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close this bookSustaining the Future: Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 pages)
close this folderPart 1: Economy and society: development issues
close this folderUrban environmental management and issues in Africa south of the Sahara
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe process of urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa
View the documentThe nature of environmental problems
View the documentCauses of the current problems
View the documentThe way forward
View the documentConcluding remarks
View the documentReferences

The process of urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa is the least urbanized continent but one currently experiencing the fastest rate of urbanization (O'Connor 1983). Africa, however, has a long history of urbanization (Hence 1970), although the most formative period started with colonialism. There are therefore many traditions of urbanism in Africa, and O'Connor has identified six, namely: indigenous, Islamic, colonial, European, dual, and hybrid city (O'Connor 1983: 28-41). Even this is not a neat categorization because '`many individual cities will occupy only marginal positions between these categories" (ibid.). But it serves to underline the need to recognize the diversity of urban centres between and within African countries. The complexions of urban problems, as indeed policy prescriptions, will vary from one type of town to another.

The colonial influence has, however, been widespread and pervasive. In much of eastern and southern Africa most towns are creations of colonial exploitation and domination. The cities were created to facilitate the exploitation and export of natural resources to metropolitan countries of Europe. They started as commercial, administrative, and mining towns and as ports. The pre-existing indigenous towns, most widespread in western Africa, have been affected by colonial and post-colonial policies. All types of African city have experienced growth, although this has been much slower with indigenous cities (O'Connor 1983). Other common elements of African urbanization include the existence of a primate city (or cities) superimposed on a large number of small settlements; the rapid physical expansion of the towns, resulting in the loss of agricultural land or absorption of nearby villages; ever-increasing demand for water, fuel, services, transport, and housing, all of which are beyond the cities' budget to satisfy; and the thorny issue of waste disposal. These problems are partly manifestations of poor management.

The main engine of urban growth is rural-urban migration (Todaro 1976; Gugler 1982; O'Connor 1983; Van Western and Klute 1986). The urban population in the selected African countries has at least doubled since 1960, with changes in proportions and growth rates as shown in table 6.1. The main motivation for migration is economic - the search for better-paying jobs, especially by young men. The trend, however, is for women migrants as well as the older married men to increase. Some studies have found that women migrants were in fact in the majority (Gwebu 1982; Van Western and Klute 1986). Many women are wives, daughters, and fiancees arriving to join their male relatives in town, but they also come to seek employment.

The increase in the numbers of females partly explains one trend of rural-urban migration - the tendency for migration to be long term or even permanent and to reflect a shift from individual to family migration. Long-term migration has been explained by the increasing difficulty of finding jobs in the formal sector (Van Western and Klute 1986). This has implications for urban planning: increasingly, policy makers and planners are having to plan not for circulating but for permanent and stable urban populations.

There are other reasons for migrating to towns. They include personal security in countries where there is political strife and warfare and the desire for better services, which are located in urban areas. As a result of urban-biased development, the quantity and quality of health and education services are higher in urban than in rural areas (Sparks 1990). Although there is evidence of stepped migration in some countries, most migration is directed to the large cities. More than 42 per cent of all urban populations live in cities of more than 500,000, compared with only 8 per cent in 1960 (Sparks 1990). There were only two cities in the region with a population exceeding 500,000 in 1960; if present trends persist, there will be 60 cities with more than 1 million by the year 2000.

The phenomenon of rural-urban migration cannot be fully comprehended outside some of the problems in the structure of African economies. There has been a general economic decline since independence, so that some poor countries are poorer now than they were at independence. In the process of impoverishment, Africa has lost the ability to feed itself and both food imports and food aid have continued to rise (Sparks 1990). The major explanation for this malaise lies in the neglect of agriculture, Africa's most important activity:

