Some refer to Kisumu, located on the shores of Lake Victoria, as "new Europe."

Some refer to Kisumu, located on the shores of Lake Victoria, as "new Europe."

Foto: Gordwin Odhiambo / DER SPIEGEL

Massive Urban Growth Considering the African City of the Future

Nowhere in the world is the population growing as rapidly as in Africa. On top of that, rural flight has translated into burgeoning cities on the continent. It's a problem that is creating headaches for city planners and politicians as they search for solutions.
By Heiner Hoffmann und Gordwin Odhiambo (Fotos) (Photos) in Kisumu, Kenya

Should we have a beer, the city manager of Kisumu wants to know? Just a bottle each, here on the bench at a lively intersection in this city on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. It’s 9 a.m., and ultimately, we settle on coffee instead, leaving Abala Wanga looking a bit disappointed. The city planner is eager to demonstrate to the residents of Kisumu that a bench can be a place of relaxation. Ideally together with his European guest. After all, in far away Europe, it is common practice for people to enjoy a beer on a park bench.

Global Societies

For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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"The New Europe," is what they’ve started calling Kisumu, though it is usually infused with a mixture of admiration, irony and denigration. Abala Wanga is the architect of this new Europe. He has installed benches throughout the entire city, widened the sidewalks and even put in a few fragmentary bicycle paths. On one corner in front of the courthouse, seats have been built using wooden pallets, and colorful dots have been painted on the asphalt. It all looks a bit like Stockholm.

But the Sweden analogy doesn’t hold up for long. Wanga jumps to his feet because a motorcycle taxi has yet again squeezed past one of the barriers that are supposed to keep traffic out of the area. "You have no discipline!," he screams at the driver and forces him to turn back. He then lays into a police officer standing nearby who made no move to intervene. "It infuriates me," Wanga says afterward, breathing heavily.

City manager Abala Wanga has set up benches across the city of Kisumu.

City manager Abala Wanga has set up benches across the city of Kisumu.

Foto: Gordwin Odhiambo / DER SPIEGEL

Almost two meters (6 feet 6 inches) tall and dressed in a colorful shirt, Wanga is nothing if not driven. He shakes his head in annoyance when his assistant is a couple minutes late. He knocks on the windshield of a car that is illegally parked on the sidewalk. But motorcycle taxis are his favorite target, an army of potential traffic offenders who take advantage of every possible shortcut to get their customers to their destinations as fast as possible. "What’s wrong with these guys?" the city manager demands, not really expecting a response. His vision for his city frequently runs up against the people who actually live there.

When Wanga starts talking about his trips abroad, his eyes light up. He says his favorite city is San Francisco, a place where he got many of his ideas. Or Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and, as Wanga says, "the cleanest city in Africa." What he doesn’t mention: In San Francisco, people with normal incomes can no longer afford to live there. In Rwanda, meanwhile, the homeless are sent to camps, and the country's autocratic president, Paul Kagame, is trying to rid the city streets of all things African, including mobile vendors.

It sometimes seems as though Abala Wanga would like to do the same in Kisumu. The city manager wants to force progress on his city, no matter what the cost. But Kisumu is yet another example that cities in Africa cannot simply be changed at the whim of designs fresh off the drawing board. They have a life of their own, a feverish drive that is almost impossible to control.

City manager Abala Wanga has even had crosswalks painted on the streets of his city, though most drivers simply ignore them.

City manager Abala Wanga has even had crosswalks painted on the streets of his city, though most drivers simply ignore them.

Foto: Gordwin Odhiambo / DER SPIEGEL

A gigantic video screen has been erected in the newly widened traffic circle in the heart of the city, and last week, it was displaying highlights from the Africities Summit, "the largest democratic gathering organized in Africa," as the event organizer rather immodestly described it. Governors, mayors and experts from almost all countries in Africa had descended on Kisumu to discuss nothing less than the future of the continent.

Africa’s future, after all, lies in its cities. Urbanization and rural flight are accelerating to dizzying speeds, and it has the potential to completely change Africa. Village structures and the grassroots democratic mechanisms that depend on them have influenced life in many parts of Africa for centuries. Now, within the space of just one or two generations, all of these certainties are being thrown out the window.

A variety of forecasts predict that by 2100, 12 of the 20 largest municipal areas in the world will be located in Africa and one-third of the global population will live there, most of them in cities. It is an upheaval the size of which has never before been experienced. The challenges are immense, a fact that is on full display at the Africities Summit.

