Urban Innovation in Africa

Today I had a chance to tune in to Utopia’s online panel discussion, Urban Innovation in Africa. Before I get into my own thoughts and takeaways from the discussion, I’d like to provide some context. For a more detailed take, please check out Samantha Suppiah’s eloquently written article about the panel.

Utopia is “the world’s first urban innovation group solely focussed on emerging cities and their slums”. The panel included the following speakers whose profiles are linked below:

Urbanization in Africa

As a young African living in one of South Africa’s major cities, the need for effective and impactful urban innovation is an obvious matter that I work to address every day. This intervention is becoming increasingly more obvious as Africa is set to be the world’s fastest-growing urban population. Edward Glaeser notes that historically, a large proportion of a country’s poorest population lived in rural areas. This is increasingly not becoming the case, as more people migrate towards cities in the hopes to improve their economic standing. Cities provide a concentrated wealth of people and resources that rural areas often do not. This rapid population growth, however, poses an array of problems that any person living in a developing nation can tell you about in their sleep.

Working Towards Utopia

I find it interesting that the panel hosts are aptly named Utopia and that is because I have my own believes on what constitutes a utopia today and what we may believe our utopia will be later. In the context of rapid African urbanization, however, utopia to me is about building cities where the basic needs of citizens are met while keeping the city in a healthy symbiosis with the environment it draws its recourses from.

Policy as an Enabler for Urbanisation

According to Astrid Haas, one of the first barriers to this utopia is policy and infrastructure. Due to rapid urbanization, settlements are forming faster than the infrastructure to support them. At this point in time, it seems, there need to be fast policy steps taken to facilitate this rapid settlement. If infrastructure cannot keep up with the rapid change, pre-planning for where it will take place is vital. For example, engaging with communities about where roads and sewerage systems will be built removes the future burden of having to displace large groups of people in order to provide resources.

When there is rapid urbanization, the main issue that Abosede Alimi has noted is job creation. And this is done by fostering a robust ecosystem of SMMEs. In South Africa, SMMEs contribute close to half of GDP and 60% of jobs. Policy, once again, becomes vital. There are many barriers that SMMEs face, and some of these can be eliminated through key policy decisions. In addition to this, businesses require skilled workers. One of the trials of rapid urbanization is in finding ways to provide skills to this growing population.

Whose Responsibility is it?

So, the question becomes, how will we address these issues? And most importantly, who will address them? That’s where innovation comes in. Organizations like Utopia have tasked themselves with spearheading innovation in these emerging civilizations. The consensus from the panel is that a combined effort from government, start-ups, NGOs, and corporations is required when building cities. Miriam Roure notes, the key role that tech companies can play in empowering governments through technology and data. Urban tech start-ups can create a feedback loop between policymakers and communities that will allow for more effective programs to be put in place. And according to George Kibala Bauer, one of the key factors to this collective effort towards progress, is the legitimization of businesses functioning in the informal economy. This not only gives the businesses more potential for growth but allows them to contribute to the urban economy.

Urbanization in a Pandemic

Finally, and probably most dauntingly, is the future of urban innovation in Africa during and after a global pandemic. Urbanization for cities with a per capita GDP that is considerably lower than western cities at this stage of development is challenging. The economic consequences of this pandemic will hamper the ability of cities to respond to all the challenges listed in this article. Although the developed world may see this lockdown period as an opportunity to decentralize large portions of the service industry, Astrid, predicts a reverse effect on African cities. An unprecedented rate of migration to cities will occur.

Thus, the need for innovation is urgent. I believe this panel discussion not only a conversation that addresses the issues for the next decade but for the next couple of months and years. I hope that there will be more chances to engage about the urgency of this innovation. Lastly, I would love to hear more about how the climate emergency is affecting urban innovation and urbanization in general.

Here’s to building utopia.




A Chemical Engineering student at the University of Cape Town. Passionate about social entrepreneurship and youth development.

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Nolita Thina Mvunelo

Nolita Thina Mvunelo

A Chemical Engineering student at the University of Cape Town. Passionate about social entrepreneurship and youth development.

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