Smart Urbanization in Sub-Saharan African Societies

Updated: Nov 14

With life expectancy ever growing and unprecedented levels of urbanization in Sub-Saharan Africa, the following two case studies show a stark contrast in how the urban field can develop. These two countries were chosen due to their geographic proximity and the stark contrast that they show: Nigeria being the most populous country on the continent and Ghana being one of the fastest developing ones. While very different culturally, Accra and Lagos are actually geographically closer to each other than Madrid and Barcelona, which speaks for an important similarity.

While not one of the biggest countries in sub-Saharan Africa and not having any mega-cities, Ghana shines as a promising example to show how urbanization can take place. While having around 31 million people compared to their almost neighbors Nigeria of over 200 million Ghana has seen similar and better trends when it comes to urbanization. While not flawless, comparing the two countries seems unfair in some respects (namely the huge discrepancy in total population), similarities are present, and conclusions can be made by the example of Ghana. While this will concentrate and evaluate Ghana’s urbanization, there must be another country to compare it to, to make some sort of interpretation, Nigeria in this case. There are two primary categories which governments should strive to achieve in their cities: livability and economic development. While there are many more factors, such as sustainability, I think that these first two factors must be solved before continuing.

Firstly, when talking about livability, there are two factors by which these can be measured: population density and share of urban population living in slums. While showing similar trends in population density (growing rapidly), Ghana does see itself at quite a lower number. One would think this would be obvious since Nigeria has so many more people and cities. However, Ghana in fact shares a higher share of population living in urban areas than Nigeria, which sit at 57,35% and 51,96% in 2020, respectively. Another factor which sets Ghana apart is that while Nigeria has almost 54% of its urban population living in slums which has started growing again since 2016. Ghana sees itself with almost 30% of its share of urban population living in slums, which has been consistently dropping.

Secondly, economic development and growth are important factors which are mostly highlighted in the urban sphere. Ghana has seen mostly positive development in annual growth of GDP per capita, with some hiccups around 2015 and due to the global pandemic. While Nigeria’s growth of GDP per capita has seen higher peaks, it must be noted that it has also seen lower lows and presents itself as more unstable. How does this play into urbanization? Well, growth is primarily reflected in cities and later attempts to reach the rural parts. Consistent growth shows opportunities and drives more people from rural parts to the cities. Through this trend, Ghana has recently surpassed Nigeria in terms of GDP per capita (again). A criticism towards Ghana which should be made in this case, however, is that in terms of ease of starting a business, Nigeria seems to have the upper hand: while there is missing information in more recent data from Ghana, in both factors of the most recent data, namely “New business density” and “Time required to start a business” Ghana lacks behind Nigeria. What is interesting to see is that both capitals are growing around the same rate, Lagos at 49,5% from 2010 to 2015 and Accra at 49,3%, however about 45% of Accra’s residents are immigrants.

Therefore, Ghana has shown that while following some similar trends as Nigeria, Ghana seems to be doing better in livability. Seeing that Ghana’s slum population is consistently shrinking is a good sign for urban development, since this directly translates to lowering poverty, which in turn increases commerce. Since there is a significant increase in quality of life and an increase in population density, in the long run livability is increasing. What Ghana needs to work on now is also actually increasing the ease of doing business, where it has to catch up on Nigeria. Having an already higher GDP per capita is a good start though. Therefore, setting the conclusion that Ghana’s urbanization is heading in the right direction, but can do better.

Comparing the urban field of these two countries is not to try and show that one is better than the other. Both have flaws and strengths. The idea here is much more to highlight how different countries that are going through similar processes in their growth can and should learn from each other's mistakes and successes. The idea that everything should be copied by the West is substantially outdated and finding support in a more “local” sense could help all parties involved.


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