Fragmented, crowded, costly. That is the woeful state of African cities, whose economies are lagging behind their rates of growth, the World Bank warned Thursday.

Low capital investment and disjointed spatial forms have ensnared African cities in a “low development trap”, the multilateral lender said in a new report, “Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors to the World”. The study is based on research from 64 cities across the continent.

“The report documents evidence about Africa’s small-scale fragmented form that is completely at odds with the broader thinking in development and experiences that we have seen in other parts of the world, such as in East Asia or developed countries,” said Somik Lall, lead urban economist at the World Bank and the report’s author.

“In African cities, land has developed as little clusters of fragments that are disconnected, which undermines not only the ability of cities to deliver on high-capacity transport and infrastructure, but undermines any potential agglomeration one may have,” he said.

African cities are essentially “urbanizing while poor”. In 1994, when countries in East Asia and the Pacific hit a benchmark of being 40 percent urban, their per capita gross domestic product was USD 3,600. Today, at the same level of urbanization, Africa has a per capita GDP of less than a third of that — just USD 1,000, according to the research.

The effects of off-kilter economic and spatial development are hurting urban residents who struggle with high food and transport costs, as well as low access to formal housing in cities that can’t adequately supply their burgeoning urban populations.

In African cities, urban citizens pay roughly 35 percent more for food and up to 31 percent more for goods and services than in other developing countries at similar income levels, the report notes.

Transport, too, is a major constraint to urban development in African cities. Faced with poor or non-existent public transport systems, workers have to fork out for commuting by private car or minibus taxi. Those who can’t afford transport walk to work.

And commutes are typically lengthy. In Nairobi, for instance, where about 40 percent of commuting is done on foot, the average journey-to-work time has been among the longest in 20 cities around the world, according to IBM’s 2011 “Global Commuter Pain Survey.

Despite these challenges, African cities continue to grow. Yet many coming into cities from rural areas in search of access to better jobs, services and opportunities are not getting these, says the World Bank’s Nancy Lozano, a co-author of the report.

“The fragmented development that’s happening in cities and uncoordinated actions in terms of service provision and housing are [making] barriers for these people to connect to jobs and better opportunities,” she said.
So what can be done to fix these urban systems and make them more efficient? Since Africa’s urban population is projected to double over the next 25 years, improvements need to happen soon.
The World Bank’s analysis focuses on how to bring economic development up to speed with urban growth. African cities need to attract global investment, in part through specializing in manufacturing, Lall and his co-authors recommend.

The goal would be to create scale economies, thereby opening themselves to the global market: Make cities denser and more connected, and thereby increasingly attractive to investors.

For this to happen, the report’s authors argue, a first goal is to formalize land markets and clarify property rights, with an eye to lessening the regulatory obstacles that stand in the way of investment. On a related note, they also emphasize the need to introduce effective urban planning across the continent.

Over the past decade, some African countries have been putting in place such reforms. For instance, Botswana started regularizing customary lands in 2008. And Zambia passed a new planning bill in 2015, which designated local officials as planning authorities. Rwanda has pursued nationwide land tenure reform since 2005, issuing titles based on photo-mapping technology, at under USD 10 per parcel.

A second goal is for authorities to make early and coordinated investments in infrastructure, chiefly through leveraging the value of city land.

Sorting out land markets and basic infrastructure would send a signal to the market that African countries are serious about urban development, says Lall. “It’s a matter of first changing investor expectations of what African cities can do,” he said.

Finally, Lall and his researchers are encouraging authorities to focus on developing better urban transport systems. But this step must not come before formalizing land markets and strengthening infrastructure investments, the report cautions.

With commodity prices low, resource-rich countries can focus on structural reforms at the city level, says Lall. And with the rapid growth of African cities, there is little time to waste.

“It’s not like we need to do this in five years or 10 years. We need to start now at a major scale,” he said. “Each country needs to set its path on what makes sense in terms of its institutional and physical structures.”