By Felipe Calderón and Trevor Manuel

Better, more productive models of urban development are critical for rapidly growing cities in the developing world, and in Africa in particular. How African cities assimilate the 22 million people that will be added to their number every year for the next three decades will determine the continent’s prospects. Africa’s urban population is set to triple between 2010 and 2050, reaching 1.34 billion people. The trend is fastest in East and West Africa – the population of Lagos is expected to top 25 million in the next 15 years – but common to all regions.

President Calderon joins mayors at the C40 Latin American Mayors Forum in Buenos Aires in March 2015.

Labour is generally more productive in cities and the concentration of people in urban spaces generates markets and economies of scale in service delivery. The hope is that Africa’s urbanisation will underpin the continent’s commodity driven growth by drawing on these advantages to produce the same “urban dividend” experienced by Europe, the America’s and South-East Asia during their respective urbanisation phases. This is not, however, guaranteed in Africa.

For starters, half of Africans continue to live on less than $1.25 per day and only 4 per cent live on more than $10 per day. This makes it difficult to raise finance for all-important urban infrastructure applying traditional user-pays models – the local government budget per capita in the city of Accra, for example, is just $12.50 per annum. In addition, the continent’s local authorities are mostly contested, often inadequately supported by national governments and grappling with the basic process of defining boundaries, installing governance structures and communicating with their constituents. They are not yet able to compile an asset inventory, oversee tenure systems or marshal adequate financial resources. And finally, at the same time as Africa confronts its urbanisation challenge, climate change is posing an increasing threat. It is already impacting the availability of food and water and the prevalence of disease. Responding to climate change could cost the continent as much as US$50 billion per year by 2050. Climate impacts and population growth will put a massive strain on Africa’s urban infrastructure.

Much of the African urbanisation and climate change discourse, then, is decidedly gloomy. But this does not need to be so. Because so much of Africa’s urban environment is yet to be built, there is the opportunity to get it right the first time and become a world leader in more productive, low-carbon development fashioned by local needs and supported by recent technological innovation.

Confronted with chronic electricity shortages and under-resourced state-owned energy utilities, households, companies and an increasing number of African governments have embraced independent power producers and local energy solutions. It is the ability of these energy providers to meet pent-up demand for energy with short lead times, close to where it is needed and private finance that makes them desirable. In East Africa the rapid growth of M-KOPA Solar is just one example of the appetite for safer, cheaper and more reliable energy than the default paraffin, batteries and generators.

Similarly, the ability of cities to be places where people meet, transact and engage relies on mobility but urban infrastructure is already inundated by cars that belong to only 6% of Africans. Commuters in Lagos were losing 3 billion hours a year to congestion until new investment in a bus rapid transport infrastructure created dedicated lanes for mass-mobility and encouraged taxi and molue bus drivers to use vehicles that qualified for these lanes.  Similar programmes are currently being implemented in at least nine other African cities.

Sanitation and solid waste collection represent two further critical needs in African cities.  In both instances, the backlog imposes a vicious cycle of poor health, loss of dignity and environmental risk. In the informal settlement of Kibera, outside Nairobi, the community is addressing the sanitation backlog with “bio-centres” – public sanitation centres run by locals that generate revenue from the sale of harvested methane gas.

Africa’s spontaneously green approach to urban service delivery is nascent and often precarious. While they do provide insight into how some services can be provided in spite of budget and governance constraints, the need of the hour is for more efficient utilities, formal infrastructure and publicly provided bulk services. The success of these examples reminds us that the best climate change responses also address people’s day-to-day needs including, in the African urban context, creating the type of local work that unemployed people can do. Where scaled, these approaches to service delivery will generate virtuous cycles of fiscal efficiency, work, risk reduction and new competitiveness in a climate-sensitive global economy. Research from the New Climate Economy showed that low-carbon cities could save $17 trillion globally by 2050. That so much of Africa’s urban environment remains to be built in the next 30 years, affords these cities the rare chance of securing much of this saving. 

A necessary next step involves acknowledging the urbanisation trend as an economic and climate action opportunity. This will entail new funding models and new partnerships, empowering city authorities differently, and drawing on the expertise of urban network bodies such as C40 that are already active in this space. There will, undeniably, be resistance from vested interests in centrally co-ordinated structures. But for African leaders the emerging confluence of service provision, economic development and climate-smart urbanisation is too good an opportunity to be missed.

Felipe Calderón is the former President of Mexico and Chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Trevor Manuel is the former Chairperson of the South African Planning Commission and former Finance Minister of South Africa and a member of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

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