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Informal Cities III

Urbanization Trend in West Africa

by Julius Gatune Kariuki - Policy Advisor: The African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET)


The 2010 UN-Habitat report on the state of African cities confirms Africa as the fastest urbanizing continent in the world and that by 2030, Africa’s collective population will become 50% urban. For the West Africa region, the future is already here, with a number of countries having already crossed the 50% threshold of population proportion living in urban areas.

By the classic rules of economic development, such rapid urbanization—driven by rural-urban migration—is supposed to indicate demographic shifts from rural poverty into urban prosperity. But the story in West Africa is different. For the most part, rural poverty is being transformed into urban poverty.


Fig 4: Ghana Vs Accra Poverty Rates 1990 vs 2006

Source: Government of Ghana (cited in Owusu et al 2008)


Conflicts have also been a driver of urbanization. Abidjan’s population swelled dramatically during Côte d’Ivoire’s conflict, and some fled to cities in neighboring Ghana, notably Accra. Climate change is also driving people to the cities as they seek relief from near-Sahelian dryness.

As more people leave the rural areas and flocks to cities, slums are increasingly becoming the defining characteristic of cities in the region and will become more so as West Africa’s urbanization continues. An overwhelming majority of people in West Africa’s cities lives in slums.

The word slum conjures up image of shanties. However the situation in West Africa is assuming new dimensions because of the growing phenomenon of “temporal slums” which is taking hold in the major markets and lorry parks in the cities. Under this arrangement slum and street lords rent mattresses and mosquito nets to street hawkers and hustlers to sleep in front of shops or at other open places. These slums melt into thin air come morning.


Figure 1: Urban population (percentage) living in slums in selected countries of West Africa

Source: UN-Habitat http://www.unhabitat.org/stats/


The tale of two cities

While slums are defining characteristics of cities in the region, it is really a tale of two cities. For cities in in the region have some of the most expensive real estate. In Accra prices in the expensive neighborhoods go upwards of $1.5 million per acre and rents of $5,000 per month (paid two years in advance) are not uncommon. Cost of homes in high end areas compete with the most expensive cities in the world.


Land Cost in Various Parts of Accra


The merging trend is the developments of new exclusive gated private cities are being built e.g. planned cities in Ghana by Renaissance Capital.



However the story is more nuances for the two cities are more intertwined and interdependent. There is no clear demarcation between what one would call the formal and what one would call slum. For instance in Accra only 6.5 percent of households had no slum characteristics (Jankowska et al (2011). Formal and formality also live side by side such even in a high class neighborhood like Cantonments with land prices fetching over US$ 1.5 million per acre only 65% of homes have no slum characteristics (Agyei_Mensah and Owusu (2010) as even in the richest of the neighborhood there will always host some people living in incomplete houses, kiosks and other shacks. People who provide services to the rich people (cleaners, watchmen etc.) underscoring the close relationship between the formal and the informal city. Indeed it has been pointed that the informal city is the bottom of the pyramid that holds the formal city.


Trends In Public Policies

Past public policies in the region have aimed at eradicating slums. Liberia and Nigeria have been particularly quick to use this approach. Over 2 million Nigerians have lost their homes to demolition pave way for city beautification projects, Montserrado District 7, in central Monrovia was pulled down, leaving over 10,000 persons without homes.

However an appreciation is that slums are here to stay and that indeed they will. They are also a well of entrepreneurship and untapped human potential. In Ghana’s Fadama slums there are thriving leather industries giving skills and employment.

Slums are also showing great innovation in solving social problems. Contrary to expectations, slums have private schools, and slum dwellers are willing to pay for them even when public schools are available. A survey of slums in Accra revealed that 23% of schools were unrecognized private schools catering for about 15% of children enrolled in school. The appeal of slum private schools seems to be their flexibility and ability to deliver. Many of the poorest schools allow a daily fee to be paid so that, for instance, a poor fisherman could send his daughter to school on the days he had funds and allow her to make up for the days she missed. Such flexibility is not possible in the public schools, where full payment of fees is required before the term starts. The effective cost of these private schools was found to be lower than in free public schools that have many hidden fees. But more importantly, these unrecognized private schools were out-performing government schools.

Some interesting developments that are pointer to the future are:

  • Slum communities are organizing to advocate for their rights and also developing networks to learn from each other and for support. Ghana, which is more advanced in advocacy, has been at the forefront of forging these networks. Recently a group of women living in slums from Burkina Faso were trained in organizing and mobilizing poor communities to set up income generating activities and influence decision makers
  • Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal have improved security of tenure and enhanced gender-equality in tenure in recent years, resulting from sound municipal governance and the evolution of democracy. More secure tenure is allowing slum dwellers to further invested and improve on their dwellings.
  • At the same time cities are now embarking in slum upgrading projects that aim to improve infrastructure of slums through a participatory approach that involve slum dwellers rather that demolish them. Countries adopting this approach include Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Niger.
  • The formal planners are showing ingenuity in providing solutions that recognize slum reality. The exemplar is the floating school being developed by a Nigerian architect to serve the Makoko slums.

The Makoko Floating School

Source: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/nigeria-lagos-water-communities-look-like-waterworld



It is now being grudgingly acknowledged that these can no longer be applied as slums but are a reality of the near and medium term future of the region’s cities. However, this is going to be an uphill battle. This is because a mindset set on destroying slums is quite entrenched not only in government but also among professionals in the urban development space. For instance, at their 2013 annual surveyors’ week celebration, the President of the Ghana Institution of Surveyors (GIS), Mr. James E.K. Dadson was quoted as saying:


“…If in the opinion of the experts, a particular land use is not beneficial, we will have to relocate it and put it to a use that will be beneficial to society. You cannot have a slum in an area that has very high land value...”


So the tension between the formal city and informal cities will run for some time as formal cities comes to acknowledge the reality that has always been there. The informal city is part and parcel of the urban landscape of West Africa and cannot be wished away.

Indeed a more pragmatic view that acknowledges the reality of slums, and at the same time the dynamism of slum inhabitants to resolve their very problems can go a long way in helping cities in the region cope with rapid urbanization.



Julius Gatune Kariuki

Policy Advisor: The African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET)

Read more about Julius and his view on being a futurist.



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