5 Forecasts for the Future of African Cities
For Africa, the 21st century is largely a tale of its cities. The continent is now home to more than 400 million urbanites—an exciting shift I discussed with many of the leaders gathered last month for the Clinton Global Initiative Middle East and Africa meeting in Marrakech.
To be sure, anyone who has caught public transportation in Kinshasa or experienced a power outage in Lagos knows that Africa’s rapid urbanization comes with steep challenges. But these urban centers are also driving economic expansion, fostering innovation, and creating unprecedented possibilities for future generations.
The conversation started at CGI’s meeting in Morocco has spurred an ongoing discussion about the positive trends on the horizon. Below, five forecasts for the future of African cities from those who are seeing change happen firsthand.
1. Tech Sectors Will Shift City Borders—or Erase Them Entirely
Events this century may shake up our long-held ideas about what physically separates cities. “The growth in information and communication technology will soon erase the ‘official’ borders of cities, and we may end up with megacities that span across national borders, organized instead around capabilities and expertise,” says Phuti Mahanyele, CEO of the South African investment holding company Shanduka Group and a recent panelist at CGI Middle East and Africa.
“I believe that we’ll see an emergence of global cities in Africa which will be more specialized—from those focusing on information technology to engineering and the like,” says Mahanyele. “Thus, they’ll attract talented people to service those specific economic sectors. Nationality and borders will eventually be irrelevant, because the movement of trade and money will be fluid. These factors call on leaders in both the public and private sectors to be dynamic and not only focus on bulk infrastructure development, but also emphasize urban planning and management. This approach would enable us to realize our capabilities as a continent and maintain progress made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals.”
2. Cities Will Lean on Community-Based Solutions in the Fight Against Climate Change
Africa is the continent most susceptible to the effects of climate change. But with the help of innovative local solutions, its cities could emerge as global leaders in the fight.
In fact, African cities are already leading the way through remarkable community-driven solutions, according to Gesare Chife, cofounder and executive director of the Dr. Aloy & Gesare Chife Foundation, which focuses on technology advancement in Africa. The Chife Foundation has partnered with Nigeria’s Anam community to embark on planning the design of a “new town” called Anam New City that can ensure a better future for their families and farmers in the face of a changing climate.
In Anam New City, Nigerian wetlands resulting from floods are a critical contributor to regional biodiversity and ecological strength—but these floods can also create enormous hardships, often cutting off access to crucial social services, according to Chife. In a regional and cross-community collaboration, the communities of Anam united to create the Rebirth Council. “Collectively, they address their development needs in a broader, more cohesive manner to create a model of best practices in regional planning and development strategies to combat climate change challenges,” he says. “It is these community-led efforts to combat climate change that I believe will drive the future of African cities.”
3. Wireless Technology and the ‘Internet of Things’ Will Spur Social Impact
“Today in Africa, it’s nearly impossible to differentiate a bank from a mobile network operator,” says Judith Owigar, president of Akirachix, a nonprofit that supports African women in tech. She believes surging mobile penetration in the region will continue to increase financial inclusion.
Kenya Equity Bank is offering mobile SIM cards to its customers to manage fund transfers within its network, while the biggest telecom operators in Kenya, such as Safaricom, now offer banking services to their customers, Owigar says. “This fluidity of implementation provides a great opportunity for underserved communities in African cities to be addressed and for the creation of markets where there were previously none.”
Owigar also foresees gaps in Africa being filled by the “Internet of Things”—a network in which things, or even animals, are endowed with technology that allows them to communicate with one another. For example, think of a stoplight that sends a signal to your car to slow down.
Because of limited infrastructure in Africa, the Internet of Things provides an opportunity to build adaptive and innovative solutions that would benefit individuals, communities, and various sectors, she says. “The increase of mobile penetration, the cheap cost of cloud computing, and the advancement of data analysis—along with the reducing costs of sensors—makes the Internet of Things more accessible in Africa. One of the best examples of this is in Kenya’s wildlife conservations, where endangered rhinos will have chips inserted in their horns so that they can be tracked. It’s an innovative way to combat poaching.”
4. Lessons From the Ebola Outbreak Will Increase Investments in Health Care Infrastructure
“When the largest Ebola outbreak in history spread rapidly across Africa over the past year, eventually reaching Lagos—Africa’s most populous city—Nigeria faced an epidemic,” says Tunji Funsho, chair of Rotary International’s PolioPlus program in Nigeria. “Instead, the country repurposed and adapted its polio eradication infrastructure to thwart the virus in just 90 days. The World Health Organization called this response ‘world-class,’ and I see it as model for other nations to keep their cities safe and resilient.”
As Africa’s cities continue to experience rapid population growth, they’ll need a system of health care and response mechanisms that can bear the burden—one that Rotary is helping to build. It has worked with partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative to assemble powerful infrastructures of disease prevention and surveillance, including well-trained health care professionals equipped to respond to international outbreaks, Funsho says. He also believes that the lessons Rotary and its partners are learning from the response to Ebola and the near-eradication of polio can help build significant responses to other health threats, such as HIV, high maternal and child mortality, and low routine-immunization rates—not just in African cities but also around the world.
5. Innovation Hubs Will Drive Further Creativity and Collaboration
As for my own prediction, I think the future of Africa’s cities is in its innovation hubs. From BongoHive in Lusaka and iHub in Nairobi to our Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, the emergence of innovation hubs provides the missing link for young creative talents to experiment with unlikely ideas. Within the past decade, these spaces have sprouted up across the continent as catalysts for tech ventures, incubators for innovative ideas, and IT resources for the local community—and the movement is only getting bigger.
The communal nature of these hubs inspires collaboration and encourages shared accountability among individuals and organizations, uniting individuals from the public, private, and governmental sectors that typically wouldn’t join forces for social good. In the next few years, I believe the development of innovation hubs and the harnessing of this newfound collaborative energy will put African talents and innovation at the forefront of a movement that will shape the future of cities across the continent and the world.