African Megacity Makeovers Tackle Rising Populations

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Nigeria’s largest, busiest and most congested city, Lagos, has long had a reputation for dynamism mixed with chaos. Its sprawling slums and ballooning population have for decades stretched governments’ ability to provide services.

The 2006 census placed the city’s population at close to 8 million, making it the most populous city in the country and the second largest in Africa after Cairo. One forecast saw the population reaching 23 million by 2015. It was called the fastest growing city in Africa by UNHABITAT (2008). The city is Nigeria’s economic and financial hub and critical to the country’s future.

According to a report by the International Institute for Environment and Development, Africa now has a larger urban population than North America and 25 of the world’s fastest growing big cities. Getting to grips with urban development will be critical for the future of the continent and the wellbeing of its people.

In West Africa, an OECD study found the area stretching along the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean had a network of 300 cities larger than 100,000 people and the biggest collection of urban poverty on the planet.

It is a common problem across the South as fast-growing city populations surge past the ability of institutions and infrastructure to cope.

By 2025, Asia could have 10 or more cities with populations larger than 20 million (Far Eastern Economic Review).

It is a development challenge that urgently needs solutions.

In Lagos, the Oluwole district – formerly a crime-plagued slum – has been transformed into a new marketplace, and the plan is to follow this with new offices, homes and shops. The brainchild of the Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola (, redevelopment of the 20,000 square metre site is part of his multi-stage plan to bring more order to the chaos that is daily life in Lagos. There are also ambitious plans afoot to build new roads and bridges. The area’s traffic congestion is also being targeted for solutions. The former slum is now re-branded as the Oluwole Urban Market and Multifunctional City Centre ( and is being re-developed in partnership with the private sector.

The re-developed slum is part of the much-larger Lagos Island Central Business District (CBD) Revitalisation/Marina City Project, a five-year project, jointly executed by the Lagos government and private sector players. This project has already begun with the redesigning and reconstruction of roads and infrastructure within the CBD and the adjoining axes.

Another fast-growing African city is Addis Ababa. The capital of the East African nation of Ethiopia, it has been in the grip of a building boom for the past few years. But much of this building has been unplanned and, to many, is ugly. The current building boom’s architectural legacy has been criticized for leaving buildings that are too hot for the climate and require expensive air conditioning systems. They also use imported cement and steel and are not earthquake-proof.

Addis Ababa ( was founded in 1886 by Emperor Menelik II. It is now host to the African Union ( and it is this important role that has architects advocating for a new approach to the city’s development.

Addis is home to some of the highest density urban slums in the world, according to the UN. Some estimates place the population at of the city at 4.6 million people and that it could double by 2020. But its pattern is unusual for an African city. Dirk Hebel of Addis Ababa’s architecture school  ( told The Economist it defies the usual pattern of rich centre and poor periphery. Instead, because crime is low and the rich seem to tolerate the poor living among them, the slums are jammed between office buildings and flats in the wealthy parts of the city.

Architects favour smaller buildings that stay true to local stone and traditional guttering to collect the rain. Hebel believes turning local would cut building costs by a third and save on costly imports.

The architecture school has received funding from a technical institute in Zurich, Switzerland called ETH ( to help develop new ideas.

Hebel and ETH’s head, Marc Angelil, have written a book profiling the architectural styles of the city. The city has gone through various phases: during its Marxist period (1974-1991) government buildings mimicked the Soviet Union. During the Italian fascist occupation (1935-1941) they followed the styles favoured by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Political problems aside, the architects believe the Italians brought good planning, allowing streets to radiate out from landmark buildings.

The city is plagued – like so many in the South – by pollution and traffic gridlock. Growth is on projection to be so large by 2050, the country would need 20 new cities of 5 million people each to accommodate it (UN). This is an epic challenge requiring imaginative thinking and new ways.

Published: November 2010

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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© David South Consulting 2022

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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