Urbanizing Africa; avoiding pitfalls and embracing opportunities

October 31, 2019


The future of humanity is urban and Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent. By 2050 there are expected to be 1.2 billion Africans living in cities.

The continent has three megacities, Cairo (10 million), Kinshasa (12 million) and Lagos (21 million). Lagos could become the world’s largest metropolis, home to up to 85 or even 100 million people by 2100.

The continent’s urbanization comes with extraordinary transformative potential, but the structural hurdles are equally huge. Historically, there is compelling evidence to suggest that urbanization and economic growth are mutually reinforcing. Yet in Africa, urbanization is happening along with structural transformation, pervasive urban poverty and inequalities.

Building on last year’s Istanbul Innovation Days, the 2019 Harare Innovation Days on #NextGenCities will focus on the strategic risks and opportunities in Africa’s rapid urbanization.

Harare Innovation Days is twinned with an Asia-Pacific focused Innovation Days event in March 2020 on #NextGenGov. We aim to open new pathways for collaborative experimentation and learning trajectories within governments starting in the Asia-Pacific, Africa and Arab States. The Innovation Days have emerged as UNDP’s corporate R&D function, which aims to influence the demand and alert governments to trends and risks, accelerate learning about their potential implications and creates space for strategic co-creation of potential systemic pathways of response — thereby enhancing our transformational capacity to continuously refresh our programmatic offering vis-a-vis our partner countries.

Accelerated growth, poses extraordinary challenges. But behind the evident everyday ones we see a range of more long-term, interdependent strategic risks: whether climate change and the impact of air pollution on health; uncertain economic development and rising inequality; the lack of context specific evidence and its impact on planning and governance; the unintended consequences of disruptive technology; food insecurity and the risks of nutrient decline; or the impact of rapid development on natural ecosystems. They all call into question the current pathways to greater prosperity and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

On the other hand, it also provides a massive opportunity. Frequently celebrated under the banner #AfricaIsNow, we are seeing incredible dynamism, creativity and innovation across the continent, spearheaded by industry, forward-looking governments and creative, tech-savvy entrepreneurs and enabled by new technologies and new platforms enabling cross-sectoral collaborations.


The 2018 Istanbul Innovation Days on NextGenGov already showed how disruptive technologies are shifting the ability of cities to serve their populations, from the blockchain-enabled real-time pollution monitoring system pioneered by Commons Impact, to MetaSUB’s use of advanced microbiome data to enable predictive approaches like early warnings on looming epidemics or emerging signs of microbial antibiotic resistance. Equally, it recognized that new spaces are needed for citizens and communities to access such digital opportunities — showcasing institutions like Madrid’s Medialab Prado and Consul, a software being adopted across the world including in the rebuilding of Mogadishu.

African cities are a key entry point to address the interconnected issues of uncertain economic growth, climate breakdown, social disruption and governance shortfalls. Building on the New Urban Agenda and Africa 2063 in Harare, we will explore how innovations already being pioneered in Africa which could further develop cities’ capacity for sustainable and resilient growth, without trying to replicate western models and mistakes. Harare Innovation Days will support civil servants with policy experiments in urban governance, development and infrastructure. By convening them alongside some of Africa’s leading innovators in technology, urban planning and policy, we aim to build a network for accelerated learning.

Participatory city-making

The future of urban development in Africa cannot solely rely on states or large-scale corporate investment; it needs to tap into the creativity, passion and drive of local communities and entrepreneurs to create urban spaces and re-imagine how they are used. This is crucial in order to build on the unique identity of cities and the creativity of young people as a source of strength and dynamism. The Block by Block project uses Minecraft to give citizens an opportunity to design and re-create local public spaces; i-CMiiST are using creative methods to explore more sustainable mobility. This is being supported by a range of diagnostic tools, from Arup’s City Resilience Framework to UN-Habitat’s City City Resilience Profiling Programme (CRPP), and newfound collaborative energy. The latter converges around innovation hubs which put African talents and innovation at the forefront of a movement that will shape their urban future.

How can we build on such dynamics to re-invent urban governance fit for the 21st century, rather than merely tweaking the structures we have?

Distributed infrastruture

While many African cities struggle after decades of underinvestment, they also have the opportunity to learn from mistakes in creating centralized large scale public works. Huge increases in electricity demand mean there are now more than 100 million urban Africans who live right under a grid, but lack an electricity connection.

We are seeing a growing series of decentralized infrastructure experiments that help to stimulate local economic development. Mobilized Construction is piloting a digitally enabled approach to sensing needs for road repair and creating micro-contracts that can be procured locally, often at a fraction of the cost — and housing — with ibuild which provides the transparency and accountability for both governments to procure locally and people to incrementally build shelters and housing based on their socio-economic state.

How can cities embrace such distributed approaches in their policies and strategies to build the infrastructures for the 21st Century at the scale, speed and inclusion necessary?

Food and circular economies

Cities have a unique opportunity to create a circular economy for food, given that 80 percent of all food will be consumed in cities by 2050. In many African cities, urban agriculture already plays an important role in poverty reduction, food security, flood protection and energy generation. However population growth, development pressures and cultural change is threatening this. Several entrepreneurial experiments are combining new technologies with traditional products to recover wealth from waste products, such as Kusini Water which uses macadamia shells in mobile solar powered water treatment.

Given cities’ vulnerability to the effects of climate change, how can we build the strategies, regulations and investment pathways to ensure that nature-based solutions become the norm instead of the exception.

Nature-based solutions

Urban growth is damaging vital ecosystems globally, with land use change a key issue alongside pollution, waste and carbon emissions. African cities are starting to recognize the importance of integrating climate change information into long term planning and design for critical, and green, water-related infrastructure which also drive economic development and inclusion.

City-wide innovations focused on strategic infrastructure include multiple examples of innovative financing such as the Upper Tana River Water Fund, which uses payments from downstream water users to provide education and support for over 20,000 farmers in methods that increase yields while reducing the maintenance costs for Nairobi’s water infrastructure.

NextGen UNDP: An antifragile organization

These innovations hint at alternative futures, our ambition as UNDP is to transform into an antifragile organization, which adapts to change and converts strategic risk into strategic opportunity. #AfricaIsNow isn’t just true for the continent’s booming creative industries but also for its unique urban future.

Watch this space!

By Aylin Schulz van Endert, UNDP; Sharleen Moyo and Shamiso Rudzvizo AccLab UNDP Zimbabwe; Joost Beunderman and Chloe TregerDark Matter Laboratories