Last June we had the pleasure of hosting here in Oxford the research workshop African Dreams: Imaginations of urban life and infrastructure in the African metropolis. The event was organized with the support of Oxford’s John Fell Fund, the African Studies Centre, the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities, our own Sustainable Urban Development programme, and the generosity of Mozambican photographer Mauro Pinto, who lent his work to illustrate our event.
The main purpose of the workshop was to take infrastructure as a focal point for discussing the future of urbanization in the African continent, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to a 2010 report by the World Bank (Africa’s Infrastructure – A Time for Transformation), Africa’s infrastructure networks are less extensive, less networked, more unreliable and the services it provides more costly than that of other developing regions. The same report mentioned that, as a whole, the continent needed to invest an estimated $93 billion a year until 2020 to address its infrastructure needs. Two-thirds of this investment would be on new infrastructure networks and one third for operation and maintenance, with the power sector figuring prominently.
Obviously, the picture is uneven across the continent, varying from country to country and according to type of infrastructure. The legacies of colonialism and the historically lower rates of urbanization (i.e. the percentage of the overall population living in urban areas) are usually given as underlying causes for the infrastructure deficit. However, other aspects may also come into play: the relatively small economies of many African nations; a large number of landlocked countries; extreme weather events; prolonged conflict and displacement; as well as an increasingly rapid rate of urban growth (i.e. the absolute number of people living in urban areas).
Diagnoses such as this report are valuable in providing a bird’s eye view of the issues and in outlining the scope of the challenges ahead. They are also a means of capturing the imaginations of potential investors and donors. Whether by means of The Economist’s claim that Africa is rising, or the UN-HABITAT’s call for re-imagining Africa’s urban transitions away from prevailing unsustainable urban development trajectories, the top-level view brings hope for a future where progress and development may materialize through significant investments in large-scale infrastructure projects. In Africa, as elsewhere, these include creating digital ‘smart cities’, generating energy across regional ‘power pools’, or developing transnational ‘transport corridors’ of interconnecting roads, railways and ports. There are also aspirations for new ‘eco’ or ‘carbon-neutral’ urban expansions, suburbs or even whole ‘new cities’ alongside existing ones.
As necessary as these infrastructure and urban projects may be for improving the quality of life of Africans, it is unclear whether these imagined futures are the stuff of dreams or nightmares, as South African scholar Vanessa Watson puts it. The pressing realities of ‘slum urbanism’ as the dominant way of life, entrenched inequality and systemic environmental degradation and injustice are sobering reminders that technological fixes can only go so far in shaping the future of Africa’s urbanization.
These were the challenges tackled at the African Dreams workshop. The meeting gathered an eclectic group of contributors and over forty participants aiming at understanding African urbanization in its own terms, across different geographical, thematic and disciplinary focuses. The event generated stimulating discussions around a number of topics, in sessions led by colleagues Michael Keith, Steve Rayner and Claudio Sopranzetti. One concerned the diverse extant rationalities of what the ‘urban’ may mean in African contexts (Garth Myers), whether via the imaginations expressed by the emerging middle-classes in the suburbs of Dar es Salam, Tanzania (Claire Mercer); or by more modest residents in Inhambane, a medium-sized Mozambican city (Julie Archambault); or even in more ambitious views of world-class city-making in Kampala, Uganda (Ilda Lindell). The continued preponderance and nature of the impact of extractive economies in shaping urban development trajectories of places and regions was a topic addressed by different presentations: whether at the crossroads of mining and urbanization on the Katangese-Zambian copperbelt (Miles Larmer) or in Tete, Mozambique’s coal mining Eldorado (Joshua Kirshner); or via insights into Chinese construction enclaves in Ghana (Giles Mohan), or the ‘urbanization’ of Somali transnational business and diaspora networks into the malls of Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood (Neil Carrier). The splintered nature of infrastructure was apparent in my presentation on the development of the electric grid in colonial and post-colonial Maputo, leading to discussion about the importance of examining not only the spatiality and politics of infrastructure, but also its materiality (Mohan) and affective qualities (Archambault) in shaping the possibilities of a better life for urban dwellers in African urban environments.
Underlying much of our collective discussions was the enduring topic of rural-urban dynamics and distinctions. For those unfamiliar with the 1970s ‘urban bias thesis’ and other debates around rural-urban migration and the necessity to invest in Africa’s rural development (more here and here), it may go unnoticed that their combined effect has been, until very recently, the neglect of cities as an object for policymaking and research. The workshop’s keynote speaker, Sue Parnell, made the case for a specifically urban research agenda for Africa that overcomes the unhelpful debates around rural-urban dichotomies. Without such an (re-imagined) agenda, we may continue to fall short of understanding the different dimensions of Africa’s urban revolution taking place at the moment. This argument struck a chord with the discussant, William Beinart, who underscored the importance of exploring the urban dimension in the context of the continuous and dynamic migratory patterns that connect rural and urban environments across the continent and beyond. I think that this apparent divergence of viewpoints is more a matter of disciplinary focus than of intellectual substance. But if we are to imagine a more socially just, economically rich and environmentally healthy future for the continent, we will have to place the transition to a predominant urban way life at the heart of research on Africa. This may require we also revise (and provincialize) the Western canons of what cities are, how they grow, how they should be managed, and what alternative sustainable futures are possible.