. Seven considerations for a new urban planning and design. In: Hajer, M. and Dassen, T. (eds) Smart about cities. Visualising the challenge for the 21st Century Urbanism. Rotterdam: nai010 publishers.


Related Contents:Africa 2063: How Cities Will Shape the Future of a Continent


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