Whatever happened to Africa's rapid urbanisation?

The following is an excerpt from a publication entitled Whatever happened to Africa's rapid urbanisation? authored by Deborah Potts of the Kings College London and published by Africa Research Institute.

It is widely believed that urbanisation is occurring faster in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world, as migrants move from rural to urban settlements. This is a fallacy. While the populations of numerous urban areas are growing rapidly, the urbanisation levels of many countries are increasing slowly – if at all. Natural increase, rather than net in-migration, is the predominant growth factor in most urban populations. African governments, policymakers and international donors need to acknowledge fundamental changes in urbanisation trends, and respond to the irrefutable messages these impart about urban employment, incomes and economic development.

In November 2010, a perusal of UN-Habitat’s "Urban Indicators" database revealed some curious statistics. The proportion of Kenyans living in urban settlements had seemingly reduced from 34% of the total population in 2001 to 22% in 2010. Was it really possible that such a huge number of people had left Kenyan towns for rural areas in the first decade of the 21st century? After all, it is common knowledge that Kenya is urbanising rapidly.

The UN-Habitat data indicated a reduction in the urbanisation level of 11 other mainland countries in sub-Saharan Africa between 2001 and 2010 – Tanzania, Uganda, Benin, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. The declines in Tanzania (from 33% to 26%), Mauritania (59% to 41%), and Senegal (48% to 43%) were as startling as that in Kenya.

Neither the UN-Habitat data nor "common knowledge" accurately represents what has been happening to migration patterns and urban economies in sub-Saharan Africa. The process of urbanisation – whereby an increasing proportion of the population lives in urban settlements – is occurring far more slowly in Africa than is usually reported. This has crucial economic and developmental implications which cannot be ignored.

Rapid urban population growth is evident throughout sub-Saharan Africa. However, a burgeoning urban population does not automatically denote a rise in a country's urbanisation level. Even if a national population grows at 3.5% a year, doubling in 20 years, urbanisation – in the sense used in this Counterpoint – will only occur if the rate of urban population growth has exceeded the rate of national population growth.

Definitions of "urban" vary from country to country. When settlements of a few thousand inhabitants are defined as urban, as is the case in Cameroon, the urbanisation level of a country will be higher than if the commonly-used threshold of 20,000 inhabitants is applied. If African countries adopted the criteria used in India, their populations would be classified as much more rural. Confusion at census time over urban classifications can significantly inflate the apparent level of urbanisation.

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Africa Research Institute is a non-partisan think-tank based in London. Our primary objective is to influence policy through understanding and documenting best practice within government, the economy and society in sub-Saharan Africa. We seek to draw attention to ideas and initiatives that have worked and identify new ideas where needed.

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