Some 75 % of global population live in urban settlements of fewer than 500,000 people. The figure will only get higher with time. Smaller cities, especially across Africa, are projected to double/triple in population over the next 15-25 years. Secondary cities vary considerably in size. In China, some have populations of over five million, while in Ethiopia they have fewer than 200,000.
Creating decentralized strategies to provide basic services to smaller “intermediate” cities and towns can facilitate the transition between rural and non-rural activities and take pressure off Africa’s megacities.
“Taking pressure off Africa’s megacities”
“This is where most investment and urban planning need to take place: equipping [Intermediate cities] with proper infrastructure, helping deliver basic services and enabling them for the generation of job opportunities,” argues Edgar Pieterse of the African Centre for Cities.
In West Africa, Ghana works to relieve pressure on Accra and Kumasi by building the capacity of local government, training planners and local councillors in smaller cities. On the other side of the continent, in Uganda, a partnership between Belgium-based Cities Alliance and the British Department for International Development focuses on 14 secondary cities, to boost the long-term planning capacities of local governments and assit slum dwellers.
“Rolling out broadband”
“In most African cities, planning is done short term, in five-year or maybe ten-year plans. It’s important for these cities to increase their planning horizons to 30 years,” explains Samuel Mabala of Cities Alliance.
Connect smaller cities to the world outside the national borders
If small cities in the middle of nowhere become hotbeds of company formation in the United States, can’t their African peers follow, follow fast? How significant is the number of places in Africa where people want to live for the sake of the place, not just a paycheck?
Create positive change by tapping into the land market
One thing is certain: land in Mohammedia, a port city on the west coast of Morocco between Casablanca and Rabat, can be cheaper for its population of 188,619 than in Nairobi, Kenya, home to some 3 million people. And all these African cities mentioned above have one enormous advantage over tech hubs like Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston or New York. Land is cheap.
As James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, puts it “‘Every calculation – the cash flow you must maintain, the life balance you can work toward – is different when a nice family house costs a few hundred thousand dollars rather than a few million.” Again, in smaller African cities that family house can cost you well south of USD100,000.
“Cheaper rental prices, and a higher growth potential”
Take Koforidua, Eastern Region in south Ghana (some 130,000 people). An almost completed two-bedroom house with double garage and a large plot surrounding it trades in Koforidua for GH₵ 249,600 (Fixed USD price: $ 64,000).
By investing in smaller cities, real estate developers and industry professionals benefit from lower operating costs, greater space and scenery for construction, lower costs for resources and building materials. While bigger economic capitals have the advantage over smaller, lesser known cities — due to greater recognition around the world — cheaper rental prices, less competition, and a higher growth potential is enabling smaller emerging cities in Africa to rise to the challenge.
Coupled with reliable broadband and state-of-the-art medical services, smaller African cities — oftentimes a step away from breathtaking natural beauty — are to become your idea of a city of the 21st century.
Get smart about attracting investors
The picture is not without pitfalls of course. Laura Mann, International Development department at London School of Economics (LSE), observes that on the national level African policy-makers should think much more strategically about how African nations can capture value within their economies through the proliferation of information technologies and the deepening of the digital economy.
“National policies that fund local R&D and training programmes”
Recent reports by institutions like UNECA, UNCTAD and UNIDO suggest that African governments need to be extremely strategic in their dealings with foreign companies; to make sure those investments and activities contribute to raising the skill level in African countries, providing outsourcing and procurement opportunities for local businesses and paying taxes that can fund local R&D and training programmes.
But it is a two-way road. National government in Kenya tried to promote Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) by subsidising the cost of bandwidth to all BPO companies that wanted to try to engage in the sector. Some unskilled local companies received that support, and harmed the overall reputation of Kenyan firms in the eyes of international clients.
“Making African economies more predictable”
As more African governments shift to e-governance and more city dwellers use mobiles, internet connections and smartcards, massive amounts of transactional data is generated. This makes African economies more predictable, smaller cities in Africa more visible to foreign investors. Back to LSE wisdom on smart cities in Africa:
Behind the widely circulated images of slum dwellers using mobile technologies to improve daily lives, the dominance of large ICT companies, a splintered urban landscape, land dispossession and the securitisation of urban space reveal a more complicated potential smart urban future.
Smaller African cities will have to be smart about opening markets and opportunities, a policy that should primarily contribute to development of their own communities — rather than large corporations or the local elites.
Beyond the narrative that tends to put smart city Africa into the realm of technology, smaller African cities should guard against becoming exclusive enclaves or archipelagos of high technology. Smart African communities should prioritize people and avoid withdrawing from the wider city.
“Getting beyong exclusive enclaves and archipelagos of high technology”
Function and role – as opposed to population size – are now defining an intermediary city’s status within the global network of cities. In this context, talent attraction and retention become factors that differentiate Gondar, a secondary city of 358,257 in the north of Ethiopia from Kikwit (home to some 400,000 people) in the southwestern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Smart specialization strategies promoted by the European Union are designed to encourage each region to identify transformation priorities that reflect and amplify existing local structures and competencies, and thus produce original and unique competitive advantages.