Table 6.1 Urban growth of selected African countries, 1960-2000

  Urban population (as % of total) Urban population annual growth rate (%) Population in largest city (%)
Country 1960 1990 2000 1960-90 1990 2000 1980
Botswana 2 28 42 13.5 7.9 -
Gabon 18 46 54 6.3 4.9 -
Swaziland 4 33 45 10.5 6.7 -
Namibia 15 28 34 4.8 5.4 -
Lesotho 3 20 28 8.6 6.3 -
Zimbabwe 13 28 35 5.9 5.4 -
Zambia 17 50 59 7.1 5.5 35
Cameroon 14 41 51 6.5 5.7 21
Ghana 23 33 38 3.9 4.6 35
Cote d'lvoire 19 40 47 6.5 5.5 34
Zaire 22 40 46 4.8 5.0 28
Nigeria 9 29 37 5.8 6.2 17
Rwanda 2 8 11 7.4 7.6 -
Uganda 5 10 14 6.1 6.6 52
Senegal 32 38 45 3.5 4.4 65
Equatorial Guinea 25 29 33 1.5 4.0  
Malawi 4 12 16 6.5 6.5 19
Ethiopia 6 13 17 4.8 5.8 37
Sudan 10 22 27 5.4 4.8 31
Mozambique 4 27 41 9.5 7.2 83
Angola 10 28 36 5.9 5.4 64
Benin 9 38 45 7.4 5.0 63
Chad 7 30 39 7.1 5.4 39
Burkina Faso 5 9 12 4.6 6.3 41
Niger 6 20 27 7.4 6.7 31
Mali 11 19 23 4.4 5.2 24
Guinea 10 26 33 5.3 5.8 80
Gambia 13 23 30 5.2 5.3  
Sierra Leone 13 32 40 5.2 5.1 47

Source: UNDP (1991).

Many governments have pursued economic policies that were designed to keep urban wages (and living conditions) high and farm prices low; have maintained the value of currencies at unrealistic rates of exchange... This is understandable and obvious. Political power in Africa rests in the city, not in the village. (Sparks 1990: 35)

In Mali, for example, the government policy in the 1960s was to curb rural-urban migration by forcibly repatriating unemployed migrants as a means of reducing the build-up of political opposition (Van Western and Klute 1986). Subsequent policy relaxed migration regulations but alleviated the effects of low wages by keeping prices of food products low. This policy resulted in lower producer prices and further depressed conditions in the rural areas (ibid.).

A recent study in Kenya found that "often the husband brings home maize and other commodities bought in town where competition deflates prices" (Andreasen 1990: 165). The study found a strong dependency of rural families on urban wages. The men, who live and work in town separated from their families, experience very harsh conditions: "There is no doubt that the image of life in rural areas which urban residents maintain, often is an illusion referring to a situation as it was many years ago, and perhaps sustained under the influence of hardships of urban life" (ibid.: 166).

On top of these unfavourable terms of trade against agricultural products must be added the ecological stresses of the African environment. Hjort af Ornas (1990) argues that the people in the Horn of Africa live in such a marginal environment that they have little room to manoeuvre. Thus the 1984 drought disaster left "as many as two thirds of the population as temporary refugees in towns and cities" (Hjort af Ornas 1990: 152).

The loss of soil productivity is a result of a number of factors that were set in motion by the colonial regimes: the introduction of export cash crops, which increased demand for land and reduced selfsufficiency in food crops; the expansion of cultivated land into grazing land as a result of rapid population growth; and the creation of state boundaries, which have put a brake on transhumant migrations and thus contributed to overgrazing, etc. (Vis 1989). All these factors manifest themselves in the shortage of land.

In some areas, holdings are no longer economic even under more intensive forms of agriculture (White 1989: 15; Andreasen 1990). These areas are characterized by landlessness. The alternative for people in these situations is rural-urban migration.

The role of rural-urban migration in contributing to urban population growth has been stressed because of the key role it plays in many countries. However, it must be realized that natural growth is assuming greater importance in long-established cities and some countries with a relatively long history of urbanization. Indeed, the rural population of the region has continued to grow and these trends are expected to persist (United Nations 1991). The rate of urbanization is projected to decline by 1995-2000 (ibid.).

To conclude this section, Sub-Saharan Africa is the world's poorest region with an estimated two-thirds of the rural population living in absolute poverty (Sparks 1990). The gap between rural and urban incomes is at least fourfold (White 1989). A number of countries have had to accept various structural adjustment programmes since the mid-1980s. Continuing drought in much of the region and lack of protection from excessive competition in years of overproduction (e.g. 1985-1986) have further undermined the rural economy. In the meantime, the rational thing to do for any African on the land has been to migrate to urban areas.