Africa’s Secondary Cities: The New Frontier




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Challenging the Status Quo

Why does Enugu matter? More to the point, why should we be looking at urban underdogs in the first place? The answer is contextual. Despite the megacity hype, in the coming decades the vast majority of urban Africans will live not in sprawling urban centres like Lagos but in small and midsize cities like Enugu. The UN projects that by 2050, seven out of 10 people will live in urban environments and that roughly two thirds of this global urban growth will happen in Africa. Yet by 2025, only seven percent (this number subject to statistical discrepancies) of the continent’s city-dwellers will live in Lagos, Cairo and Kinshasa – the continent’s megacities. Add the projected populations of popular capital cities like Johannesburg, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam to the total and the headcount remains far below the overall figure for Africa. That is because much of the growth will happen in smaller cities and towns.
In 2025, nearly half of Africa’s urban- dwellers will reside in towns of fewer than half a million people, with cities of one to five million people accounting for 27 percent of the overall urban population – the second-largest slice of the pie. Despite how we think of their larger and more distinguished cousins, these smaller cities are the dominant spaces for urban experience. If executives and analysts need more reason to redistribute their energies, the members of the Big City Club, who already struggle to cope with the size of their current populations, will face huge developmental challenges as they draw in more and more migrants. People who do business in Africa may want to ask themselves how much size matters and consider whether bigger cities face far more serious and complex problems than smaller ones – though these too must address developmental priorities, without the immediate advantages of visibility and economies of scale.
UCL Professor of Human Geography, Jennifer Robinson, who studies cities at different scales, would caution against fixating on what happens at the massive end. Her seminal work, Ordinary Cities critiques the world city hierarchy and calls for a comparative approach that applies lessons from small cities to big cities and vice versa. Her line of questioning is clear: What might be learnt from paying attention to the transformations taking place across the urban spectrum? Enugu and Lagos may have more to learn from each other than one would think.
Small cities can be challenging business environments. Making them more appealing to companies will require radical changes, though not impossible ones. Small-city administrators will have to activate niche industries, unclog legal and regulatory frameworks, market their cities creatively, and think entrepreneurially without neglecting the long-term well-being of residing communities. Investors will need to cultivate a granular understanding of their markets and work more closely with governments to share risks and inject capital intelligently. Likewise, to cash in on the development of new sectors, financial firms must find ways to anticipate trends, streamline costs and manage risks innovatively.
Yes, the megacity may well be the spatial nexus for the social fabric of a future Africa but we should be wary of big-city snobbery as we try to pull Africa’s urban population out of poverty and instability. Big cities may be paraded as the continent’s saving grace, yet none of their progress will be sustained if the ordinary and – let’s face it – boring mid-sized cities where 170 million Africans live are left in the dust. (VENTURES AFRICA