Africa’s megacities and the opportunities they offer

By 2030, the 18 largest cities on the African continent will have a combined spending power of US$ 1.3 trillion. How can the needs of a growing urban community create opportunities for investment and growth? Dianna Rienstra compiled the following summary from a discussion on the continent’s megacities at the recent World Economic Forum on Africa, held in Cape Town.

Lagos is West Africa's largest city.

Lagos is West Africa's largest city.

In 2010, 14 African cities had a total population above 3 million. All African cities are growing at an accelerating pace. Energy, water and sanitation challenges exist today and are being exacerbated as increasingly people move to cities in search of a better life. New technologies are needed to meet these challenges.

New, “enabling” infrastructure is needed, which will require public-private partnerships. There is a huge incentive for renewable energy and “smart water” powered by technology. Jobs will be created as smart cities are developed.

Cities – and megacities – can be incubators for innovation. Resource efficiency in these urban centres and their satellites could become a competitiveness factor as they attract domestic and foreign investment.

The Middle East focused too much on building housing for middle- and high-income people. Today, most cities in the region face critical housing shortages for low-income residents. African city planners should not make the same mistake. In Egypt, for example, there is a shortage of 1 million units. There is room for public-private collaboration to address this need. Building affordable housing is a growing market, which will create jobs.

Myriad opportunities exist for the financial services in Africa’s growing cities. Consider that in Lagos and Accra, for example, an estimated 25% of residents have access to bank accounts. Economic clusters in cities and their satellites are driven by SMEs, but most entrepreneurs, particularly women, have no access to finance to grow their businesses. By offering competitive products, financial services – particularly commercial banks – can be a driver of growth in Africa’s cities.

Cities are becoming increasingly congested and, in Africa, cholera outbreaks are commonplace. To relieve this pressure, it is important to fund rural development and satellite cities. Local government involvement is key to ensure that planning meets the needs of citizens.

Megacities offer mega-opportunities, but there are no mega-solutions. Customised solutions, new technologies and new ways of thinking are needed to retrofit today’s cities and to build the sustainable urban centres and satellites of tomorrow. Future cities cannot be built on old models that do not work.