A group of urban researchers at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) investigated the key to the prosperity of African cities by conducting 11 case studies across the continent to show how economic growth and urbanization can grow side-by-side. The researchers argue that African countries can leverage the momentum of urbanization to accelerate industrialization for a more prosperous and equitable future.

Africa is the fastest urbanizing region in the world after Asia, and will be predominantly urban in less than two decades, making industrialization a defining trend for the continent.

UNECA stresses in the report that Africa is experiencing a rapid urban transformation. Researchers found that only a third of the continent was considered urbanized in the 1990s. They predict that, by 2035, nearly half of all Africans will be living in cities – which is no surprise since rapid urbanization is expected to lead to the same results around the world. With Africa’s current 1.2 billion population projected to rise to 4.4 billion by 2100, urbanization – and by extension, industrialization – is imminent.

With the rising populations of Africa, researchers advise cities across the continent to support domestic industries in order to create more jobs and meet surging diversified demands instead of relying on imported products to fill the void – a tactic that often leads to missed economic opportunities. They also advise cities that investments that have to do with industrialization that can strengthen cities should be prioritized. Careful assessments should be made regarding which cities would provide the best return on investments in different industries. Directing funds to a range of cities ensures that each plays a complementary role in the industrial ecosystem.

”The largest city is too large, there are few other large or mid-sized cities, and smaller cities are too small,” the researchers observe. They argue that a more balanced distribution of urban growth would be more attractive for investors, as it would provide more options, making it less likely that investors would be afraid of moving their business to a location too far away from main cities or in cities that are too crowded to enjoy the advantages of civilization.

Researchers believe that a better distribution of investments would create greater economic prosperity in more areas. The report also advises authorities and urban planners to make use of products and services such as cars, housing and supermarkets – which are growing increasingly in demand with African middle classes – to feed into industrialization and by extension, economic growth in Africa’s cities.

The report grouped the African countries studied into three categories: pre-transition, transition and diversified economies. Nations that are grouped in the first category, like Ethiopia, juggle equal levels of opportunity and challenges. Pre-transition African countries have an opportunity to up their urbanization game, but also have to overcome their shortcomings, which include limited resources and inadequate infrastructure.

Cameroon, Mozambique and Rwanda are examples of “transition” nations. These are countries journeying in their early stages of urbanization, enjoying opportunities to attract industrial and non-industrial investments that in turn promise to boost their liveability and economies.

The third category of diversified economies includes nations like Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa. Researchers say that these countries face the “toughest” choice since they have a huge capacity for diversity in their economy, making it harder to equalize the different sectors. They face a dilemma of attracting investments either to major cities struggling with inequality and large informal economies, or to smaller cities that have never been industrialized.

Urbanization in Africa – as is the case in many parts of the world – often leads to a migration of unskilled migrants and villagers who are not experienced in the industries and jobs that big cities require, compounding already-existing problems. According to the report, the reason behind this is the struggle that cities are already experiencing with inadequate infrastructure, limited public services, inequality and a large informal and often inexperienced workforce. The report also warns of another obstacle hindering industrial growth in developing cities involving land use and rights. The report elaborates that the poor functioning of land and real estate markets poses fundamental challenges to cities, undercutting economies of agglomeration and undermining basic urban functions. The researchers conclude that unless cities overcome these obstacles, Africa’s urban potential for structural transformation will always lag behind.