High cost of living stifles urbanisation even as population rises in cities

Saturday March 3 2012

Urbanisation levels have neither peaked in sub-Saharan Africa, nor is the future necessarily rural. However, it is simply not true that the region urbanised rapidly in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

Urbanisation levels have neither peaked in sub-Saharan Africa, nor is the future necessarily rural. However, it is simply not true that the region urbanised rapidly in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. 

By Jeremiah Kiplang’at

Sheila Sinei, 21, is a jobless resident of Deap Sea, one of Nairobi’s latest slums sandwiched between the high income residential estate of Muthaiga and the middle income Highridge.

She quit rural life several years ago in search of a job in Nairobi. Now, she must buy a packet of flour, sugar, milk, paraffin, vegetables and other basic foodstuffs plus put aside enough money for water.  In other words, she has to live on Ksh103 ($1.3) daily.

But are there opportunities for the millions of households who are migrating to African cities annually?

Nairobi’s Deap Sea slum has a population of about 10,000, quite small compared with Kibera slum’s of 170,000.

Deap Sea is located on a piece of derelict land, like most of Nairobi slums, where some of the inhabitants say they moved from rural areas or other urban locations in search of better accommodation or housing units. 

For Ms Sinei, without a job, her only hope is the proverbial lady luck stepping into her shanty with a shopping bag each day. Of course, that does not happen so she has to consistently “borrow from the nearest kiosk” with the hope of clearing debts when a job arises. Her other worry is a cocktail of intense insecurity, lack of facilities like hospitals, schools and latrines.

Her four-square, fly infested dirty iron-sheet room, speaks of the deplorable conditions she has been subjected to.

The fact that property developers eyeing a good return, putting up the slums in squalid conditions —no piped water nor good access to roads — has raised questions as to whether Africa’s cities are just seeing a rise in their urban population but not really urbanising.

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. A new report by the African Research Institute describes this as a fallacy. The report titled “Whatever Happened to Africa’s Urbanisation?” by Dr Deborah Potts, Reader in Human Geography at King’s College, London makes intriguing observations that may force policymakers to redraw a new “de-urbanisation programme” for the cities.

The report argues  that while the populations of numerous urban areas are growing rapidly, the urbanisation levels of many countries are increasing at a slow pace – if at all.

There are reasons. Potential homeowners in Kenya can hardly own houses. A real estate pricing bubble has pushed the cost of homes to more than 140 times the annual incomes of most Kenyans, making it difficult for millions of families to realise their homeownership dream.

The 2011 Global Property Guide (GPG) shows that Kenyans aspiring to own homes can only do so if they are ready to pay 148 times more than their annual income, making them the most disadvantaged lot on the continent when it comes to homeownership.

The findings have put African governments, policymakers and international donors on the spot as they battle fundamental changes in urbanisation trends in respect to urban employment, incomes and economic development.

“Rapid urbanisation continues to be a major challenge in developing countries. More than 70 per cent of world population will be living in the cities by 2050. Our policies must therefore be informed by this reality. We must plan in advance and in accordance to the size of the problem,” Kenya’s Housing Minister Soita Shitanda said recently.
Economists argue that with the higher living costs in towns, the gap between rural and urban living standards is increasingly narrowing and — in some cases — reversing for the lower-income urban groups.

Drop in urbanisation

They argue, for countries in sub-Saharan Africa to stimulate and sustain rapid and economically favourable urbanisation, they will require massive investment in industries, which collectively employ hundreds of thousands of low-skilled people, rather than enterprises employing hundreds in the formal sector.

Data by the UN Habitat indicates a reduction in the urbanisation level of 11 mainland countries in sub-Saharan Africa between 2001 and 2010. These were Benin, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. Tanzania’s declined from 33 per cent  to 26 per cent. In Uganda, the 3.7 per cent annual population growth of Kampala looks impressive until it is compared with the 3.4 per cent annual growth rate of a predominantly rural national population.

Uganda’s urbanisation level, like that of Malawi, increased by just 1 per cent — from 11 per cent to 12 per cent of the total population — a jump attributed to the influx of refugees displaced by conflict. Often, reports from both the authorities and non-governmental organisations have indicated that urban population was going up at higher rates due to reasons like availability of employment and business opportunities in towns. This accelerated rural-urban movement has been blamed for the rise of slums and other sub-standard housing apartments in towns. 

It is rightly so if Ms Sinei’s story is, to go by. Being jobless, she has no choice but to stay where she can avoid paying rent or pay as little as possible; that is only possible in the slums.

The report tries to relate the present economic power of urban areas and their ability to attract rural migrants. Most of these towns were found to be lacking enough power to accommodate the urbanisation status given to them over the past 30 or so years.

“This counterpoint does not seek to suggest that urbanisation levels have peaked in sub-Saharan Africa, nor that the future is necessarily rural. But it does need to be recognised that it is simply not true that the region urbanised rapidly in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. There is too much evidence of countries experiencing a very slow shift from rural to urban, amounting to about one per cent per decade,” said the report as it threw a punch at organisations like UN Habitat that have insisted that urbanisation has been much faster.

Dr Potts further says the economic status of a city plays a big role in the in-movement of people. “If urban economies weaken further, net in-migration may fall further and countries will experience even slower urbanisation, or counter-urbanisation. Conversely, improved economic performance, which is accompanied by the creation of very large numbers of reasonably paid urban jobs and substantial investment in infrastructure, could stimulate in-migration, reduce the speed and frequency of circular migration, and boost urbanisation.”

The dismal conditions in Deap Sea summarise what the report tries to dismiss. Many of the cities may be growing in population but that growth is not corresponding to the expected status, for instance, the inability to provide jobs for its ballooning number of residents, poor infrastructure, insecurity and the growth of slums.

Nairobi, for example, has almost half of its population living in over 100 slums and squatter settlements with little or inadequate access to safe water and sanitation. That should not be the case.

Slums everywhere

Other East African cities are riddled with slums too. Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, has Kisenyi slum right in the city while Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam is known for its populated Magomeni area.

The Kenya government says it is planning for every urban resident, including Ms Sinei, to have better lives before the next 20 years elapse. This endeavour is one of the many in its latest blueprint, Vision 2030, launched in 2007.

In its social pillar, Vision 2030 states that every Kenyan should live in a decent house. Slums are not part of that programme, therefore, they have to be dealt away with soon and affordable good houses built for the low-earners now populating ominous low-end parts of the city where shanties or poorly built houses are their conspicuous trademark.

Slum upgrading has already begun in Kibera — the largest in the country — but has been paused due to court injunctions and the government running out of cash.

In the plan, the government should start building at least 200,000 housing units each year from 2012 in continuance of the slums upgrading and in a bid to provide more habitable houses for the increasing number of urban residents. It should also ensure that basic necessities are available to all whether in the slums or upmarket estates.

“Kenya needs to upgrade slums and adequate financial resources put into this if we are to achieve proper sanitation” said Dr Wainaina Gituro, a director at Vision 2030, Kenya’s economic blueprint.