"In Africa, the sprawl of the cities engulfs the rural structure"


In twenty years, the population of African cities has doubled. And in twenty years, she should double again. In 2020, 728 million people will live in the city, according to a report by the OECD entitled "Africapolis 2018", an urbanization rate of 56.2%. Africa has already become a predominantly urban continent. François Moriconi-Ebrard, geographer and researcher of the CNRS, describes the form and the challenges (economy, infrastructure, transport, energy …) of this frenetic urbanization.
Is urban growth in Africa similar to that of other continents?
No. In Africa, the population is very old and very rural. But we are witnessing a flood, a spread of cities that engulf this rural structure. In South America, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo or Caracas, for example, they expanded into suburbs that were largely uninhabited. In Africa, the dominant model are the villages tens of kilometers away, which are reached by the agglomeration or which grow to form a vast urban continuity. Under these conditions, we can not do urban planning in the sense of creation from scratch. Or it should be shaved, like the Chinese do. But it is expensive and remains a brutal act. In the case of Africa, we are more in the process of urban transformation, which is much more complex.
The other feature of the continent is a continuous population growth of over 3% per year. The demographic transition is not going forward, contrary to what international institutions were hoping for. The combination of these two factors is explosive.
This urbanization is not homogeneous. Which regions are most affected?
In the African forest there are already very large and very dense agglomerations, like Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Luanda in Angola, which are scattered in sparsely populated areas. These are areas where urbanization rates are already above 50%. In Gabon, an almost empty country, it is 86%, a rate higher than that of France! In the Sahel area, the pace of urbanization is also rapid, driven by population growth. But still, in sparsely populated areas.
Indeed, the four largest population centers in Africa, with very high population densities, are Egypt, the Ethiopian plateau, the Great Lakes in Africa and the Niger Delta. The metropolises are not necessarily huge, but there is a spectacular rural density. Dozens of populous villages end up forming an urban continuity, even if it remains administratively invisible. However, it has already lost the characteristics of rurality, it is always less agricultural because there is no room for crops. India is experiencing a similar phenomenon in a state like Kerala or in the Bengal delta. But these regions have much lower population growth rates than in Africa.
Do the cities have enough jobs to offer?
No, because the characteristic of Africa is growth without industrialization. This shift has been a concern for a long time. In 1974, an American secret document, the famous "NSSM 200" or "Kissinger resolution", declassified in 1991, presented the rural exodus as a threat to global stability because it is synonymous with destabilization of cities, social tensions, revolts, even the revolutions. In the midst of the Cold War, with the United States obsessed with communist danger, it was very scary. One of the conclusions of the document was the need to maintain, by enormous means, populations in rural areas. Today, we see in part the result of this policy: a phenomenon of urbanization in situ, without necessarily moving towards the metropolis.
What is the priority for cities, often poor, which must absorb hundreds of thousands of new inhabitants?
Everything is urgent. Municipalities must go forward on all fronts at the same time. In recent years, only one point has improved in cities: health. Including the decline in child mortality. But the consequence, in demographic terms, is urban densification. This is the first problem of African cities. In large centers, the emergence of the middle class has begun to distort the family model: the norm is now having two or three children, a TV, a car, etc. In Abidjan, Ivory Coast or Accra, in Ghana, there is much publicity for low-income housing for small families, seen as a means of social elevation.
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Does Africa have specific resources to meet this challenge of urbanization?
The Africans themselves! At the local level, the ability to respond to problem solving is extraordinary. Two models of development are born. Will we build highways, suburban boulevards, and dormitory cities while we're destroying this model here at home? Or will Africa move directly from an archaic society to a postmodern model that respects the environment, with sustainable mobility? Are we obliged to follow the same steps, to make the same mistakes? I do not think so. In a sense, Africa sometimes has an advantage. On urban transport, despite broken roads and appalling conditions, the individual minibus network is often more efficient and reactive than any algorithm developed by laboratory engineers! In some countries, like Ghana, whole "eco-neighborhoods" are built without any intervention by public authorities. Simply because in the West, it is about luxury, experimentation, while in Africa, especially with climate change, this approach is vital.

Celia Macé


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