Lagos at night. A recent report from the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa stresses the need for fast-growing African cities to link economic investments with urbanization. (Orighomisan Ogbebor/Shutterstock)

As Africa continues to rapidly urbanize, a recent report warns city and national leaders not to miss a rare opportunity to create much-needed economic expansion on a mass scale.
Urbanization and Industrialization for Africa’s Transformation, emphasizes that a migration wave reshaping the continent’s cities should be accompanied by a surge in industrial development.
The 189-page report, published in March by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, is the commission’s flagship report on Africa’s economy. It recommends that national planners link these two themes of urbanization and economic development, which are often treated as separate issues.

In future posts, Citiscope will look at case studies and policy prescriptions mentioned in the report. Here, we’ll focus on the main takeaway: that many African cities have reached a “critical juncture” and must take action now before they face unmanageable levels of sprawl, congestion, informal settlements and poverty.
“A key conclusion is that under the right policy framework, anchored in national development planning, African countries can leverage the momentum of urbanization to accelerate industrialization for a more prosperous and equitable future,” the authors write.
The commission emphasizes that Africa is undergoing a rapid transformation. In 1990, only a third of the continent was considered urbanized. By 2035, nearly half of all Africans will be city dwellers. The implications are enormous for Africa’s current population of 1.2 billion, projected to rise to 4.4 billion by 2100.
Obstacles to transformation
In Western countries, urbanization has been a key economic driver, with new businesses attracting workers and professionals who then fuel consumption and drive the economy forward.
But in Africa, migration of largely unskilled migrants and villagers into cities is compounding existing problems.
That’s because cities already struggle with inadequate infrastructure, limited public services, inequality and a large informal workforce. “Unless resolved, these impediments will undermine Africa’s urban potential for structural transformation,” the authors write.
The challenge is to have industrialization and “economic diversification” accompany the continent’s swift urban growth, the report says.  Abdalla Hamdok, executive secretary of the commission, details some ways in which the goal can be achieved. Among her recommendations:
* Boost local manufacturing: As populations and income rise, African cities should support domestic manufacturing to provide more jobs and meet increased consumption demands. Otherwise, imported products fill the void, creating missed economic opportunities.
* Target investments wisely: Industrial investments that can strengthen cities should be prioritized. Careful assessments should be made regarding which cities would provide the best return on investments in different industries. Directing funds to a range of cities ensures that each plays a complementary role in the industrial ecosystem.
‘Urban primacy’
A recurrent theme in the report is that Africa’s cities are out of balance. The notion of “urban primacy” has left many countries with a single megacity that is simply too crowded to be manageable, the report warns.
”The largest city is too large, there are few other large or mid-sized cities, and smaller cities are too small,” the authors observe. A more balanced approach to urban growth would provide companies with more location options and could spread economic prosperity to more areas.
The products and services that a growing African middle class increasingly demand — such as cars, housing and supermarkets — could provide the basis for economic growth in Africa’s cities.
[See: Finding a truly common vision for Africa’s cities]
“As Africa urbanizes, the purchasing power of the middle class is growing,” the report states. Domestic companies and businesses could be tapped to fill these high-demand needs and to help municipalities meet their public infrastructure needs.
The 50-plus nations that comprise Africa can be grouped in three main categories, the report says. “Pre-transition” nations such as Ethiopia have an opportunity to chart their urbanization course, but also face challenges that include limited resources and inadequate infrastructure.
Cameroon, Mozambique and Rwanda are examples of “transition” countries in early stages of urbanization. They still have opportunities to attract investment and industries that can boost the liveability and economies of their cities.
Diversified economies, such as such as Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa, face the “toughest” choice, the authors say. They can channel investments to major cities that struggle with inequality and large informal economies, or direct it to smaller cities that never industrialized.