CITIES in sub-Saharan Africa are growing fast. Nigeria alone is projected to add 212 million urban dwellers by 2050, equivalent to the current population of Germany, France and the UK.
But focusing on population growth leads many to overlook the other unusual features of African cities. Urban economies across the region are markedly different from those of other cities around the world: they are more expensive to live in, more informal and less industrial.
In our recently published paper we demonstrate that African cities are too often developing in ways that perpetuate poverty and marginalisation. The amount of money that people have to spend on basic necessities, the precarious nature of their employment and their exclusion from the formal economy mean that they have limited resources to cope with environmental risk.
For many, African cities are inextricably linked with poverty. It therefore seems counter-intuitive that the cost of living is higher in urban Africa than in other cities in the global South.
URBANISATION WITHOUT INDUSTRIALISATION
One estimate suggests that food and drink cost 35% more in real terms in sub-Saharan African cities than in other countries, while housing is 55% more expensive.
This means that urban dwellers have to spend more of their income to enjoy the same quality of life. The average urban household in sub-Saharan Africa spends 39% to 59% of its budget on food alone.
Of course, there is considerable variation across the continent. Cities in The Gambia, Mauritania, Madagascar and Tanzania remain relatively affordable. Those in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Mozambique are the most expensive.
The high price of basic goods and services means that people living in African cities have little money to spend on reducing risk, such as upgrading their homes, preventative health care or buying insurance.
Urbanisation has historically been closely linked to industrialisation. From Detroit to Manchester to Shenzhen, the rise of a vibrant manufacturing sector fuelled rapid population and economic growth in cities.
In sub-Saharan Africa, urbanisation is taking place without industrialisation.
Urbanisation without industrialisation means that jobs and livelihoods too often remain low-skilled and poorly paid. Without the opportunity to develop skills and organise collectively, workers exert little influence over working conditions.
HUGE, DYNAMIC INFORMAL ECONOMY
In many cities in sub-Saharan Africa, the informal economy is larger and more dynamic than the formal economy. The informal economy responds to demand when commercial banks are not willing to offer loans or when there isn’t enough housing. When formal jobs in industry or services are scarce, the informal economy absorbs much of the labour force.
The informal economy is not perfect. Informality creates risks for consumers and workers. A lack of state oversight makes it difficult to enforce regulation, such as water treatment standards or minimum wages. Waste pickers in particular face severe health risks due to their work. Informal housing is often in hazard prone parts of the city.
But there can be little doubt that informal service provision or informal livelihoods are better than none at all.
Only through a more flexible and inclusive approach will African cities be able to manage the risks associated with their unique economic development path.