Sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history. Since the beginning of the century, the urban population in the region grew by more than 200 million.
Today, 430 million people, or 38 per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, live in a city. This relentless urbanisation process brings huge social, economic and environmental transformations.
With the highest urbanisation rate after Asia, the future cities in Africa will require fast but comprehensive planning.
By 2030, cities in sub-Saharan Africa will be home to 715 million people, or 47 per cent of the population of the region. Basic housing and public services in urban areas, such as health care, education and public safety will struggle to match the growth rates of the urban population across the region.
The growth of urban concentrations will be such that by 2030, sub-Saharan Africa will have 82 cities with more than a million people each. From these, at least five will be mega-cities with more than 10 million people.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, there is a growing concern from mayors and governors about creating a long-term plan for the development of urban and industrial areas.
Singapore, one of the world's most densely-populated countries, brings its expertise in urban planning to Africa with the help of companies such as Surbana Jurong, Hyflux and Meinhardt.
SURBANA JURONG IN AFRICA
Tinashe Hatendi, business development manager for Africa at Surbana Jurong, said urbanisation largely happens because of economic growth: "People move from place to place looking for new economic opportunities to better themselves, better their lives. At the heart of any urbanisation process, lies an economic driver."
Surbana Jurong has been responsible for the city planning of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Launched in 2011 and with the aim of guiding the city development for the next 20 to 30 years, this comprehensive venture includes the optimisation of the transit system and affordable housing in the suburban areas of Kigali.
Kigali's master plan is one of the most recognised projects undertaken by Surbana Jurong on the African continent, winning the 2010 Best Overseas Planning Project Award and the Best Planning Project Award, in 2013, from the Singapore Institute of Planners' Awards.
This project helped spread the idea that a city can reach optimum standards only through careful planning and thorough execution.
Surbana Jurong has a significant presence in Africa. Its footprint extends over 29 countries and includes 1,500 professionals in that continent.
The company is involved in a range of different projects, from sewage treatment systems in Kenya and capacity improvement of highways in South Africa to the rehabilitation of water dams for power generation in Malawi.
In the past two years, Surbana Jurong acquired two companies: SMEC, a large engineering company with downstream capabilities, and the Robert Bird Group (RBG), which specialises in the construction of iconic buildings.
In 2016, Surbana Jurong secured its largest master planning contract to date. The company will undertake the conceptual planning of the Northern Savannah Ecological Zone of Ghana and the detailed master-planning of the cities of Buipe and Tamale. The zone covers 54.4 per cent or 130,262 sq km of the land area of Ghana.
HYFLUX IN AFRICA
Many other cities in sub-Saharan Africa launched their master plans in recent years. In Tanzania, the Star City Township project in the Tungi Special Economic Zone is an example. Tungi is located within the urban limits of Morogoro City, 160 km from Dar es Salaam city.
The project is a partnership between Singapore company Hyflux and a local developer. Hyflux has a track record in the construction of water desalination plants and power-generation plants (waste-to-energy and gas turbine) in various locations around the globe.
For the Star City project, Hyflux will develop the infrastructure, utilities and environmental solutions.
The project will feature an industrial park, homes for 140,000 people and a university town; plans have also been drawn up for the construction of hotels, a golf course and a theme park, all aimed at attracting tourists.
The development will also have its own power plant and water treatment facilities. Phase 1 is expected to be completed by 2025.
MEINHARDT IN AFRICA
Another Singapore company gaining space in the urban-infrastructure sector in Africa is Meinhardt, a Singapore engineering company that designed and supervised the building of Kenya's Nairobi Pinnacle Tower. When completed in December 2019, the 320 m skyscraper will be the tallest building on the continent. Meinhardt is also behind projects such as The Dubai Mall, the World Trade Centre 2 in Indonesia, the KL Central Station in Malaysia and the BHP Global headquarters in Melbourne.
It started growing in Africa very recently. Sanjay Sharma, the company's regional director for Africa, helped the group to break into the east African market in 2016 through the acquisition of an engineering company in Nairobi, Kenya. The company continues to expand in the region and recently opened an office in Kigali.
Mr Sharma said east Africa suffers from a huge infrastructure gap in terms of roads and railways; it now needs about 10,000 km of new roads. Meinhardt is looking at road construction supervision projects in Kenya.
It is not a surprise that Meinhardt has picked Kenya and Rwanda for investment. Mr Sharma said these countries have been promoting multiple infrastructure projects in recent years and that foreign companies can operate with little interference from the government, although he said the government could be more proactive in giving the go-ahead on large projects.
Urbanisation across Africa is usually focused on the largest cities, sometimes neglecting mid-sized and small towns. More balanced urbanisation has the benefit of giving more options to businesses and industries of different sizes to set up closer to their target markets.
Rwanda, for example, is making an effort to develop secondary cities and avoid putting pressure on Kigali's infrastructure. The goal is to promote the local economy through investment in infrastructure and providing technical assistance to district governments in enabling and partnering with the private sector.
This article was first published in Business Times as of 26 April 2018. It was written by Otavio Vergas, researcher for NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies.R epublished with permission.