Relative to many cities in Africa, Kisumu is rather orderly.

Relative to many cities in Africa, Kisumu is rather orderly.

Foto: Gordwin Odhiambo / DER SPIEGEL

One of the focuses of the debate is on how the rapidly growing number of city dwellers can be fed. The delegates discuss urban greenhouses and rooftop gardens, while other debates center around how to disperse slums and increase the amount of social housing available, by way of mandatory quotas for new construction projects, for example. Digital solutions are also introduced, like apps for the coordination of trash collection, for example.

The primary focal point of the conference, though, is on a phenomenon that has thus far been largely ignored: the growth of mid-sized cities like Kisumu. They represent something of a buffer between megacities and the villages. A lot of rural residents end up in these cities first in their search for jobs or new markets. Indeed, the majority of the continent’s population now lives in such mid-sized cities.

Delegates from almost every country in Africa came to the Africities Summit held in Kisumu, Kenya.

Delegates from almost every country in Africa came to the Africities Summit held in Kisumu, Kenya.

Foto: Gordwin Odhiambo / DER SPIEGEL
Cities are growing across Africa, and many of them – such as Lagos, Nigeria, seen here – are bursting at the seams.

Cities are growing across Africa, and many of them – such as Lagos, Nigeria, seen here – are bursting at the seams.

Foto: Anadolu Agency / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Africities proceeds not unlike the cities under discussion: imperfect, a bit chaotic, a wild mixture of tents and sounds. There is no lack of ideas and innovative approaches, but the realities of uncontrolled urban growth in Africa are complex. One expert from South Africa issues an urgent warning from the podium: "We have to allow for the uniqueness of African cities, their intense drive, otherwise we will fail." Hardly any other place shows that as clearly as Kisumu itself, the city hosting the conference.

Sammy Oktoh, dressed in green overalls, is standing at an old metal barrel on a homemade firepit stirring a bubbling brown brew. The stench is almost unbearable. It is a concoction of fish guts that Okoth is transforming into chicken feed, the offal coming from a nearby factory that pulls huge Nile perch out of Lake Victoria, filets them and sends the frozen product to Europe. But the customers in the Global North are only interested in the best parts, with the rest being disposed of. Okoth has transformed that waste into a business model in the informal sector, far removed from official state structures. Indeed, this kind of innovation, frequently born out of great need, is the true engine of Africa’s cities.

Sammy Okoth uses the waste from a nearby fish factory to produce chicken feed.

Sammy Okoth uses the waste from a nearby fish factory to produce chicken feed.

Foto: Gordwin Odhiambo / DER SPIEGEL

Oktoh’s family has lived here for decades, not far from the industrial quarter and right next to a huge concrete bridge, beneath which the old train tracks from the colonial era run. His corrugated metal shack can only be reached by way of an improvised raised walkway made of tree trunks. Aside from the factory’s smokestacks, it is a rather idyllic spot, with plenty of greenery and an unobstructed view of the steep hills behind Kisumu, where the rich politicians have built their homes. For Okoth and his six children, the city gave them all that they needed – until the bulldozers and the police showed up.

They arrived at night, under the protection of darkness. "There was no warning at all. They stood there and yelled: Get out! I woke up my children and then we ran away. We lost everything that night," Okoth recalls. The reason: The rail line was to be modernized for freight trains, to stimulate the economy. The formal economy, not Sammy Okoth’s informal business. Everything located within 60 meters of the rail line was torn down, just as the decree called for.

Sammy Okoth sitting in the corrugated steel shack he built after the authorities razed his first one.

Sammy Okoth sitting in the corrugated steel shack he built after the authorities razed his first one.

Foto: Gordwin Odhiambo / DER SPIEGEL

Okoth, a gaunt man with a deep voice, says he never received any compensation, despite the fact that the plot belongs to him. He spent years saving up to buy it. But as is so often the case in African cities, there is no official document that he could have presented. Legal ownership is frequently opaque and unclear, particularly when it involves people like Sammy Okoth. For those like city planner Abala Wanga, who values order above all, the corrugated metal colonies are a thorn in the side. They are, he says, "squatters" who "stand in the way of progress."

