LSE’s Martin Namasaka and Clement Kamaru argue against economic growth alone as a causal mechanism of urban growth and urbanisation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa has experienced the highest urban growth during the last two decades at 3.5% per year and this rate of growth is expected to hold stable into 2050. Despite experiencing urbanisation in the majority of its countries, sustained economic growth and industrialisation have largely been absent in the region. Several demographic factors can help explain this apparent paradox.

It has long been a tendency to regard economic development as the main driver of urbanisation. In fact, urbanisation has conventionally been viewed as a result of industrialisation and economic growth stemming from rural to urban migration as exemplified by Jones (2013), which asserts that changes in employment opportunities while a given economy goes through structural change is a possible explanation for urbanisation.

A bird's eye view of the city of Nairobi by night

A bird’s eye view of the city of Nairobi by night Photo Credit: Manni Singh

A case in point is the experience of Europe in the 19th century, where both urbanisation and industrialisation happened at the same time as well as the recent urbanisation witnessed in China. However, noting that correlation is not causality, framing urbanisation in terms of structural economic change is simplistic and problematic in the sense that it ignores rapid urban growth and urbanisation in sub-Saharan Africa, where economic growth and industrialisation has largely been absent and not sustainable. Demographic processes can be attributed to play a significant role in enhancing urbanisation in this region.

Indeed, the African experience implies that rapid urbanisation is independent from economic development and industrialisation (Oucho and Gould 1993: pp. 275). This has been seconded by Fay and Opal in their World Bank Research Working Paper (1999). Subsequently, in their study Montgomery et al (2004) which evaluates Africa and South East Asia, these two regions portray similar urbanisation experiences; however both have different economic experiences. Similarly, the idea that the process of urbanisation is often divorced from economic growth is seen in research on Latin America in the 1920s-1930s (Davis and Casis 1946). These experiences support the notion that attributing urbanisation in sub-Saharan Africa to economic processes is confusing correlation with causality.

Arguably, considering that the process of urbanisation has received very minimal attention in demography, most of which has been given to the role of rural to urban migration, it is worth noting that population changes could be the missing factor in the explanations about the causes of urbanisation in this region. By insinuating that the composition of a population can only move from being predominantly rural to being predominantly urban through the operation of mortality, fertility and migration (Dyson, T. 2011), demographic explanations of urbanisation thus emphasize the dynamics are associated with the demographic transition.

For example, the onset of mortality decline ahead of fertility decline in urban areas increases the rate of urban natural increase. In this view urban areas cease to be the demographic sinks which are usually sustained by the predominant rural to urban migration. In agreement with this view, Fox (2012) denotes that in the sub-Saharan African experience, colonialists introduced institutional and various technological changes that were able to reduce infectious diseases which had initially dominated the cause of death profile and which was a major factor for the limited urban population growth. Equally significant to note is that during the years after the World War 2, life expectancy and food supplies especially in cold climates and energy from rural areas was more rapid than economic development in sub-Saharan Africa. Essentially, rapid mortality decline coupled with minimal fertility decline led to unprecedented population increases that largely account for the extraordinary urban growth rates in the region.

In this regard, the rapid urbanisation and urban growth rates currently experienced in sub-Saharan Africa, with the context of the prevailing economic stagnation can be explained by the region’s rapid population growth. In fact, with a projected 200 million people aged between 15 and 24, current trends indicate that this population will double by 2050 according to an African Economic Outlook report, which aggregates data from several multilateral organisations including the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Interestingly, the region’s late development effect can be explained by the experiences of faster rates of mortality decline, larger increases in population scales leading to even faster rates of urban growth and urbanisation.

In line with this perspective, there is burgeoning empirical evidence that posits that urban growth rate is determined by overall population growth (Preston, 1977), as well as studies that tend to agree that urban natural increases significantly contribute to urban growth as opposed to the most spotlighted rural to urban migration which, is just a proximate cause. In contrast, as suggested by Preston (1979), sub-Saharan Africa might be an exception considering that data sources are poor, it might turn out that rural to urban migration might just be a compelling factor for the urban growth currently experienced in Africa rather than the urban natural increase. His accounts suggests that it is likely, that about half of the African urban growth is a result of migration and the conversion of rural areas into urban.

It is worth saying that the process of urbanisation and urban growth has always been not correlated to economic growth and industrialisation, especially in the recent demographic transitions as that experienced in sub-Saharan Africa. There are good reasons to suppose that urban populations act as a dynamic engine in stimulating increased agricultural production in rural areas as the related processes of urban growth and urbanisation get underway. Therefore, while many see the process of urbanisation as resulting from sustained economic growth, there is probably greater reason to see sustained economic growth as resulting from urbanisation. Undoubtedly, it seems impossible to neatly disentangle the independent influence of each factor. But there are good reasons to consider that in trying to account for urbanisation social scientists have often gotten the basic direction of causation wrong.

Regrettably, demographic factors have been limited in most explanations that concern urbanisation. The key underlying determinant of urban growth as suggested by Preston (1979) is the overall rate of national population growth which has predominantly been high in many sub-Saharan African countries. Nonetheless, as equally denoted by Preston rather than urban natural increase, rural-to-urban migration and the reclassification of urban areas may equally be the most important proximate causes of urban growth in the region.

Martin Namasaka is a postgraduate student at LSE. Follow him on twitter @Martinnamasaka. Clement Kamaru is postgraduate student at the LSE, and holds an MA in Sociology from the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C.

The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.