In policy circles the challenges associated with Africa’s unfolding urban transition is typically reduced to the need for infrastructure to ensure effective urban management. However, what is meant by urban infrastructure, what is the scale of the deficits and how these can be financed, are often obscured. In this article I aim to instil a sense of the scale of the challenge of addressing Africa’s urban infrastructure, the impossibility – and even undesirability – of meeting this deficit through conventional models of infrastructure development, with an eye on possible alternatives.
The Gap: The scale of the challenge
The ‘Finance Gap’ is a popular phrase used to describe the shortfall in funding needed to meet the current and ever-growing demand for infrastructure and services. The majority of studies on the African finance gap work with country level aggregations and data. Less attention has been given to the urban finance gap. The exception is the 2010 publication Financing Africa’s Cities: The Imperative of Local Investment. This study used three different types of estimation and concluded that sub-Saharan Africa needed anywhere from $15 to $30 billion per year to cover the backlog and mounting service needs.
This estimation is notably wide and now also dated, begging the question: why is it so hard to estimate Africa’s urban infrastructure needs and their associated costs? This challenge boils down to the difficulty in defining the scope of both the urban and infrastructure. Calculating the urban/city financing gap requires gross assumptions, proxies and generalization. What exactly is urban infrastructure. Is it infrastructure delivered by city governments, infrastructure within cities, or infrastructure which serves cities? Does it include sub-grade and super-grade investments, hard and soft infrastructure, capital and operating costs, and new investments as well as rehabilitation and maintenance? What are the assumed standards used to estimate the network and per unit costs? These questions all muddy the challenge of apprehending Africa’s urban infrastructure finance gap. Nevertheless, the financing gap has powerful appeal and mobilizing power. It highlights, even if only roughly, the incredible scale of the challenge which lies ahead.
What it does not do, however, is to explain why this gap exists or how it could be addressed. The following two sections provide a stylized exploration of these more qualitative questions.
Why: the drivers of the finance gap
The infrastructure and finance challenge has historical, structural, and institutional dimensions. Historically, investors in Africa’s infrastructure have fixated on extractive economic sectors (i.e. mining) and regional scale transport infrastructures (mostly to facilitate trade). During the colonial period, the growth and servicing of African cities was a by-product of geo-political investments. By the time that international lenders, like the World Bank, turned their attention to Africa’s booming cities in the 1980s, the Structural Adjustment era had hit and funds for large-scale networked investments were drying up. This left Africa with small-scale urban projects, mostly focussed on social development.
Structurally, infrastructure requires long-term financial commitments which can be recouped over time. However, in Africa, local financial markets are underdeveloped and access to global markets is highly constrained. Despite the large pools of global capital sitting in banks, pension funds and the like, Africa’s public infrastructure assets are not regarded as a competitive asset class. This is due to perceived higher (or unknown) regulatory and political risks and lower returns. The sorts of projects which do attract investment, such as shopping malls, coal powered energy plants, and so on, often have seriously problematic outcomes in terms of urban form and sustainability.
This brings us to the institutional issues. Given the lack of finance which is available to fund African cities’ development needs, Africa’s urban infrastructure is primarily funded by national governments, rather than private funders or financiers. Most of this funding is channelled through national state owned enterprises and parastatals (rather than local governments). These entities are often linked to national line departments, such as water, roads, or energy. At best, these investments are disjointed and fragmented; at worst, national entities intentionally undermine African cities through withholding investment or developing national vanity projects. The result is that African city governments remain weak, unable to shape their own development agendas.
How: Propositions for Africa’s urban infrastructure
The common argument that more money – combined with generic ‘good governance’ interventions – will suffice to address these deeply historical, structural, and institutional/political issues is unlikely. The complex and intractable nature of the challenge requires new and creative thinking on urban infrastructure. It requires moving beyond a technical fixation on planning, financing, and engineering services; not that these are not relevant.
Reflecting on the perpetual consolidation and multiplicity of socio-technical systems in cities, Gautam Bhan argues that infrastructure scholarship and policies should “begin from existing practices of service delivery on their own terms, recognize the contexts that they come from, understand why they have emerged, and then reassess whether the network is the most feasible (and not just the most theoretically desirable) mode through which to reach the outcomes we want.” Inspired by this, it is possible to imagine African cities not as the passive and grateful recipients of ‘global best practise’, but as places of imaginative experiments, radical revision, and incremental material extensions. Without indulging in a romanization of informality and poverty, it is necessary to be inspired by what is and what could be. From this point of departure, I argue for the possibility of new infrastructure models which are decentralized, labour intensive, digitally enabled and innovative.
Centralized infrastructure is a mainstay of the classic infrastructure ideal. This norm has overlooked the potential of materially decentralized designs which are smaller scale, more locally embedded, and have the potential for incremental extension and transformation. Inspiring examples come from waste collection, water distribution, and sanitation management.
Equally important is the decentralized governance of urban infrastructure. It is vital that urban infrastructure investments support local governments, rather than bypass or undermine them. Key to this is developing robust and flexible municipal finance systems and using service provision as a key site of local political negotiation and accountability. There are several important cases where African cities have been empowered to shape their own infrastructural priorities, with positive effects. Notwithstanding the enduring fragmentation of post-apartheid cities, South African metropolitan governments have increasingly aimed to integrate land use, planning, transport, and housing, aligning investment to create maximum value for the city. From protests to public participation processes, this delivery has also been a key site through which the social contract between the state and urban citizens has been developed.
Labour intensive, rather than capital intensive, infrastructure and service provision is necessary in African cities where both work opportunities and capital is limited. Importantly, in contrast to the sorts of ditch digging public works programmes we have seen in cities in South Africa, labour intensity should be integrated along the full supply chain of urban infrastructures, including in the operations and management of these services. There are large numbers of inspiring cases where labour intensive, rather than capital intensive service delivery has been successful in African cities. For example, the bicycle and motorbike taxis used in parts of East Africa and West Africa. These taxis provide a valuable service, overcome the challenges which conventional public transport faces when confronted with weak road infrastructure, sprawling urban form and heavy congestion, and creates a significant number of jobs for one of the most important demographic groups – young men. There are also many cases where capital intensive infrastructures have created long lasting viability challenges, particularly when they have been high-tech, requiring foreign expertise and currency to keep running.
While the smart city craze is thoroughly suspect, the importance of leveraging the rise of cell phone and internet access and usage on the continent is not. There is a clear need to consider digitally innovative models of service delivery. As mobile technology becomes cheaper, and young and tech savvy people who make up the current ‘youth bulge’ become the primary consumers of urban infrastructure, there are infinite possibilities – many of which will come from local enterprises which we looking to both build their business and address a need. Ride hailing apps, mapping programmes, mobile payment systems, and service accountability tools – already in use in African cities – utilize lower tech, but digitally creative systems, improving service provision, access, and accountability.
In conclusion, these propositions is that they require very different material investments and governance arrangements. They necessitate different financial and fiscal models for their development, operations, maintenance, and management. While Africa’s alarmist urban infrastructure finance gap remains a relevant rallying call to consider the scale and extent of the problem, the next step is to engage in creative experiments which challenge, rather than attempt to emulate, conventional infrastructure delivery and financing models.
 Bhan, G. (2019) ‘Notes on a Southern urban practice.’ Environment and Urbanization. DOI: 10.1177/0956247818815792, p. 11.