Urban Management in Africa Observed

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By Naison Mutizwa-Mangiza, Director, Regional Office for Africa, UN-Habitat; and
Marco Kamiya, Head, Urban Economy and Finance Branch, UN-Habitat, Global Headquarters in Keny

This blog is part of a series marking the 
19th International Economic Forum on Africa 

Downtown Nairobi, Kenya. Photo: unhabitat.org

Africa is at a defining moment in its developmental journey. After experiencing 5% growth from 2001 to 2014, and a slowdown in between, the continent is projected to grow by over 3.5% in 2020 (UN, 2019). Continued economic progress presents opportunities for further accelerated, sustained, and inclusive growth provided that the right policies are put in place.

However, low productivity levels in manufacturing, services and the agricultural sector pose a major threat of economic stagnation with effects on African cities. Africa’s Development Dynamics 2019 by the OECD and the African Union Commission shows that Africa has a labour productivity ratio that is 50% lower than Asia’s and only 12% that of the United States. We believe that low productivity correlates with the quality of urbanisation. We define the quality of urbanisation as human settlements and communities that are able to capture the benefits of urban growth and expansion, quantified by more local and foreign investment, increased regional and international trade, enhanced revenues for local governments, better services for citizens and the activation of a virtuous circle where economic growth and welfare become self-reinforcing (UN-Habitat, 2017).

So, what are the most pressing needs of African cities to improve their quality of urbanisation? Below, we would like to share some general observations from our field projects that could serve to support policy design.[i]

Urban development observed: Some areas to focus on

Wherever we go in Africa, we are confronted by dynamic cities full of young and entrepreneurial people. Start-up hubs and entrepreneurship flourish in every major city and a sense of optimism permeates urban settlements, including informal ones.

How can we mobilise this dynamism to improve the urbanisation experience? When we observe what features make urbanisation efficient, such as municipal financing, planning, proper governance, local infrastructure, data, and other elements, some recurrent ones stand out. These are most often observed in the intermediary cities of sub-Saharan Africa but, to some degree, are common to most cities on the continent.

If we were to select one requirement, above all, it would be to build up the quality and resources of urban management departments. When these are in place, the efforts put into urban planning and management have a real chance to succeed. For urban planning to be more efficient and sustainable, urban governance must put into place, at the minimum, an integrated department where experts (planners, economists, legal advisors, and architects) can work together.

Municipal finance expertise must be enhanced in most intermediary cities. With a dedicated staff to manage revenues and expenditures, cities are able to rely more on own-source revenues rather than solely on transfers from central governments. On average, less than 40% of the revenues of African cities are derived from their own sources, whereas in OECD countries the amount is more than 60% (UN-Habitat, 2019).

Multiple policy layers co-exist, sometimes in opposition, when it comes to the implementation of urban planning. With better governance, the quality of technical decisions made on building permits, plot setting, and the allocation of local infrastructure will improve, creating more urban value.

Local investment and legal frameworks need to be supported. Many cities do not have a legal framework that allows the public and private sectors to reduce the risks of investment projects. If natural disaster were to damage a project, who would bear the losses and reinvest the amounts needed to reinitiate the works? Improving legal frameworks with guarantees, designing public-private partnerships, and implementing cost recovery schemes will encourage the private sector to invest in public infrastructure projects.

Urban data efforts must be scaled up. Data is collected but is often not updated and sometimes soon abandoned. We find that if the objectives of the data are clear, then databases and data collection become more sustainable. There is no need to be overambitious with urban data, such as trying to build complete national accounts for cities. Instead, focus on a specific problem that data could help to solve.

Some final thoughts

For urban management to improve, participatory urban planning, economic planning, financial management, regulatory and legislative frameworks, and systems of data collection must be put in place and made functional. Three additional areas where African cities could focus on in this respect are:

Capacity building: Urban management training should incorporate different disciplines: planning, accounting and economics, for example, and at the same time require that the minimum expertise to absorb the training is in place. This will ensure that capacity building is an effective exercise.

