Urban Myths and Rural Futures for Africa’s Young People

This view is reinforced by the frequently heard assertion that urbanisation levels are rising faster in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world, as migrants, including many young people, move in large numbers from rural to urban areas.

But in a recent paper from the Africa Research Institute, “Whatever Happened to Africa’s Rapid Urbanisation?”, Deborah Potts, Reader in Human Geography at King’s College, London, argues that this is a fallacy.  She presents evidence to show that the rate of urbanisation since the 1980s has stagnated – or even regressed – in many countries. She contends that the populations of numerous urban areas in Africa are growing rapidly, but so too are rural populations. The process of urbanisation – whereby an increasing proportion of a population lives in urban settlements – is occurring far more slowly in Africa than is suggested by UN Habitat and World Bank datasets or ‘common knowledge’. Yet although the evidence indicates an increase in the urbanisation level of only about 1% per decade, in time, fictitious figures have become facts ‘by being constantly restated’ (a point we in Future Agricultures would endorse). In fact some African countries ‘counter-urbanised’ (to use her term) during the 1990s and, importantly, most of the growth in urban populations is attributable to natural increase, rather than net in-migration. Limited economic opportunities have severely reduced the attraction of many towns and cities to migrants, old and young.

In her paper, Potts goes on to state that the urban scenario can change rapidly. GDP growth rates improved markedly in many Sub-Saharan African countries since 2002. Better economic performance which is accompanied by the creation of large numbers of reasonably paid urban jobs and substantial investment in infrastructure could stimulate in-migration, reduce the speed and frequency of circular migration and boost urbanisation levels. Conversely, if urban economies weaken, as happened in many countries since the start of the global economic crisis in 2008, net in-migration could decline and countries will experience slow rates of urbanisation or even counter-urbanisation. It is these latter trends that she believes are happening in many parts of Africa, but many researchers, decision makers and donors are failing to recognise or respond to them.

In sum, Potts claims that, for much of Sub-Saharan Africa, the foreseeable future will remain predominantly rural (and thus, no doubt tied in some way to the agricultural sector – both on and off farm). Predictions of a majority of Africans living in towns by 2020 or 2030 are not supported by the evidence. The demands placed on policy makers by rapid population growth driven by natural increase are quite different from those created by net in-migration – but they are no less complex or substantial. Furthermore, while the populations of numerous urban areas in Africa are growing rapidly, the urbanisation levels of many countries are increasing slowly – if at all. Natural increase, rather than net in-migration, is the predominant growth factor in most urban populations.

While she says little about agriculture and agrarian change, Potts points out that misleading projections based on inaccurate datasets obscure important policy messages about urban economies and urban poverty (and by implication, rural economies and rural poverty) and migration patterns in Africa. We need to be aware of the reality behind these demographic trends and the implications they raise for agriculture and rural development policy and for future investments aimed at supporting Africa’s young people.

Our conference on Young People, Farming and Food next month will discuss these issues and more – if you can’t be there in person, you can follow the discussions on the conference pages on this website.