“Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors to the World” demonstrates how urban policy plays a central role in making Africa’s cities economically competitive



AUDIO: Somik Lall - Africa's Cities: Opening Doors to the world


Issues which the lecture addresses
Cities in Sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing rapid population growth. Yet their economic growth has not kept pace. Why? One factor might be low capital investment, due in part to Africa’s relative poverty: Other regions have reached similar stages of urbanization at higher per capita GDP. In this lecture Somik Lall from the World Bank discusses a deeper reason: African cities are closed to the world. Compared with other developing cities, cities in Africa produce few goods and services for trade on regional and international markets. To grow economically as they are growing in size, Africa’s cities must open their doors to the world. They need to specialize in manufacturing, along with other regionally and globally tradable goods and services. And to attract global investment in tradables production, cities must develop scale economies, which are associated with successful urban economic development in other regions.

Short analysis of the above issues and propositions for addressing the issue
When you go to cities in high and upper middle-income market economies – think of Paris, Barcelona, Hong Kong or Shanghai – what you see is a built environment made up of investment in infrastructure – that is connected to investment in housing complexes, shopping and commercial centers and clusters of industry. These investments support large concentrations of employment and people in different parts of the city. Such investments connect a city’s residents with opportunity as well as provide the services and amenities that make the city livable.

However, in Africa, we have had very little evidence on the urban “form” that cities are taking. This report sheds light on how urban form has changes in over 64 cities across Africa and what it means for economic prospects in the region. This is based on our team’s research over the past three years and finds that many of Africa’s cities share three characteristics that constrain their economic development and create daily challenges for residents: they are crowded, disconnected and therefore costly.

One of the most striking features in the region is that Africa is urbanizing in people, but not in capital. Cities in Sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing rapid population growth, yet their economic growth, has not kept pace. What we find is that Africa’s cities are crowded because they lack formal, planned housing that is connected to jobs and services.

Africa’s cities are also growing under a patchwork of constraints — inefficient land markets, overlapping property-rights regimes, suboptimal and ineffective zoning regulations — that hinder the drive toward dense concentrations for whatever structures that do exist. The resulting scattered disconnected neighborhoods lack planned transport and infrastructure connections. Such features of Crowded and disconnected cities increase costs for households and for businesses.

Africa’s cities are suffering due to their crowded, disconnected and costly development trajectory. The need for higher wages to pay higher living costs makes firms less productive and competitive, keeping them out of tradable sectors. As a result, African cities are avoided by potential regional and global investors and trading partners. They remain local in scope – dampening their competitive potential.

In this report, we emphasize that to grow economically as they are growing in size, Africa’s cities must open their doors to the world by doing two things: The first priority is to formalize land markets, clarify property rights, and institute effective urban planning. The second priority is to make early and coordinated infrastructure investments that allow for interdependence among sites, structures, and basic services. Further, Africa’s cities need the tools for policy coordination so that infrastructure investments are coordinated with efforts for land development. Such coordination is all the more urgently needed since capital investments have lagged behind the pace of urban growth, as Africa urbanizes at lower incomes than those of other developing economies. We need to ensure that every dollar invested has the most impact.


Somik V. Lall is the World Bank’s Global Lead on Territorial and Spatial Development and its Lead Economist for Urban Development in Africa. He heads a World Bank global research program on urbanization and spatial development and founded the Bank’s urbanization reviews program. He is an expert on development policy related to urban and territorial competitiveness, agglomeration and clusters, infrastructure, and impact evaluation, with more than 18 years’ experience in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. He was a core member of the team that wrote the World Development Report 2009: Reshaping Economic Geography; a senior economic counselor to the Indian prime minister’s National Transport Development Policy Committee; and the lead author of the World Bank’s flagship report on urbanization Planning, Connecting, and Financing Cities Now. His work focuses on “place-shaping policies” around cities, clusters, and corridors and the functioning of factor and product markets. He has published dozens of articles in peer-reviewed journals.


Lall, Somik Vinay; Henderson, J. Vernon; Venables, Anthony J. 2017. Africa’s Cities : Opening Doors to the World. Washington, DC: World Bank.

A host of background papers can be viewed at:

Find all Global Urban Lectures videos here.

See all Global Urban Lectures full packages (video, synopsis, biographies, additional reading material) here.

The Global Urban Lecture series is an initiative by UNI – UN-Habitat’s partnership with universities worldwide.