Continental Shift: the rush to build Africa’s booming cities

Copyright Architectural Record

By Howard W. French

From the air, Juba, South Sudan, the capital of Africa’s newest country, looks like nothing so much as a giant village, sprawling brown, flat, and ragged from the banks of the White Nile. At first glance this might seem a most unlikely frontier for architects seeking new markets, but the closer one looks, the more this city begins to resemble a vast construction project waiting to happen.

I had been warned to carry a lot of cash with me here, because there were no international banks, much less functioning ATMs, from which to access funds. But wandering by foot “downtown” my first evening in the city, on a dusty side street I stumbled upon the gleaming local headquarters of Stanbic Bank, a subsidiary of South Africa’s Standard Bank and a major presence around the continent. When I inquired, the watchmen standing guard out front informed me that the large blue glass-and-metal structure had been inaugurated by the new nation’s president that very week.

This country may embody underdevelopment like few other places, but because it is swimming in oil wealth, lots of other banks will undoubtedly follow Stanbic’s example in the near future—and that is just for starters.

For the time being, South Sudan’s year-old government works out of a jumble of white buildings—half overgrown villas, half hastily built concrete blocks—at one end of the city’s main avenue, across the road from a national stadium that comprises little more than a pair of opposing bleachers and a forlorn dirt field. Someday, perhaps soon, these will be replaced by an administrative district that will give a fresh definition to this fast-growing city of 300,000 people. Who will design and build it remains an open question.

In large part because of its newness, South Sudan is an extreme example of a phenomenon taking place all over sub-Saharan Africa. Here, a combination of some of the world’s most vigorous economic growth—at least a dozen African economies have grown by 6 percent or more a year for six straight years—and the planet’s fastest urbanization rates are creating new cities and reshaping existing ones on a scale exceeded only by China. This phenomenon, which is likely to last at least until mid-century, is underpinned in equal parts by strong international demand for the continent’s immense mineral and hydrocarbon riches and by the rapid rise of new middle classes in one country after another.

But South Sudan is an extreme example in another sense, too. Whether the country will be able to harness its resources for the huge building boom that is so clearly needed will depend on whether it can reach a modus vivendi with Sudan, the country to the north from which it recently seceded—and, just as crucially, whether its leaders can keep corruption within reasonable limits.

High political risk—involving poor governance, weak rule of law, and corruption—is a problem in many African countries. Yet international players are increasingly attracted to the continent’s markets, including in the construction industry, because the demographic and economic fundamentals are so strong. By 2050, one in four working-age people in the world will be African, and 60 percent of the continent’s population will live in cities, compared with about 40 percent now, according to the United Nations. Because Africa’s overall population rate is zooming, there will be three times as many urban dwellers as there are today. Like people everywhere, a great many of them will demand to shop in modern malls, to stay in international-style hotels, and to live and work in modern buildings.

In the last two years, traveling widely around the continent while researching a book about China’s booming relations with Africa, I have seen glimpses of this emerging urban realm in city after city. New expressways deliver motorists to the hearts of fast-growing capitals like Windhoek, Namibia; Dakar, Senegal; and Bamako, Mali. Construction cranes crowd the skyline in cities as far-flung as Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Lusaka, Zambia; Accra, Ghana; and Maputo, Mozambique.

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