Local infrastructure investment: In order to provide feasibility and cost-benefit analysis, cities should put in place basic technical expertise in finance or economics in order to understand and make decisions on investment projects. The success of so-called ‘bankable’ projects require internal champions with the right technical skills to bring a project to completion and ensure its success over time.

Productive policies and value chains: Better urban management will help to improve policy design and dialogue between local and central governments, and between the public and private sectors on decisions that require joint and concerted solutions. For example, modifying poor urban layouts that make it difficult for local companies to ship products on time and with minimum defects to national and international production platforms.

Urbanisation is spreading at a fast pace and African cities and towns are growing faster than their citizens’ income levels, and with dwindling government capacity to manage growth. We concur with Förster and Ammann (2018) that the literature on urbanisation in Africa—and the reality—is both optimistic and pessimistic. Optimists stress the innovative potential, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of African urban populations. Pessimists cite challenges such as chaotic slums where poverty, frustration, corruption, crime, and violence thrive due to a lack of housing and basic infrastructure, and to the limited opportunities these cities are able offer their inhabitants.

However, we should go beyond the optimistic/pessimistic narrative and support the continuous improvement of capacities and governance for urban management. If all stakeholders—internal and external— focus on the right fundamentals for strengthening urban management, then it will be possible to unleash all of the potential that Africa’s urban landscape has to offer.


Naison Mutizwa-Mangiza is the Director of UN-Habitat’s Regional Office for Africa. He joined UN-Habitat in 1991 as a Human Settlements Officer. Before joining UN-Habitat, he was Professor and founding Chairman of the Department of Rural and Urban Planning at the University of Zimbabwe. He has published widely on urban and human settlements development issues. A Zimbabwean national, Naison read Geography and Land Economy at the University of Cambridge. He holds BA Honours and MA degrees in Geography, as well as an MPhil and a PhD in Land Economy. He is an Honorary Life Member of the Royal Town Planning Institute, United Kingdom.

Marco Kamiya leads the Urban Economy and Finance Branch at UN-HABITAT. Prior to joining UN-Habitat, Marco worked for CAF Development Bank for Latin America, and for the Inter-American Development Bank in in Washington DC, and previously for PADECO Co., Ltd. in Tokyo. He leads the annual “Global Urban Competitiveness Report”, UN-Habitat and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; and has co-edited “Economic Foundations for Sustainable Urbanization” UN-Habitat and Morphology Institute Paris; and “Finance for City Leaders Handbook: Municipal Finance to Deliver Better Services” UN-Habitat. Marco studied international development economics at Harvard University.


Further reading

Förster, T and C. Ammann (2018), “African Cities and the Development Conundrum”, International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement, Issue 10, pp. 3-25.

AUC/OECD (2019), Africa’s Development Dynamics 2019: Achieving Productive Transformation, OECD Publishing, Paris/AUC, Addis Ababa, https://doi.org/10.1787/c1cd7de0-en.

UN (2019), World Economic Situation and Prospects 2019, UN New York, https://doi.org/10.18356/a97d12e3-en.

UNECA (2017), Economic Report on Africa 2017: Urbanization and Industrialization for Africa’s Transformation, UN, New York, https://doi.org/10.18356/2da6f7c9-en.

UN-Habitat (2017), Global Municipal Database. Microdata, https://globalmunicipaldatabase.unhabitat.org.

UN-Habitat (2017), “Economic Foundations for Sustainable Urbanization: A Study on Three-Pronged Approach: Planned City Extensions, Legal Framework, and Municipal Finance”, Nairobi.

UN-Habitat (2016), World Cities Report 2016, Nairobi, http://wcr.unhabitat.org.

UN-Habitat (2005), “From Research to Ownership – the legacy of the Urban Management Programme”, Habitat Debate, Nairobi.


[i] From 1986-2006, UN-Habitat, the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ran the Urban Management Programme with three regional offices in Africa (Habitat Debate, 2005).