Africa’s urbanisation: making sense of the numbers

A few years back, I conducted a Route-to-Market project for a pan-African television network in Zambia. Part of our project focused on Chipata, the capital of the Eastern province of Zambia. Chipata has an estimated population of less than a hundred thousand people- not large by any standards. But, population estimates don’t always tell the full story.

For one, population estimates for many African cities are notoriously unreliable and are often revised. The numbers also don’t explain the trade importance of the area and city. Chipata is close to the Malawian border and is a regional transport and business hub. Zambia inaugurated the rail link with Malawi in 2011. The city provides an access point to the Indian Ocean deepwater port at Nacala in Mozambique – an alternative access point to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam.

As an expat based in Ethiopia in the 1990s, my regional office was shocked when my assessment showed we would likely only reach 12% of the population. And only if we excelled in distribution and went “everywhere.” The bulk of the population was not linked to any major road network. During a subsequent charter flight over Ethiopia, our trip showed that Ethiopians were mostly rural, with few access roads.

The African nation urbanised and developed significantly since the 1990s, as the new roadworks and flurry of construction in Addis Ababa so vividly demonstrate. However, 38% of the population remains five or more hours away from a city of at least 50,000 people, according to IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) in 2007. However, a significant reduction from the 82% figure in1984.

Over a third of Africa’s one billion inhabitants currently live in urban areas, but by 2030 that proportion will likely have risen to 50%, according to a recent report from UN-HABITAT. In the top ten list of urban growth cities is Ibadan, situated 130 km northeast of Lagos. Most executives would struggle to find it on a map, but the city is an important transit point between the coastal region, including Lagos, and the northern areas of Nigeria.

African population growth and urbanisation will put additional pressure on African town planners and creaking infrastructure. The big commercial centres such as Cairo, Lagos and Nairobi will remain the focus for many organisations; but the 2nd and 3rd tier cities provide real growth opportunities. Companies should avoid them at their peril.

First published in How We Made It In Africa

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