Sub-Saharan Africa is home to some extremely populated urban centers, each city entirely unique in its own way. The following represent the most populous cities in sub-Saharan Africa, along with some defining characteristics about each, based on population estimates from 2010.
This is an updated version of an AFKInsider article that originally appeared on Dec. 24, 2013.
Commonly known as the “Green City in the Sun,” Nairobi is somewhat of an anomaly as a metropolis due to its plethora of greenery. Though it ranks 10th on this list, Nairobi is the largest city in East Africa and a crucial political and financial center for the entire continent. Its central business district is considered one of the most developed in the region, and as one of the few cities in the world with a national park within its boundaries, it is an extremely popular tourist destination as well.
The capital city of Ghana, Accra’s position on the Atlantic coast has situated it perfectly as a port city, and it has developed as such. Though it does not contribute an overwhelming majority of Ghana’s GDP, Accra has booming manufacturing, business, and transportation industries, and has become a growing tourist hotspot. Its distinctive architecture and bevy of museums make it very popular with locals and visitors alike, not to mention its incredible beachfront!
South Africa is the only country to have three cities on this list (or in fact to be mentioned more than once at all). Durban in KwaZulu-Natal province has a culture all its own. It is a crucial manufacturing hub, like Johannesburg, but also is home to the busiest port in Africa. Durban’s “Golden Mile” is a popular tourist destination, especially in winter, and the city has increasingly become an attractive place for business.
Ranking second in population in South Africa, Cape Town has become the country’s center for tourism, as well as its legislative capital (its true national capital, Pretoria, is considered the executive capital). Cape Town is a must-visit for travelers everywhere due to its breathtaking scenery — including miles of beaches, soaring mountains, incredible greenery, and picturesque neighborhoods. It received another boost following the 2010 World Cup, and has experienced a bump in construction and real estate as well.
Though it is no longer the official capital of the Ivory Coast, Abidjan still remains its economic and cultural capital, as well as the third-largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris and Kinshasa. While its main industries are food processing, textiles, automobiles, and lumber, Abidjan has increasingly become an important exporter of oil for the region, as well as for other foreign countries. It has a booming tourism industry as well, given its ideal beach setting and luxury options for travelers.
The richest city in Tanzania is also its most important with regard to government and business; its massive economy is integral to the country. While the city center is predominantly comprised of small businesses, Dar es Salaam serves as a crucial trading center with foreign countries, and has had an increasingly booming construction industry in recent years. It’s also known for its massive abundance of restaurants that serve up some of the most delicious dishes in the region, including both traditional Tanzanian fare as well as international options.
The largest city in Somalia also serves as its capital, as well as a commercial and financial center for the country. Cotton ginning remains one of the biggest industries in the city, and more businesses are flocking to Mogadishu as efforts at heightened security and incentives grow to make it an attractive destination. In addition to its rising music scene, Mogadishu serves as a media hub.
Jozi, Joburg, Johannesburg…whatever you call it, South Africa’s most populous city is an enormous and influential metropolis that serves as the financial and economic center of the country. While it does not receive nearly as much tourism as Cape Town to the south, Joburg is home to incredible cultural opportunities, including a large array of impressive museums, both artistic and historical, that are a must for any visitor; retail; sports; and education. It is also a major transit hub for those traveling across the country, continent, or world.
Given its location on the Congo River, it’s no surprise that Kinshasa began as a fishing village, but it has expanded far beyond that. As a former French colony, Kinshasa, along with the rest of the DRC, is home to many vestiges of its former ruler, and the francophone influence can be seen in nearly every aspect of life. Kinshasa is a massive manufacturing hub, but it’s also home to a burgeoning arts and music scene. Also, Kinshasa gave birth to Dikembe Mutombo, retired professional basketball player who last played for the Houston Rockets, and the world thanks it for that.
The largest city on the continent as a whole, Lagos is the economic hub of Nigeria, contributing the majority of the country’s gross domestic product. It is home to one of the busiest ports in the region, particularly important for its massive oil-exporting industry, but the city has so much more than that. An enormous music scene is credited for the birth of everything from Nigerian hip hop to Afrobeat, and its film industry (nicknamed “Nollywood”) is incredibly influential and popular.
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