African Urbanization

Written by Marian Starkey | Published: January 28, 2015

As world population continues to grow, an increasing number of people are moving to cities in hope of securing better living conditions, higher quality educations and greater economic opportunities. For the first time in human history, half of the world’s population lived in towns and cities in 2008.

Africa is currently the least urbanized continent, but its urbanization rate of 3.5 percent per year is the fastest in the world. In 1980, only 28 percent of Africans lived in urban areas. Today, the number of Africans living in cities is 40 percent, and is projected to grow to 50 percent by 2030. The McKinsey Global Institute projects that by 2016, over 500 million Africans will live in urban areas, and 65 African cities will have populations of over 1 million.

By 2030, the 18 largest cities in Africa will have a combined spending power of $1.3 trillion, presenting a promising new market for international investors.

Challenges of Urbanization

While urbanization can be a boost to national economies, it can also present many infrastructure and humanitarian challenges. The emergence of slums is a common consequence of rapid urban growth. According to the World Health Organization, sub-Saharan Africa’s urban slum population will double to 400 million by 2020 unless governments take decisive action. In sub-Saharan Africa, where only 32.8 percent of the population resides in cities, 72 percent of urban residents live in slums.

Only 54 percent of Africa’s urban population has access to sanitation, and the percentage of urban Africans with clean drinking water actually declined – from 86 percent to 85 percent – between 2005 and 2010.

When urban populations grow rapidly, it can be difficult or impossible for governments and private enterprises to create an adequate number of jobs. This forces many people to work in the informal sector, which generally pays much less.


The flow of people to urban areas has caused a number of “megacities” – urban areas that have populations of 10 million people or more – to emerge around the world. The United Nations projects that there will be 37 megacities by 2025—most of them in developing countries.

Today, there are only two megacities in Africa: Lagos, Nigeria, and Cairo, Egypt. Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo is projected to become a megacity by 2025, with a population of 14.5 million.

Lagos is the largest city in Africa, with a population of 11.2 million. Alongside people with incredible wealth, two-thirds of Lagos residents live in slums. More than a million slum-dwellers have been kicked out of their homes in the past 15 years when the government decided to clear their slums for development.

“We don’t have anywhere to stay,” said Joy Austin, a mother of three. “Everybody is outside now. We don’t have anywhere to go.”

Cairo’s population of 11.2 million is just slightly smaller than Lagos’. Up to 70 percent of Cairo residents live in unauthorized settlements, but 83 percent of slum residents have access to piped water in their homes. With the revolution that took place in 2011 and the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi, Cairo faces constant chaos.

“Cairo is in a state of becoming,” said Omar Nagati, an architect. “We just don’t know what it’s becoming yet.”