Remember the regions

HR-shutterstock_75712291With rapid urbanisation taking place in Africa, Nkem Ifejika wants to see growth spread more equally across the regions 

In the four or five minutes it’ll take you to read this article, 17 new people will have moved to Lagos, Nigeria. Africa’s largest city is bulging at around 20 million inhabitants. These internal migrants leaving their villages and provincial towns for the far southwest of Nigeria will probably join the other 80 per cent or so who don’t have access to clean water, or the millions with no access to the power grid. It can’t be said necessarily that these people have left gilded castles to suffer in Lagos. In fact, they’ve gone to the city in search of opportunities.

Africa is urbanising rapidly – faster than other continents. As more people abandon subsistence farming in pursuit of other work, the World Bank estimates that by 2030, 50 per cent of the population will live in urban areas. The challenge for individual countries is making sure they don’t all go to one city. You don’t want all Kenyans jumping on buses to Nairobi, or the whole of the Democratic Republic of Congo heading to Kinshasa. These cities have failed to deal with the number of people already there, so the focus must be on creating opportunities where the people are.

Anybody who knows me knows I’m a fan of California and what I like to call the California Dream. It has the biggest economy in the US, and going by World Bank figures, it would rank around eighth in the world if it were a country. California appears to have said to New York, “It’s okay, you can have high finance and look across the Atlantic to the old continent, but we’ll do technology and entertainment, while looking across the Pacific to the next engines of global growth.”

Other regions in the United States have also made their names by being regional powerhouses, such as the Texas Triangle of Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. There’s also the Great Lakes Megalopolis that includes the cities of Detroit and Chicago, and Toronto in Canada.

Germany is probably one of the most regionally balanced countries in the world. You can live well in the Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg or Cologne regions and not feel opportunity only exists in Berlin. Italy and Spain have regional powerhouses outside of Rome and Madrid. And in the UK, the Chancellor is playing catch up, as he tries to establish a ‘Northern Powerhouse’, so the economy doesn’t revolve too heavily around London and the southeast.

South Africa is the only African country with a regionally diverse economy: Cape Town and the Western Cape, and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal can claim to offer alternatives to Johannesburg. But other African countries need to work hard. The continent’s biggest economy, Nigeria, needs to ensure Lagos doesn’t contribute a quarter of the country’s GDP while other regions stutter. East African leaders could pay attention to a Nairobi, Juba, Kigali triangle that would also include Kampala. There’s a potential axis between Lubumbashi and Lusaka, and many more. If countries are to cope with mass urban migration, they need to be able to manage the numbers. The simplest way to do this is to remember the regions.