Past, present and future perspectives
H. Jalte Tin/Still Pictures


Thirty-eight per cent of Africa's population, that is to say 297 million people, live in urban areas. By 2030, this is expected to grow to approximately 54 per cent of Africa's projected population of around 1405 million (UNCHS 2001a). The level of urbanization in Africa is on a par with that in Asia, but lower than the global figure of 47 per cent, and well below the European and North American levels of over 70 per cent (UNCHS 2001a). However, it must be borne in mind that the definition of what constitutes an urban area differs from one African country to another. For example, in Uganda a settlement with a population of more than 100 is classified as urban, whereas in Nigeria and Mauritius an urban area has a population of more than 20 000 (UNCHS 2001b). There are also difficulties in defining a city, as cities are not only defined on the basis of population size but also of administrative or legislative functions. Large cities, however, are generally those with populations over a million, and mega-cities have populations of more than 10 million (UNCHS 2001b).

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Figure 2g.1: Urban population growth in Africa, 1950-2030

Source: UNCHS

Africa's rate of urbanization of 3.5 per cent per year is the highest in the world, resulting in more urban areas with bigger populations, as well as the expansion of existing urban areas (UNCHS 2001a). There are currently 40 cities in Africa with populations of more than a million and it is expected that by 2015 seventy cities will have populations of one million or more. Lagos, with its current population of 13.4 million is the largest city in Africa, and the 6th largest in the world. Cairo, Africa's second largest city, has a population of 10.6 million and ranks 19th in the world (UNCHS 2001b). The growth of Africa's urban population is shown in Figure 2g.1.

Northern Africa is Africa's most urbanized subregion with, on average, 64 per cent of its population living in urban centres. Libya is the most urbanized country with 87.6 per cent of the population living in urban areas (UNCHS 2001a). Central Africa and the Western Indian Ocean Islands are also considerably urbanized, with average urban populations of 48 per cent each, followed by Western Africa (38 per cent) and Southern Africa (36 per cent). The least urbanized subregion is Eastern Africa (26 per cent), and Rwanda is the least urbanized country, with an urban population of just 6.2 per cent (UNCHS 2001a). However, Eastern Africa has the highest average rate of urbanization for any of Africa's sub-regions, averaging 4.5 per cent per year. Malawi has the highest rate of all African countries (6.3 per cent per year).


African cities account for 60 per cent of the region's GDP and are important centres for education, employment, and trade

The reasons for rapid growth of urban populations include overall high population growth rates, and 'pull factors' such as opportunities for employment, education, and improved access to health care which attract people from urban areas. African cities account for 60 per cent of the region's GDP and are important centres for education, employment, and trade (UNCHS 2001b).

The colonial influence on development resulted in many of Africa's urban centres and national capitals being located on the coast, maximizing access to trade, international travel, and development. However, there are also many social challenges associated with urbanization, such as the influx into urban areas of people forced out of rural areas by declining agricultural yields and who come to the urban areas in the hope of employment and greater income security. In many urban areas rates of economic growth and infrastructure development have lagged urbanization rates, resulting in high levels of unemployment, inadequate standards of housing and services, and impacts on human health and development. Environmental disasters and conflicts have also caused many people to flee rural areas and to seek refuge in urban centres. In Mozambique about 4.5 million rural people were displaced to urban areas because of civil strife in the 1980s (Chenje 2000) and the third largest settlement in Sierra Leone is a displaced persons camp (UNCHS 2001b).