A post-COVID recovery for African cities needs to be inclusive, sustainable and job-rich

Jul 16, 2020 | Blog

Professor Carlos Lopes is a Professor at the Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town, and a member of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Professor Edgar Pieterse is South African Research Chair on Urban Policy and Director of the African Cities Center at the University of Cape Town.


It has been known for some time that the de facto urban development model in most African cities is deeply unsustainable and fundamentally unjust. Current policy and governance models are unable to address large-scale precarity associated with informal employment and slum living conditions. The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing how these pre-existing conditions make the urban anchor points of African economies extremely vulnerable to the impacts of enforced lockdowns, social distancing measures and large-scale emergency responses. Since most urban dwellers rely on modest daily incomes in the nooks and crannies of the informal economy, not being able to trade, move about, socially interact and exchange is effectively a sentence to destitution. Years of steady progress on various socio-economic indicators can be reversed in a blink of an eye.

Policy discussions on post COVID-19 recovery offer an opportunity to review this course and, critically, transition toward sustainability. It is an opportune moment for city leaders, civic movements, enlightened firms, think tanks and allies in national governments to advance a green urban agenda that can address spatial inequality and social cohesion. Such a movement should be part of a structural transformation policy aiming for green industrialisation, based on renewable energy production and investment in sustainable infrastructure. What does this mean practically?

Widespread energy access through renewables

The most severe binding constraint on African economic development is the lack of access to electricity. More than 60% of African households do not have access to reliable and affordable electricity. Many African governments remain wedded to fossil fuels through exports of crude, which represent 40% of the total continental exports, and a byzantine tax system that subsidizes oil in the pump. There is an unprecedented opportunity to switch to renewable energy sources and construct value chains that are entirely rooted in African soil and oceans. With the leadership of the African Development Bank and the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA), development finance institutions are gearing up, but we need stronger demand from African governments and cities, supported by coalitions capable of directing the enormous demographic and urban pressure building up towards a low-carbon economy. COVID-19 offers a unique opportunity to scrap subsidies for fossil fuel consumption, with oil prices at historical lows, and drives home the need to urgently replace commodity dependence in this field.

Safer, greener, affordable mobility

The second and related infrastructural domain is mobility. Transaction costs are inordinately high in most African cities due to congestion, poor road infrastructures, limited formal public transport and badly regulated and unsubsidised semi-formal systems that ferry the majority of urban residents. De facto mobility systems are unsafe, inconvenient, expensive and a major contributor to air pollution. It also reinforces spatial inequalities because limited investments in ring roads and highways tend to privilege the connectivity needs of the middle class and large businesses. A post-COVID-19 recovery agenda will give priority to health and equity concerns that call for the establishment of truly integrated, affordable, safe and predictable mobility options. This means public investment in semi-formal systems to optimise the possibility of smart regulation through sensors, whilst creating business models that allow the current owners and operators of informal systems (minibus taxis, scooters, motorcycles, buses) to upscale their enterprises. Enhancing transport though the use of mass transit opportunities can coincide with massive road repair and maintenance programmes. This will contribute to economic recovery, generate much-needed employment and promote the use of waste materials such as plastic and rubble, while the incorporation of cheap sensors can ensure more efficient regulation.

Economic opportunity in water and sanitation

A third domain for radical and large-scale action is water and sanitation. In a study conducted by the Water Research Commission in partnership with the Toilet Board Coalition, a circular economy framework has been applied to develop an African approach to solving this issue as part of a green industrialisation strategy. They propose that the massive backlogs in access to safe and affordable water and sanitation services should be seen as an opportunity to grow tens of thousands of social enterprises that can run decentralised systems, enable a plethora of micro businesses, and contribute to a new industrial sector. The image below summarises the model and business opportunities, demonstrating the untapped opportunities of a sustainable infrastructure approach combined with the imperatives of circular economies and digital enablement. Read more about it in The Sanitation Economy Opportunity.

Water and sanitation as economic opportunity1

An inclusive, sustainable and jobs-rich African green industrialisation

An African approach to green industrialisation is about a comprehensive modernization of economic transactions, making them more formal, responsive to the pressing needs of our younger population and led by cities. It is about smart urban regulation at the intersection of land-use planning and infrastructure investment. Social enterprises work best when they are anchored in a locality, a neighbourhood or community and when their economic purpose also contributes to fostering social cohesion, which has been shaken by the current crisis. Social enterprises that operate renewable energy mini-grids and new businesses using digital platforms are already showing the opportunities. The widespread adoption of electronic money systems in East Africa has enhanced the capacity for social mobilisation and communication during the pandemic. Large-scale investment in ICT infrastructure, with widespread accessibility, is a vital enabling system for inclusive transitions in other infrastructure sectors.

These examples suggest that a post-COVID-19 recovery agenda can be radically inclusive, just and sustainable. However, the elephant in the room is the resistance by national governments to get serious about democratic decentralisation. For the longest time African governments have been treating local government like an unwanted stepchild. There is grudging familial acceptance, but it is coupled with habitual undermining and fiscal neglect. This antiquated approach to multi-level governmental relations has been thoroughly exposed by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paradoxically, the same pandemic could provide the impetus for a new multi-scale, multi-institutional, multivocal movement for a jobs-rich green industrialisation strategy anchored by Africa’s cities and regions.

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