Rapid Urbanization in Africa: Causes and Effects

By Milo Mandelli-Valla and Zack Pelosky

A bustling city center in Sub-Saharan Africa. (Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP / Getty Images)

Africa is the world’s second-fastest-growing region, and yet 100 million more Africans live in extreme poverty today compared to the 1990s. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular is home to the largest share of people living in extreme poverty. This poverty crisis is not being aided by urbanization; rather, it is being fueled by the rapid influx of people into cities from rural areas. This stream of people is creating two major problems: the sudden creation of slums, and the premature loss of life.


According to the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA), rapid urbanization has led to the formation of uncontrolled settlement patterns, resulting in the proliferation of informal settlements, and the explosion of large-scale urban areas called slums or ‘squatter settlements.’ Over fifty-million slum inhabitants in Nigeria alone are affected as they do not have adequate shelter, food, water, and other basic human needs. Moreover, in these slums, the cost of living is severely inflated. According to Brookings, “urban residents pay fifty-five percent more for housing and forty-two percent more for transport in Africa than in other regions [of the world].” This pushes the poor further into crippling poverty, creating a cycle of urban slum inhabitants.


Recently there has been a considerable decrease in the population of those living in slums, but this decline is not a result of urbanization. This comes as a result of the flow of young people in and out of Nigeria and the dependence on oil markets. In the past thirty years, the Nigerian oil industry has been booming, until 2014, when the United States increased its oil production. After this hiccup in the oil industry, Nigeria’s slum population has risen by upwards of ten million people as oil and gas are critical to Nigeria's economic and social performance. Oil alone accounts for 40% of the country's GDP, 70% of budget revenues, and 95% of foreign exchange earnings. Hundreds of thousands of young Africans migrated to Nigeria in the 1990s and 2000s. Akitu Abukabar, a presidential candidate and former vice president of Nigeria, remarked: “In the early 2000s, we witnessed a big influx of Nigerians coming home to work and build new businesses because they saw our policies brought growth.”


These slums are humanitarian disasters and currently threaten the lives of more than 100 million Africans, according to the World Bank. Slums directly endanger lives as they lack the critical foundations of human life, for example, the scarcity of clean water and sanitation. Nicolas Pinault of VOA reports that only 25 percent of urban areas in Africa have access to safe drinking water. This is disastrous as The World Counts reports that every year 3,575,000 people die from water-related diseases. This is equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing every hour. Most of these people are children (2.2 million).


Not only is the lack of water dangerous, but the close quarters pose another threat. Hundreds of thousands of African slum inhabitants die each year from fires, mercury poisoning, collapsing shelters, and other premature causes. More recently, with COVID-19 spreading rapidly across the world, slum inhabitants saw a high level of cases. In Mumbai, fifty-seven percent of the twelve million living in the slums contracted COVID. Blood tests on nearly 7,000 randomly selected people showed that 57% of slum residents had virus antibodies, according to the survey carried out on behalf of the BMC. This was compared with less than one percent of rural inhabitants. There was no exclusive data on African slums, but with living conditions in Indian slums being highly alike to those in Africa, one can roughly align the results.


These factors lead to the premature deaths of millions and an overall lower life expectancy. In fact, the life expectancy in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria which is the richest and most developed country in West Africa, has a life expectancy of forty-seven years of age, as opposed to the fifty-three across the country.


The sole enterprise which is expected to improve these figures is to strengthen infrastructure in these areas. It is estimated that, on average, African countries would need to spend 5-7% of the GDP, or a minimum of $100 billion a year per country on public infrastructure to maintain the same standards if African countries urbanize, sending these countries into large amounts of debt. Sri Lanka, which rapidly urbanized, spent billions of dollars from China on infrastructure, only to be trapped in debt with negligible economic growth. We are seeing this dependence on China already start to take place in Africa, such as in Angola and Ethiopia.


Much of Africa is in a similar situation. It is unable to urbanize without foreign direct investment from China who would suck West Africa into the debt trap, as seen in Sri Lanka, as well as stealing West African ports on the Atlantic in a strategic, but dangerous move.


Urbanization impacts lives multidimensionally. The few jobs that exist are vanishing, debt is piles up, disease is becoming widespread, millions are dying per year, and slum populations continue to increase. The impact of this ultimate loss of life highlights the need for governments to recognize the necessity of implementing economic and urban growth at present without compromising the welfare of the populations in the future.