The race against the clock to develop essential public services to deal with the continent’s rapid urbanization

Africa is becoming rapidly urbanized. Its urban population has doubled since 2000 and is expected to double once more in the next twenty years. Between now and 2040, the continent will be home to almost one billion city dwellers, equal to half of its total population.

This rapid urbanization comes with considerable challenges in terms of access to essential services such as drinking water, sanitation and waste management, in cities that are rapidly expanding and growing denser. This causes problems both in terms of standard of living and public health, at a time when only 25% of urban households in sub-Saharan Africa have access to running water, and 35% are connected to sewage systems. [1]The United Nations has identified these issues as priorities, by declaring “access to safe and affordable drinking water” Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 6, and waste management a target of SDG number 11, for sustainable cities and human settlements.

The answer to these challenges must be through joint, collaborative action by governments, international funders and the private sector, both local and international.

Governments should ensure urban planning and regulation is applied universally by increasing the use of urban development models and other town planning, based on a medium- to long-term vision.  This approach will enable governments to take action in advance, when identifying and prioritizing urgently needed infrastructure development projects. At the same time, the institutions responsible for implementing the planning, both in terms of financial resources and operational capacity, should be reinforced.

International funders must measure the considerable impact that the shortage of basic services has on African cities, in terms of health, economy, the environment and social matters. They need to better coordinate their actions in order to facilitate the development of these services, via direct aid to governments or support to the private sector (direct investment in the local private sector and support to international businesses capable of providing said services).

Lastly, the private sector can also play a critical role by leveraging its innovation resources to invent new products and business models capable of mitigating some of the state’s shortcomings, while taking into account users’ limited financial resources. Kenyan start-ups Jibu[2] and Sanergy[3] successfully developed systems that facilitate access to drinking water and self-sufficient sanitation facilities, based on the creation of a local entrepreneurial ecosystem and giving it these responsibilities.

The urbanization of African living environments raises many challenges, but there are just as many methods to resolve them. Pragmatism, collaboration and ambition should be the driving force behind the actions of all stakeholders in this race against the clock.

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