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Urbanization in Africa

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Urbanization in Africa

It is estimated that in 1900 about 95% of Africa's inhabitants south of Sahara lived from the primary occupations of farming, hunting & gathering, cattle nomadism, and fishing (Aase, 2003:1) meaning that less than 5% were urban. In 1950 (the start of the independence period) 14.7% of Africa's inhabitants were urban, in 2000 had it risen to 37.2% and it is expected to rise to 45.3% in 2015, in effect 3.76% ? 3.35% per year (UN, 2002). The Nigerian city of Lagos that in 1963 had 665 000 inhabitants (Rakodi, 1997) and 8.7 million in 2000 is expected to become the worlds 11th biggest city by 2015 with 16 million inhabitants (UN, 2002). The urbanization of most of Africa is moving fast forward, especially south of the Sahara.


  • Pre-colonial time 1
    • Nile valley 1.1
    • West Africa 1.2
    • Central Africa 1.3
    • Coastal East Africa 1.4
    • Southern Africa 1.5
  • Colonial time 2
  • Postcolonial period 3
  • Summary 4
  • References 5

Pre-colonial time

Nile valley

The earliest known cities of Africa emerged around the Nile Valley. The most famous of these is of course Alexandria in Egypt. The history of the old Egyptian empire has been thoroughly studied and its technology, history and political system is widely known.

There were also many early cities in Africa south of the Sahara. One of the first and notable was Meroe (present Sudan), capital of the Kush kingdom. It prospered between the 14th and the 4th century BC. Meroe and other Kushite cities advanced in stone and iron technology and also building construction and irrigation agriculture.

Axum, capital of the Ethiopian kingdom lasted from the first century AD until about the 10th century AD. It had an extensive trade network with the Roman Mediterranean, south Arabia and India, trading ivory, precious metals, clothing and spices. Axumian stone artwork (monoliths has been preserved, and bear proof of their advances in quarrying, stone carving, terracing, building construction and irrigation.

West Africa

Between AD 700 to 1600, cities in the West African savanna emerged from the trans-Saharan trade. Some of the more prominent were Kumbi Saleh, Timbuktu, Djenné and Gao. Arabic scholars like Ibn Khaldun have been a very important source of historical accounts from this area and period. Gold mining, iron technology, pottery making and textile production were the important technologies. In the commercial and capital center of Ghana Empire (not present Ghana) Kumbi Saleh an elaborate economic system including taxation was developed.

In the West African forest region, cities developed among the Yoruba, Fulani, Hausa people as well as in the Ashanti and Benin kingdom. As well as being commercial and political centers they worked as spiritual centers.

Central Africa

In the central African equatorial region cities could be found in what is today Congo, DR Congo, Angola, Zambia, Rwanda and Burundi.

Important cities:

Coastal East Africa

In this region a Swahili Angli Moslemic culture emerged.

Important cities:

Technological developments included coin minting, copper works, building craftsmanship, boat building, cotton textile. External trade was very active and important with Asia and Arabia.

Southern Africa

Great Zimbabwe is one of the more famous pre-colonial cities of Africa. Its Great Enclosure is considered the largest single prehistoric structure in Africa.

See Also:

Colonial time

With the Berlin conference of 1884/85 as a foundation, Africa was apportioned among the European powers almost as if it were a cake. In 1914 only Ethiopia and Liberia were left as independent states, the remainder of the continent was under British, French, Portuguese, German, Belgian, Italian or Spanish control. It was the interest of these powers that governed the borders. The continent had almost no urban population and the colonial powers had not started to invest much in its «pieces» (Hernæs, 2003a). A good example is Northern Nigeria that in 1900 had a budget of £100,000, a military force of 2000 Hausa-soldiers and 120 British officers. With this they were to govern an enormous area with a population of about 10 million people.

The economic and administrative politics had the greatest effect on urbanization. The important export products cash crops (including cotton, maize, tobacco, sugar, coffee, tea, palm oil, and groundnuts) and minerals had to be transported to the harbour towns for export. For this railway transport was needed, and to run the colony administration and personnel was needed. The central administration was often placed in harbour town, but there was not developed any network of small and middle-sized cities (Aase, 2003:3).

New cities were placed in an existing settlement or at a completely new site. Completely new cities were especially developed in the copper zone to house the mine workers. Examples include Johannesburg and Kimberley in South Africa, Ndola and Kitwe in Zambia and Lubumbashi in DR Congo.

A strong centralised political system was also important in the development of early urban centres for example in the ndebele kingdom under Mzilikazi and later on lobengula

Some cities were used and some were ignored. Close to the main lines of transportation the cities grew, while towns that were ignored by transportation and administration in effect disappeared, as for example Kukawa and Dahomey.

