Opinion: Climate-Smart Urbanization Is A Business Opportunity In Africa

Opinion: Climate-Smart Urbanization Is A Business Opportunity In Africa

From ProjectSyndicate. Opinion by Felipe Calderón, former president of Mexico and chairman of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate; and Trevor Manuel, former finance minister of South Africa, former chairman of the South African Planning Commission and member of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

The population of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, is expected to top 25 million in the next 15 years.

Africa’s prospects over the next three decades will be determined largely by how well it manages rapid urbanization.

Over the next 30 years, 22 million people annually will move to Africa’s cities. By 2050, Africa’s total urban population will stand at 1.34 billion – triple the number in 2010. While urbanization is proceeding most rapidly in East and West Africa, the trend is apparent in all regions of the continent.

The hope is that Africa’s commodity-driven economies can reap the same “urban dividend” that Europe, North and South America, and East Asia did during their respective urbanization phases.

Given that so much of Africa’s urban environment is yet to be built, the continent has a unique opportunity to get it right the first time, establishing itself as a world leader in high-productivity, low-carbon development supported by recent technological innovations.

In fact, a shift in that direction has already begun, with African cities finding cost-effective, environmentally friendly solutions to critical challenges.

Confronted with chronic electricity shortages and under-resourced state-owned energy utilities, a growing number of households, companies, and governments have embraced independent and local power producers capable of meeting demand for energy quickly.

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M-KOPA Solar, for example, has expanded rapidly across East Africa, with its pay-as-you-go service aimed at off-grid households – households that are tired of depending on unsafe, overpriced, and unreliable energy sources like kerosene, batteries, and generators.

Similar progress is being made in improving mobility. Although only 6 percent of Africans own cars, the continent’s urban infrastructure has long been overwhelmed. In Lagos, for example, commuters collectively lost 3 billion hours per year to traffic congestion from 2007 to 2009. But recent investment in bus-oriented transport infrastructure, with dedicated lanes for environmentally friendly mass-transit vehicles, has improved the situation considerably. Similar programs are currently being implemented in at least nine other African cities.

Another key challenge – essential to improve health, protect the dignity of urban dwellers, and mitigate environmental risks – is to reduce backlogs in the collection of solid waste. Residents of the informal settlement of Kibera, outside Nairobi, are addressing this problem with “bio-centers” – public sanitation facilities run by locals that generate revenue from the sale of harvested methane gas.

Such examples show that budget and governance constraints on the provision of some services can be overcome. But Africa’s environmentally friendly approach to urban service delivery remains nascent.

Success will require that African leaders acknowledge the urbanization trend as an economic and climate-action opportunity, and take the appropriate steps, including creating new funding models and partnerships and adjusting the responsibilities and powers of municipal authorities. In this effort, they should draw on the expertise of bodies that are already active in this area, like the C40, a network of cities that are tackling climate change.

In this process, African leaders will undoubtedly confront resistance from their societies’ vested interests. But they should press forward anyway. The opportunity that climate-smart urbanization represents is simply too good to be missed.

Read more at ProjectSyndicate.