Search By Topic


Researchers look ahead to the growth of African cities

From Cape Town to Cairo, Africa is undergoing the most rapid urbanization on the planet. By 2050, the majority of the world’s young people will be living in cities such as Kinshasa, Lagos, Kigali and Nairobi. But this urbanization is largely unplanned, and many cities haven’t made the investments in infrastructure needed to handle the influx of people. Moreover, this growth is rolling out against a backdrop of extreme poverty and a rapidly changing climate — a shift that will see Africa become both warmer and drier in the years ahead.

It’s these changes that the annual International Sustainability Conference at the University of Stellanbosch outside of Cape Town, South Africa, was convened to address. The theme of this meeting, which was held earlier this month, was “Meeting Africa’s Challenges.”

Solving the complex challenges of poverty, development, urbanization and climate will require close links between researchers and those who make decisions at local levels. But the road between university campuses and government departments is a minefield, says Debra Roberts, a member of the Future Earth Engagement Committee and director of the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department, eThekwini Municipality in Durban. She compares the politics in cities to the TV show "Game of Thrones." On good days, Roberts says, her colleagues navigate minor skirmishes. On bad days it is all out warfare.

Opening the conference, Robert Scholes from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa articulated several differences between Africa and other parts of the world that cannot be ignored: people and nature are highly intertwined; local resources are often commonly managed; migration is a frequent coping strategy to hardships like violence, climate change and economic shifts; the development of the nation state is lagging behind the rest of the world; and many cultures prioritize communities over individuals.

Rooibos tea

This last theme informed Bagele Chilisa’s talk on indigenous research methods, which began with an explanation of the concept of “Ubuntu” meaning “I am because we are." Chilisa, from the University of Botswana, says colonization is still deeply felt throughout Africa, and it is evolving into new forms.

Over breakfast the following day, Chilisa explained how Western knowledge systems take knowledge out of Africa, alter it until it is unrecognizable according to western rules, then capitalize on it economically.

She used the example of rooibos tea from South Africa, a caffeine-free herbal tea that has recently become a commercial hit in the West. Local communities in South Africa have cultivated and used rooibos for generations, and their knowledge underpinned efforts to exploit this plant for global consumers. But local communities have yet to benefit from the economic success of the leaf. The South African government recognises these issues and is now urging “any individual or organization involved in bioprospecting or biotrade using rooibos… to engage with the Khoi and San communities or people to negotiate a benefit sharing agreement." Still, it may be too little too late, Chilisa says.

This knowledge drain from Africa is a problem, in part, because many cities on the continent are growing at phenomenal rates without a similar increase in industrialization or economic growth. That’s in contrast with previous periods of urbanization throughout history, such as the massive move from rural to urban areas that took place during the Industrial Revolution in nineteenth century Europe. China also launched a strategy in 2014 to support a wave of urbanization for economic growth that may be the greatest planned human resettle experiment ever undertaken. No such plans are in place for Africa.

Several reasons help explain why Africa’s urbanization is not following the same route as in Europe, the Americas, China, Japan and elsewhere in Asia: Africa’s high fertility rate means that much of the population growth in cities is not a result of migration from rural areas, but simply from new births. Other factors can include ethnic tensions and civil disturbances, which force communities away from certain areas and into cities. But globalization is also to blame. In recent years, manufacturing industries have fled Europe and North America for Asia, attracted by good, reliable electricity and roads and cheap, disciplined and educated labour forces. But the same isn’t true for many African cities. While labour in Africa is cheap, many sub-Saharan cities face regular blackouts and have poor education levels. The result, in places, has been de-industrialisation.

These economic dynamics will make it more difficult for the African continent to develop. Chilisa says: “When any group within a large, complex civilization significantly dominates other groups for hundreds of years, the ways of the dominant group — its epistemologies, ontologies and axiologies — not only become the dominant ways of that civilization, but those ways become so deeply embedded that they typically are seen as ‘natural’ or appropriate norms rather than as historically evolved social constructions.”

While physical colonialism may have ended, Chilisa says, Africans are still experiencing “colonization of the mind.” She advocates for an “African Renaissance” to address the continent’s developmental challenges. At its foundation is an appeal for Africans “to base their knowledge production and processes on the customs, traditions and languages of the indigenous people.” She cites academics Ngugi wa Thiongo and Mazrui who have argued that “since colonial times African universities have often allowed a unidirectional borrowing and lending of western culture, literature, paradigms, values and ideals that are not necessarily relevant to African societies.”

Paths forward

Many conference speakers discussed the value of transdisciplinary research to Africa and how this type of approach, with its now established methodologies for engaging groups, knowledge bases and institutions in co-design and co-production, offers a promising way forward.

But can such an approach help Africa’s mushrooming cities? Possibly, but there are still hurdles to overcome. Researchers usually lack the time and skills to engage with the right policymakers to achieve real results. Moreover, cities are chaotic places.

During the meeting, Thomas Elmqvist from the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University and Josephine Musango from the University of Stellenbosch separately discussed a complex systems approach to sustainability in cities. Elmqvist said: “Cities are complex social-ecological-technological systems that are constantly adapting and evolving. And they are getting more complex.” He added that new technology, such as mobile phones, is opening up new opportunities for scientists to collect and analyse large datasets to explore questions that were previously intangible in Africa.

Later this year, roughly 40,000 people will meet in Quito, Ecuador, for the UN Habitat III summit (17-20 October) to discuss the future of urban areas across the world. Africa will undoubtedly be a key topic of conversation. Many experts have called for an assessment of the research needs for Africa and an analysis of where urban research is happening and where it is needed most – in those areas expanding at breakneck speeds.

But even with a new push for research, local authorities in Africa and elsewhere are often overwhelmed by day-to-day events. Just getting heard is difficult, and long-term planning is, at times, impossible. “To have any influence, researchers need to engage with formal and informal powerbrokers,” says Roberts, who was recently appointed co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group II on climate adaptation and vulnerability. Strength of personality and personal conviction often trumps research findings. “Your agency is about who you know, not what you know.”

But even with this realpolitik, “somehow it all works. The lights stay on. The water flows. The roads are drivable,” adds Roberts. Mark Swilling, academic director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of Stellenbosch supports this conclusion, arguing that success may not happen through a coherent masterplan. But research that tackles the underlying, at times chaotic, approach that characterizes the African context will be key to supporting sustainable economic development on the continent. 

The next International Sustainability Conference, which is financially supported by the Japanese government, will take place in August 2017 in Stockholm.

Future Earth will open three offices in Africa in 2016.