Is Africa heading towards a more urban future?

By Joël Té-Léssia Assoko
Posted on Sunday, 4 December 2022 10:30, updated on Monday, 5 December 2022 13:06

Inside the 2nd class cabin of a TER train in Dakar, still in the testing and capacity building phase for agents and drivers, the train is scheduled to be put into service between the end of December 2021 and the beginning of 2022. © Sylvain Cherkaoui for JA

A new report on mobility sheds light on the challenges associated with the Africa's rapid urbanisation. It also illustrates the immense efforts required to meet them.

In “Building tomorrow’s sustainable cities”, the Africa CEO Forum (ACF) and the consultancy firm Okan Partners examine urban mobility, which is one of the biggest headaches facing public authorities and African populations.

The study is full of data, testimonies and inspiring examples. It explores the key challenges facing the continent as it welcomes 900 million new urban dwellers over the next 30 years (see graph below). This is one and a half times their current number and more than twice the increase witnessed between 1990 and 2020.

Productivity losses due to traffic congestion

The staggering growth of Africa’s urban populations over the past three decades has already led to a maelstrom of challenges. As the ACF-Okan report points out, the continent has on average about 42 cars per 1,000 people, compared to 176 in Latin America, it is home to some of the world’s most congested cities.

The study points out that productivity losses due to traffic congestion account for up to 8% of Ghana’s GDP. According to the report, this situation could worsen in the future, as the number of cars in Africa will likely double or even increase tenfold by 2050.

Even more problematic is the fact that only 5% of daily urban trips in Africa are made by “institutional public transport” (metros, trams, etc.), compared to 10-20% in Latin America and over 40% in Eastern Europe.

Up to 40% of the budget spent on transport

All of these factors explain why, as a proportion of household income, urban transport in Africa costs 40% more than in the rest of the world.

Meeting today’s urban infrastructure needs is already an extremely difficult task. African governments are already providing half of the required investment ($45-50bn), but the funding gap is estimated to be $30-40bn, according to the study.

The situation will not improve unless the ecosystem undergoes significant changes. As such, the demand for urban transport by 2050 is anticipated to be more than 6,500 billion passenger kilometres in sub-Saharan Africa. This is 2.5 times more than the demand expected in the European Union by that date.

To respond to the “major challenges arising from these structuring dynamics”, the report provides six recommendations, covering both the planning and financing phases, the use of new technologies and the question of the “sustainability” of projects, the social impact and the rational use of existing structures.

Power relations

A key aspect that might require more attention is the political economy, i.e. the economic power relations between different actors in the continent’s transport ecosystem. “High transport prices in Africa are due to monopolies in the sector,” said Shanta Devarajan, former chief economist for the Africa region at the World Bank, in October 2019.

The influence and nuisance power (strikes, blockades, etc.) of the networks of large minibus owners (“Gbaka”) in Abidjan are related to the difficulties faced in reforming this sector and developing a valid public offer, despite the high cost charged to the population by these informal transporters. According to the report, Abidjan’s poorest households spend up to 40% of their daily budget on transport.

Relocating populations so that transport infrastructure can be adequately developed is not only a source of additional costs and delays, but also of social tensions that are sometimes difficult to contain, when, as the report points out, half of the continent’s urban population lives in shanty towns. The difficulties associated with developing the sixth bridge in Côte d’Ivoire’s economic capital and the Abidjan metro, for example, as well as those encountered during the second half of the 2010s when the Dakar TER was being developed illustrate this challenge.

Political and economic time

Finally, the report states that these infrastructures’ financing must be “mainly covered by public capital in order to ensure the economic balance of the projects”. It adds that “land appreciation will offer the possibility of a longer-term benefit to states and local authorities”.

But these benefits are likely to present themselves long after the decision-makers who ordered the investments have had the opportunity to benefit from them. How to ‘discount’ the benefits of these investments and thus encourage public decision-makers to make them is a key issue.

The “time factor” – political as well as economic – is important to include in the calculations that determine whether or not these infrastructures are built. Unfortunately, time is precisely what African cities are lacking.

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