In 2016, two professors from Canada and the United States released a journal projecting that most of the world’s largest cities would be in Africa by 2100. According to their paper, thirteen of the world’s 20 biggest urban areas will be in Africa — up from just two today. These researchers created three population models to account for different possible development paths African countries might take this century. In all of them, African cities outpaced the rest of the world’s cities in growth.
As popular as that narrative has become, there is no guarantee it will happen. Large cities only exist because they have large economies. And mega-cities need mega-economies, even if, for some, much of their economy is informal. However, Africa’s room for growth can’t be ignored.
Africa is home to 1.4 billion people, twice as many as Europe and growing three times faster than the global average. The UN projects that by 2050, Africa’s population will double to at least 2.4 billion and that a quarter of the world’s population will be African. The continent’s biggest cities will be major contributors to this growth, and here’s what you should know about them.
Lagos is Nigeria’s coastal mega-city and Africa’s most densely populated city. But no one knows for a fact how many people live in it. Official numbers say there are at least 24 million residents, while the United Nations estimates a more modest 15 million. Both are estimates, as Nigeria has not had a headcount in 17 years. It houses two of Africa’s busiest ports, making it one of Africa’s top economic hubs. Nigeria’s trade depends strongly on Lagos to thrive. It is also Nigeria’s most productive state, accounting for 60-75% of revenue annually.
Various sources say Lagos receives between 600 and 2000 immigrants daily, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing cities. And because it is Nigeria’s smallest state by land mass, Lagos’ most unique feature is chaos. Competition is fiercer in Lagos than anywhere else in Africa, causing a blend of high unemployment, a housing crisis and one of the world’s worst traffic congestion. Lagos’ housing deficit is between three million and 17 million units, even though it accounts for more than 10% of Nigeria’s annual house construction.
Cairo is Egypt’s economic hotbed and the second-largest city in Africa. The city’s culture and history, such as being home to world-famous sites like the Pyramids of Giza, make it one of Africa’s top tourist destinations. The world’s widest cable-stayed bridge — the Long Live Egypt Bridge — is also in Cairo. But this is not the only profound thing about Cairo.
Cairo’s brand of congestion is unique. Unlike Lagos, it’s not only because of its economic significance. Cairo is the seat of almost half of the Arab political, economic, and cultural organizations, particularly in the Arab League, and an important banking centre. Several ministries and embassies surround Cairo’s central Tahrir Square. These buildings often need lots of security measures, including blocking nearby streets. But these measures end up clogging the city’s arteries, making it difficult for people to move from one point to the other. Cairo is relatively slum-free, thanks to a $25 billion national slum upgrading plan.
Kinshasa, the capital of The Democratic Republic of Congo, is Africa’s third biggest city. Worldwide, it’s the largest French-speaking city, outnumbering Paris. The city is one of Africa’s largest mining hubs, holding about 49% of the world’s cobalt reserves. But Kinshasa, like the rest of Congo, doesn’t profit from these mineral riches. It is the poorest among Africa’s biggest cities.
Poverty is not the most unique problem in Kinshasa —the structure is. Colonisers built the city before departing, having race and class segregation in mind. This structure only allowed the rich to access public services. That is why fewer than 1 in 10 Congolese have electricity at home. Areas once reserved for Whites are now inhabited by wealthy Congolese. And vast tracts of land that were undeveloped 60 years ago are now covered with shantytowns, home to the city’s majority who live in grinding poverty.