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Urbanisation is remaking Africa

With so much of the infrastructure of Africa’s future cities yet to be built, the continent stands at a precipice to lead the way in creating smart cities, as they should be. It’s a vision that is not impossible to attain.

By Anton Cartwright and Dr Lardo Stander

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 2-2020.
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

While we can all agree that Africa’s most pressing need when it comes to energy right now is to electrify rural areas where people are not on a power grid of any kind, the reality is our cities are estimated to house just more
than 1.2 billion people at the moment and will experience a 4% annual growth rate (according to UN-Habitat). This means that by 2050 around 2.5 billion people will be living in urbanised cities on the African continent.

At the moment Africa only has three megacities (having populations of over 10 million) – Cairo, Lagos and Kinshasa – but that is going to change radically over the next three decades. Already demographers see the Gauteng city-region in South Africa joining the list in the near future. But, the truth is, the wave of rapid urbanisation is happening in the smaller
cities and it is not the size that we should consider, but the rate of expansion. The theory is that 70% of the urbanisation will take place in the small to medium towns and cities.

While it is impossible to tell exactly what those spaces will look like, we can estimate what people will need, and extrapolate how utilities will have to respond to that. Climate change is one of the biggest problems facing African cities. Not of our making. Add a pandemic like COVID-19 and suddenly you are dealing with an issue that not only the city officials but also utilities and all levels of government must factor into its planning. [Ed: Read the article on Crisis Management on page 8]

Anton Cartwright, a researcher at the African Centre for Cities in Cape Town, and a featured speaker at this year’s African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa in November, has been working in Tanzania and Ghana for the past three years: “Two countries with very different approaches to urbanisation, but both hoping to turn their urbanisation phases into an economic opportunity. Anticipating and planning for the multiple effects
of climate change form a big part of this quest.”

Most African cities (except those in South Africa) are not carbon-intensive, although much of their emissions are associated with charcoal burning, which goes unrecorded, thereby creating a measure of uncertainty about the true level of carbon emissions on the continent. Still, Cartwright thinks
the idea of carbon neutrality by 2050 (as per Paris Agreement targets to limit climate change) is possible.

“The falling prices of renewable energy mean that any new energy investment should be carbon neutral, based on price alone. The problem for cities is that they don’t control many of the decisions that affect their carbon intensity. They need to work closely with national governments and SOEs on this, and state-run utilities need to design their services around
the needs and affordability of users. African planners have the great advantage of confronting this challenge with full knowledge of climate change,” Cartwright explained.

African cities are adapting to climate change and rethinking the design of their utility services in a variety of ways, with some progressive cities making a name for themselves by harnessing digital technology, renewable energy and the resourcefulness of local communities. Still, climate change is a massive challenge for centralised utilities who still operate as “vertically integrated monopolies”, a model inherited from the colonial era and often operated without the due oversight or innovation.

“The exciting thing is that what this model is being replaced with is often cheaper, less environmentally damaging, more labour intensive and inclusive, and better placed to extend services to remote communities. This is true for the energy, water, waste and transport sectors.” Cartwright thinks an important lesson African governments should take away from managing risk to economy and population during the COVID-19 pandemic is the imperative of data and “the importance of interaction between national and local governments.”

“My personal hope is that the crisis will free up some space for African leaders to prioritise and invest in public goods (including public health), without being punished for perceived fiscal profligacy by capital markets. We simply have to get people out of chronic poverty and give them access to basic services, and the COVID-19 crisis has taught us that we can do this if we all agree it is important. Rather than the vanity projects that some development banks and private financiers have encouraged we need to focus on universal access to basic services,” said Cartwright.

With much of the new infrastructure for African cities of the future yet to be built, how do we take into consideration risk and plan around issues of resilience when setting up power grids for electric vehicles and new ways of creating interconnected electricity grids? What are the alternative forms of waste management which are not predicated on using energy and water needed elsewhere? What then are the new sources of energy if we cannot continue on the coal path we are on?

As Divisional Head: Economic Intelligence for the City of Tshwane Dr Lardo Stander puts it, for far too long we have taken water and energy for granted in Africa: “We have, erroneously, treated these two precious, scarce and life-giving resources as if we were entitled to use as much as we wanted, fooling ourselves into thinking there would always be cheap and abundant water and energy. We were wrong. Our future depends, critically, on our changing our thinking and changing our behaviour when it comes to water and energy. To change our thinking, we need new understanding. To change our behaviour, we need new values,” said Stander.

These are just some of the pertinent issues and questions that will form part of the Future Cities conference track at this year’s African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa on 24-26 November, where we will explore how to create the smart cities Africa needs. ESI

The Future Cities strategic conference track at African Utility Week and POWERGEN Africa will take a look at the kinds of decisions cities, utilities, local governments and municipalities will need to take in order to adapt, grow and thrive.