It was in the cities of transportation and administration that contact with government and commerce was possible. As a consequence it was invested in these cities leading to the need of workforce. The commercial politics of raw inputs exporting to finance the colony and develop Africa governed the way what cities that should grow.

At the same time the colonial powers became aware of the problems that urbanization brought with it. The rural-urban migration pulled labour away from the countryside where the important export products were made. The Africans usually lived in small spaces and under poor sanitary conditions. They were therefore prone to illnesses like malaria. The colonial governments' response was not to improve the Africans conditions, but rather to separate Europeans, Asians and Africans from each other and establish influx control laws. In South Africa this resulted in the official policy of apartheid from 1950. This was also a policy that was especially common in settler cities like Harare, Lusaka and Nairobi.

With the economic depression in the 1930s, prices of African export products dropped. This in turn led to an economic downturn and unemployment. The mining workforce before the depression had been mostly temporary or seasonal, often also forced labour. The workers therefore lived in mining cities away from home and their families in the countryside.

From the 1920s in Belgian Congo and from the 1940s in South Africa and South and North Rhodesia the mining companies started to prefer more permanent workers. The authorities changed their policies to facilitate the change, and after a while also moved the working men's families into the cities. The new policies tried to strengthen the authorities' control over land and city growth, and make life easier for the European administration.

The effect of the apartheid and similar policies can be illustrated by comparing urban growth rate in Southern Africa, with that of the rest of Africa in the 1950s. This also illustrates that the policy was not working or not effective in the other colonies: The urban growth rate of Southern Africa was about 3.3%, compared to about 4.6% for the whole of Africa.

As the economy grew, the cities also grew. The colonial authorities started to strengthen the development policies that had suffered because of the 1930s depression. Social services, especially primary schools, but also secondary schools, and in the end of the colonial period also a few universities were built. Important infrastructure such as harbours, electricity grid and roads was further developed. All this caused growing administration, growing exports and growing cities, that grew even more in the post colonial period.

Postcolonial period

Most of today's African countries gained their formal independence in the 1960s. The new countries seemed to have a great faith in planned economy regardless of how they gained their independence. The government should actively develop the country, not only by building infrastructure and developing social services; but also by developing industry and employment. Many parastatal companies are today left as 'white elephants' and demonstrate the great investments that were made in the cities at the beginning of the post-colonial period (Rakodi, 1997).

For many reasons it was thought that centralisation equalled a strong (powerful) state (government). The reasons could be

  • the wish to induce a feeling of nationhood, which also led to the establishment of brand new capitals (to be mentioned later);
  • a lack of qualified government officers; someone had to do the work that the colonial officers had done, but in some places these people simply did not exist;
  • the fear that local authorities would turn against central authorities. (Rakodi, 1997).

Centralization meant that companies had even more reason to establish themselves in the already large capitals because this was closest to power. In effect this led to a huge concentration of investment in urban areas. For example in Nigeria where 80% of investments not related to agriculture was spent in urban areas (Rakodi, 1997).

New cities were also established in the post-colonial period, but not for the same reasons as in the colonial period. The seaport Tema in Ghana was built awaiting great industrial growth. Later, new capitals were built, inspired by the planned city of Brasília in Brazil. This happened in Malawi (Lilongwe), Côte d'Ivoire (Yamoussoukro) and Nigeria (Abuja) (Stock, 1995). The new capitals were meant to give the nation a 'fresh start', they were supposed to be the beginning of a new golden future promised by the liberation politicians.

As none of the new capitals have grown to more than about half a million inhabitants, they have probably not had much influence on the growth of the already established cities. Tema could be said to be a success as it is the most important port today, and together with Accra represent the biggest metropolitan area in Ghana (The World Bank Group, 2001; UN, 2003b; Obeng-Odoom, 2013).

At the same time as influx-control regulations were intensified in South Africa, this kind of regulation was weakened in the newly liberated countries. This led to more rural-urban migration in the newly liberated countries (Rakodi, 1997), and a stable decline in urbanization growth from 1950 to 1990 in South Africa.

