The State of African Cities 2014: Thoughts on housing

April 9, 2014

By Lorenz Noe: Advocacy Strategic Initiatives Intern, Habitat for Humanity International 

Can you capture an entire continent in 200 pages? In 2008, UN-Habitat first tried in publishing the “State of African Cities” report. Since then, in 2010 and now in 2014, UN-Habitat has explored the forces shaping African cities.

The 2014 report breaks down the diverse continent into five regions:  Northern; Western; Central; Eastern; and Southern. While each has its own dynamic processes, the regional summaries all identify Africa’s demography and climate processes as the primary agents of change in African cities.

While the processes and challenges facing African cities vary, their solution has one thing in common: housing. For example, ensuring that every person has a place to live will provide the rapidly growing youth population with the opportunity to feel included in their respective economy by affording them a place of dignity and independence. Furthermore, addressing the issues surrounding housing and energy use will be critical to building cities that help to mitigate pollution and counteract climate change.


Though numbers vary from country to country, with a few countries actually witnessing a decline in population, overall, Africa’s population is growing exponentially. The 2014 report states that “vast African population growth is a certainty; only the magnitude remains debatable.” Many African cities are already seeing the effects of massive population growth. Almost all regions in the report have identified youth employment and livelihood as one of the primary challenges to economic development and, in turn, political stability. Lack of youth employment opportunities combined with a shortage of affordable housing options and has been identified as contributing factor to the civil unrest that sparked the Arab Spring in Tunisia:

“A severe shortage of affordable urban rental units prevented many youngsters from marrying and starting a family of their own, simply because they did not have access to affordable independent housing. Rather, youths typically continue living with their parents until comparatively advanced ages. Given Northern African societies’ views on premarital inter-marital personal relations, the Arab Spring resulted not only from lack of political participation, but was also embedded in sheer social frustration.” (page 32)

While a civil uprising is an extreme example, the challenges associated with housing shortages plague many of Africa’s emerging megacities which, in a generation’s time, have grown from the three frontrunners – Cairo, Lagos, and Kinshasa –  to include Dar es Salam, Khartoum, and Abidjan. Former Ambassador Sanders spoke to this issue at the Brookings Institution in January 2014, stating that “One area that doesn’t get focused a lot on as well is housing. Housing, housing, housing. In Nigeria alone…. there’s a 17 million [unit] housing deficit in that country alone.”[i]Identifying housing as part of a larger ecosystem that connects all the way to rural agriculture systems through migration patterns, food supply chains and environmental impacts, Ambassador Sanders stressed the need to identify new models for African urban development.[ii]

Unfortunately, the critical contributions of housing to sustainable livelihoods are often overlooked when seeking to eliminate global poverty. Because its connection to legal battles over tenure security and property rights requires seemingly painful reforms and devolution of responsibility, housing is seen as too difficult to deal with on a policy level. At the same time, Africa has a burgeoning labor force and a decreasing dependency ratio.[iii]Both are associated with great returns from service industry investments and low social services expenditures. If Africa’s economies are to take advantage of these opportunities, steps must be taken to ensure adequate housing for all, no matter how difficult the policy process may be.


Climate Change is set to impact every aspect of development work. In cities, climate change is expected to affect food security as well as disaster risks. As shown by Map 1.1 of the report (page 45), almost every major city in Africa is at risk from severe flooding due to rising sea levels. Five to twenty-five percent of the urban populations of most coastal African countries live in Low Elevation Coastal Zones (LECZ), which means that, megacities aside, flooding presents a severe risk to millions of Africans. Governments, NGOs, and others working in DRR (disaster risk and reduction) would most benefit urban centers by recognizing the critical role that housing plays in building safe and sustainable cities. Whether through safer building construction, town planning, sanitation or energy usage, housing construction and management in African cities will determine how the continent fares in facing the phenomena associated with climate change.

In addressing the issues of youth livelihoods and climate change in African cities, good governance of cities, including informed housing policy, will be critical to achieving success. Good governance means ensuring that youth can attain housing and the economic empowerment it provides. Good governance also means integrating housing into comprehensive efforts to address climate change. However, as the report suggests, rather than simply rattling off a long laundry list of good governance measures that need to be implemented, policymakers must consider the regional differences of African cities as well as consider all levels of authority, from national housing legislation to slum neighborhood associations, in determining the best way forward.

As noted in The State of African Cities 2014 report, Africa, unlike Asia, is still well below the 50% urban mark. As detailed in the report and noted here, Africa faces significant challenges as the continent’s urban centers continue to grow. The good news is that African cities still have time to implement the proper policies in order to ensure urbanization becomes an engine of growth for the continent.




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