Why you should care
Because from Bamako to Dar es Salaam, the continent is surging forward … ready or not.
Karim Kane is a carpenter, not a speculator. But the plot of land he bought a decade ago is worth nearly 25 times what he paid for it. In 2007, the village chief sold it to him for the equivalent of about $450. Kane built a house for his wife and six children on land that today he reckons is worth nearly $11,000.
The area where Kane lives is little more than muddy hills with scattered plots of land given over to cows and goats. Peddlers lead donkey carts loaded with plastic jerricans of potable water. But despite its semirural appearance, Kane has no doubt that he is now a resident of Mali’s capital. “I’m a Bamakois,” he says, using the French word for a citizen of Bamako.
Africa has become the world’s most rapidly urbanizing continent. From 2018 to 2035, the U.N. predicts that the world’s 10 fastest-growing cities will be African.
It’s a trend that has already enveloped Kane, whose land has been swallowed up by Yirimadio, the fastest-growing part of Bamako, which may itself be the fastest-growing city in Africa.
In parts of the neighborhood, shacks built by people who recently arrived from the countryside jostle with houses being constructed by Bamakois who are snapping up cheaper plots of land on the city edge. As Bamako has grown exponentially, it poses huge logistical problems for its cash-starved authorities, which are replicated across the continent.
According to a World Bank study, 472 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live in cities. High birth rates and migration from the countryside mean that by 2040, Africa’s urban population will more than double to 1 billion, it says, a rate that far outpaces urbanization elsewhere in the world.
Tann vom Hove, a senior fellow at City Mayors, which puts Mali’s capital at the top of the list with an annual expansion rate of 4.5 percent, says the trend is more important than the precise ranking.
Estimates from the U.N. say other cities, including Dar es Salaam, a city of nearly 5 million in Tanzania, are growing even faster than Bamako.
Some of Africa’s megacities, including Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital of 21 million people, and Kinshasa, the chaotic capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, are sucking in hundreds of thousands of new people each year. Smaller cities, such as Yaoundé in Cameroon, are growing almost as fast.
Urbanization is what helped ignite the “Africa rising” narrative promoted by the likes of the consultancy McKinsey, whose 2016 Lions on the Move II report highlighted cities as an engine of productivity.
From 2015 to 2045, McKinsey found, 24 million more Africans would be living in cities each year, compared to 11 million in India and 9 million in China. “Urbanization has a strong correlation with the rate of real GDP growth,” the report said, adding that “productivity in cities is more than double that in the countryside.”
Bamako is a time bomb.
Issa N’Diaye, a professor of philosophy at the University of Bamako
The World Bank estimates Bamako’s population today at 3.5 million, more than 10 times its size at independence in 1960.
But managing urban growth, with its associated problems of service provision, housing, crime and congestion, has become one of the biggest policy challenges on the continent.
“For me, this is a catastrophe foretold,” says Issa N’Diaye, a professor of philosophy at the University of Bamako, of his city’s untrammeled growth. “Bamako is a time bomb.”
Bamako, he says, and, by implication, many other cities in Africa, lacks the resources and institutional capacity to cope with explosive growth. There is not even a proper land registry, he says, meaning multiple claims on the same plot can be tied up in court for years.
Skyrocketing land prices have led to rampant corruption, N’Diaye says, alleging that land allocated for schools in his own neighborhood has been sold off by unscrupulous officials.
Rapid urban expansion has also left people bereft of services, he says. “There’s been no planning whatsoever of the road system, water drainage, electricity or urban transport. The city is becoming more and more unlivable.”
Since 2005, Yirimadio’s population alone has risen from about 20,000 to 190,000, according to officials from Muso, a health organization that serves the area. In parts of the neighborhood, locals have campaigned for a standing water pipe; in others, they have dug their own wells.
Yuba Diakite left what he says was the tedium of farming to try his luck at accounting in Bamako. The women in his rented quarters, where whole families are squashed into a single room, get up before dawn as they would in the village, he says. “Our women exhaust themselves over this question of water.”
Somik Lall, the World Bank’s lead economist for urban development in Africa, says the continent’s urbanization is running ahead of its income. Africa, he says, is 40 percent urban with a per capita gross domestic product of roughly $1,100. By the time Asia reached 40 percent urbanization, its GDP per capita was $3,500, he says.
Bamako’s expansion has been especially rapid because of people fleeing north and central Mali, unstable since an al-Qaida-linked group took control in 2012 before being expelled by a French-led military invasion.
At the Ministry of Housing and Town Planning, Abdramane Diawara, the director, is well aware of the challenges.
“It is difficult to implement the plans we have, let alone a plan for the future,” he says, brandishing a document titled Bamako Horizon 2030. “Bamako should be an asset to the country,” he adds, before slumping back in his chair. “Instead, it’s a problem.”
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