From figure 1 one can see that after the end of apartheid in 1990, the urbanization rate grow from 2.29% to 3.41%, while it continues to sink in the rest of Africa. The abandonment of the influx-control regulations in 1986 is a part of this picture. The city of Bloemfontein grew 51% between 1988 and 1996. (The Ministry of the Flemish Government, 2001).
Country / Region 1950–1955 1955–1960 1960–1965 1965–1970 1970–1975 1975–1980 1980–1985 1985–1990 1990–1995 1995–2000 2000–2005
Africa 4.50 4.63 4.85 4.68 4.37 4.45 4.38 4.26 4.16 3.91 3.76
Eastern Africa 5.57 5.77 6.08 6.07 6.28 6.56 5.36 5.56 5.31 5.10 4.70
Southern Africa 3.21 3.32 3.00 3.03 2.82 2.64 2.73 2.63 3.50 3.15 2.13
South Africa 3.14 3.23 2.88 2.90 2.66 2.46 2.49 2.29 3.41 3.13 2.09
Figure 1: Average yearly urbanization growth as %. From: World Urbanization Prospects: The 2001 Revision, FN 2002. Eastern Africa is included because it is the region with the most urbanization growth after 1950. All numbers are estimated, and especially the ones for 2000–2005 are therefore uncertain

Influx control regulation was active in South Africa until 1986/90, while in the rest of Africa they were more or less abandoned or without effect. However, even the remnants of these regulations could have an effect on how the cities grew, since they made it difficult to get hold of legally owned land. This again led to the illegitimate occupation of land.

One reason for people wanting to move from rual to urban areas is that they think living will be better there. A comparison between HDI rank and urbanization level in Africa could show that there might be some sense in this belief. The five African countries that in 2001 ranked highest on the United Nations Human Development Index was also some of the most urbanised, see figure 2.
Country HDI value % urban population
Libya 0.783 88.0
Tunisia 0.740 66.2
Algeria 0.704 57.7
South Africa 0.684 57.7
Equatorial Guinea 0.664 49.3
Figure 2: Numbers from UNDP, 2003: "Human Development Index" and the UN "World Urbanization Prospects, the 2001 Revision“. The HDI value is calculated from each countries education level, life expectancy at birth and GDP per capita (PPP US$). The countries are ranked by HDI value.

In some countries rural inhabitants have been given even more reasons to migrate to the city by lower food prices in the cities, often because of pressure from trade unions. This in turn has led to lowered income in rural areas and therefore higher migration to urban areas. (Rakodi, 1997; Aase, 2003).

Finally it should be mentioned that war and economic misconduct have led to the dilution of rural resources and periodically very high rural-urban migration. At the end of the 1980s, there were only 18 African countries that had not experienced a military coup against their government (Rakodi, 1997).


The urbanization rate in Africa is slowing, but so is the population growth rate, much because of HIV/AIDS (UN, 2003a). The big cities of Africa will probably continue to grow, but the future is as always uncertain. In 1994 it was expected that Lagos would become the world's third biggest city with 24.4 million inhabitants by 2015 (Todaro, 1997), but in 2001 this was adjusted to the world's eleventh biggest city with 'only' 16 million inhabitants (UN, 2002). This shows how uncertain the numbers are, and how unpredictable the African population development is.

It is evident that like in the rest of the world, the African urbanization process has mainly been influenced by economy. The colonial powers placed ports, railways and mines to economically strategic places. The cities have both in colonial and post-colonial times been economically prioritized. People came to these places for nationalistic pride, work, administration, education and social services. The exception is South Africa who, with its strict influx control regime and apartheid policy, to a certain degree managed to control urban growth. It is nonetheless one of the most urbanized countries of Africa and now has a low urbanization growth.


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  2. Aryeetey-Attoh, S. 1997: Urban Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa, in Aryeetey-Attoh, S.: Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa, Prentice Hall, 1997, page 182-186.
  3. Dorsey, L. 1998: History 485/885. Africa Since 1800. University of Nebraska.
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  5. Hernæs, Per 2003b: Kolonistyret i Africa ? del II. NTNU, Trondheim. Paper only available within the university.
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  7. Rakodi, Carole 1997: The Urban Challenge in Africa: Growth and Management of Its Large Cities. New York United Nations University, Tokyo.
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  9. The Intelligencer, 2003: Terrible risk to ignore urban slums. Belleville.
  10. The Ministry of the Flemish Government, Department of Education 2001: South Africa: Spatial transformation in the post-apartheid era. A website course in social economic and political geography, and international educational project.
  11. The World Bank Group 2001: Upgrading of Low Income Settlements Country Assessment Report: Ghana.
  12. Todaro, Michael P. 1997: Urbanization, Unemployment, and Migration in Africa: Theory and Policy.
  13. UNDP 2003: Human Development Indicators 2003.
  14. United Nations (UN), Population Division 2003a: World Population Prospects, the 2002 Revision. Highlights. New York.
  15. United Nations (UN), Population Division 2002: World Urbanization Prospects, the 2001 Revision. New York.
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  17. Aase, Asbjørn 2003: Urbanisering og byliv i Africa. NTNU, Trondheim. Paper only available within the university.
  18. Obeng-Odoom F, 2013, Governance for Pro-Poor Urban Development: Lessons from Ghana, Routledge, London.
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