For six months, Okoth moved from relative to relative, until at some point he had had enough – at which point he returned to what was left of his home. He gathered together rusted pieces of corrugated metal that were strewn about and rebuilt his shack. He's now living there again, at least until the bulldozers return. "It is true that the city is more attractive with the broad, clean streets. But what good is a beautiful city to me if I have no place in it?" he asks.

The city administration has numerous other big plans: schools, a hospital and a market are all to be moved out of the city center. "They take up valuable space," says Wanga. Places that the city’s wealthy investors could use to earn quite a bit of money. The fence around the school has already been torn down, but the protests were larger than expected and the Education Ministry quickly hit the brakes and the project is currently on ice. Wanga, though, says: "People will come to realize the benefits."

A few kilometers away, at the site where the Africities conference is being held – carefully sealed off from the outside world by a small army of police – a different issue is under discussion: food security. Rising food prices have ratcheted up the pressure on many families, particularly in the cities. In Kisumu alone, says one official, almost half of the population is at latent risk of hunger.

It is a significant problem. Transportation routes are often long, with food having to be brought in from rural areas across poor roads that drive up costs and slow down deliveries. Infrastructure has not been able to keep up with the rapidly growing cities.

The city planners and experts at the conference agree that food production must be brought closer to the cities. Only with a new generation of clever, urban farmers using efficient cultivation practices can the population be fed in the future. And in Kisumu, this idea is already being tried out.

Peter Odera and Joab Oluoch train youth in the basics of urban farming.

Peter Odera and Joab Oluoch train youth in the basics of urban farming.

Foto: Gordwin Odhiambo / DER SPIEGEL

Right next to the largest slum in the city, the friends Joab Oluoch and Peter Odera have established a green oasis, a center for urban gardening. Water bubbles out of a stream into a pool full of fish that they dug themselves. Open sacks full of soil produce strawberries, spinach and ginger. They also use old tires and construction materials for beds, stacked up on top of each other. The gardeners have even constructed an improvised biogas facility. "We produce maximum output in a tiny space," says Joab Oluoch.

The concept is valuable since poor city residents frequently have just a few square meters at their disposal. Joab and Peter provide training in urban farming primarily to youth. "We want to make farming sexy again," says Peter Odera. The Kenyan government has provided funding for the project. The partners say that more than 80 city residents have begun using the planting methods they have learned.

Raised beds made of old construction materials help boost production in small spaces.

Raised beds made of old construction materials help boost production in small spaces.

Foto: Gordwin Odhiambo / DER SPIEGEL

But there's a problem. Because hundreds of new residents are arriving in Kisumu each month from surrounding villages, space is becoming an issue. Empty spaces in the slums are quickly used for new corrugated steel shacks and fertile land is sacrificed to new construction.

The shortage of living space is the source of a lively debate in conference Tent 2 at the Africities gathering. A lack of affordable housing is a problem in almost every city on the continent. At the same time, public budgets are strained, and urban housing construction is virtually nonexistent. At the Africities conference, one solution in particular has attracted significant attention: public-private partnerships. The idea involves the city making plots available for free, with the private builder then promising in return to rent or sell some of the newly built apartments at affordable prices.

In practice, though, it doesn’t always work. A few hundred meters from the Africities campus, one of the country’s best-known politicians is dedicating a new development. Raila Odinga is originally from Kisumu, and in August, he hopes to be elected the new president of Kenya, and he is currently on the stump. He, too, speaks frequently of affordable housing and that there must also be room in cities for poorer people. But the apartments at the site he is dedicating cost the equivalent of 14,000 euros. From a Western perspective, the price tag is rather cheap to be sure, but it is sill completely out of reach for people living in the slums, most of whom live on just a few euros per day. It is a reality that Odinga recognizes as well. "They must become even cheaper," he says.

Kisumu’s city planner, Abala Wanga, is sitting on his bench in the city center and pointing out toward Lake Victoria, to the old port with its decaying pier. His eyes shine as he gushes about his latest plans: "A new Dubai," he says, with a long, waterfront boardwalk, hotels, shopping centers and a cruise ship. He also envisions the port being outfitted for oil freighters. When asked about those who are critical of the idea, Wanga responds grumpily: "People just don’t want change."

But one thing is clear in Kisumu: Without the support of city residents, without their creative energy, the cities of the future in Africa cannot be built. Dubai and Europe may not be the best paradigms.

With reporting by Laura Otieno

This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.