Africa’s Fast-Growing Cities: A New Frontier of Opportunities

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


According to a new 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. Europe’s share of the world’s 100 largest cities has fallen to under 10 percent in the past century.

Counter to common misperceptions about what is luring people to big cities, the report’s author, David Satterthwaite, said it isn’t because governments and aid are attracting them: government “policies leave much to be desired as they tend to neglect the urban poor, leading to high levels of urban poverty, overcrowding in slums and serious health problems. Governments should see urbanisation as an important part of a stronger economy and their expanding urban population as an asset, not as a problem.”

But global perceptions of Africa are changing. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation has listed the most efficiently run African economies, with a strong correlation between good governance and higher growth rates (Mauritius, Seychelles, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Ghana and Senegal).

In most of urban French West Africa, extensive interviews with micro-entrepreneurs and micro-finance practitioners found that most operating micro-enterprises in the informal economy are entrepreneurs by necessity, and that their most basic needs drove their business activities and behaviours. Success was held back by lack of capital, poor training, and a general aversion to risk (Faculty of Management, Dalhousie University).

While access to capital has been identified as the key factor in opportunity, entrepreneurs aren’t even waiting for microfinance institutions to help them. “I started this business of selling chips (French fries) two years ago using money we raised as a group of 30 women,” said Mary Mwihaki, 27, who lives in the Mathare slum area outside Nairobi.

Each member of her group of women contributes about US 30 cents a day and the resulting US $9 is given to a different member of the group on a rotating basis, she told IRIN news agency. Mwihaki waited three months to raise the US $27 she needed. She joins many other women across the country taking the same approach to raising capital.

For some entrepreneurs, it is just the proximity to a buzzing urban atmosphere that is a spur to action. One clothes seller told the African Executive he has been able to make enough money to get a house built just selling second hand clothing. Twenty-three-year-old Henry Mutunga in Nairobi, Kenya takes advantage of the high turnover of the city’s Machakos Country bus terminal to sell second hand clothes.

“After months of searching for a job, I asked myself, ‘Why am I wasting the business studies knowledge I acquired in school?’ I was not comfortable being left in the house every morning, with nothing to do, while my uncle went to work in order to feed me and pay the house rent. I got hooked to the urban mentality and tried my hand at selling trousers.”

Now with two employees, he is able to rent his own house, and is able to use extra money to have his own house built. He urges other youth to become employers, not employees.

At the technological end of entrepreneurship, in Nairobi, Kenya, Mumbi’s Dial-a-Cab company is joining 20 fleet firms in the country to adopt a new mobile phone-based vehicle-tracking technology developed by two young African IT entrepreneurs, Waweru Kimani and Paul Mahiaini. The technology allows management to know how low fuel is, which car has gone where, when a car has been hijacked, what car doors are open, how long it has been stopped, and where it is located. Impressively, it also allows management to stop the car at the touch of a button if it has been stolen. It costs US $570 to install, and costs US $40/month to use.

Other entrepreneurs are piggy backing their success on the booming housing markets in Angola, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, Congo, Mali, Morocco, Tunisia, Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique, Rwanda, Kenya, Mauritius, Uganda, Algeria, Egypt, Senegal: all creating enormous opportunities for entrepreneurs providing other services, like furniture, appliances, insurance, landscaping, security, architecture etc.

And the giant US internet search engine Google is now setting up operations in West Africa, based in Dakar – a sure sign that they see this as a new boom market. And Indian investment in Africa has also dramatically shot up this year, according to mergers and acquisitions magazine, The Deal. In 2005, US $81 million was invested in Africa. In 2006, US $340 million; and in 2007, US $294 million.

Published: November 2007


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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