I have been fascinated by the astonishing growth in the continent’s cities over the past decade. In fact, as the Brookings Institution reports, the total number of Africans living in urban areas is projected to rise from 400 million in 2010 to 1.26 billion in 2050. This means that Africa is the second-fastest urbanising continent in the world, second only to East Asia. Rapid urbanisation and accompanying demographic change are important drivers of development, as they can accelerate economic transformation and inclusive growth.
However, as the World Bank points out in its recent publication Africa’s Cities: Opening Doors to the World, a lack of quality and cost-efficient transportation is one of the main challenges facing the continent’s urban centres. Many African cities’ mass transit relies on informal minibus systems whose low passenger capacity prevents them from achieving economies of scale, and small taxis. What’s more, these forms of transportation are exorbitant for many residents. According to a study published by the Infrastructure Consortium of Africa, one-third of commuter trips in Lagos, Dakar, Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam are made by foot, due to the expense and availability of public transport options. As a result, this limits many residents’ access to jobs. It also means that businesses have to pay higher wages to cover their employees’ living costs, affecting their own productivity and competitiveness.
Perhaps most troubling is the devastating health and environmental impacts posed by transportation across the continent. The OECD estimates that air pollution from traffic, power generation and industries could be killing 712,000 people a year prematurely. This is compared with 542,000 from unsafe water and 391,000 from deficient sanitation. In addition, existing transportation accounts for 13% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with 80% of additional emissions expected to coming from developing countries in the next few decades.
These trends are hugely concerning. If we are to ensure that African cities can serve as engines of sustainable socioeconomic transformation, greater investment in urban transportation is urgently needed. As a recognised driver of development, I believe that private sector companies can help African cities provide and maintain cost-efficient, reliable, and low-carbon transport infrastructure.
Private finance is an important way of bridging the infrastructure funding gap in African cities, which is estimated at some $48 billion per year. Green bonds have the potential to be an impactful way of marshalling the financing needed to create and maintain low-carbon and climate-resilient transport infrastructure in Africa. For example, The World Bank’s Green Bonds raise money from fixed-income investors to support the institution’s lending for projects that seek to mitigate climate change or help affected people adapt to it. This includes construction and maintenance of urban rail lines, the reduction of carbon emissions and modernisation of bus rapid transport systems, as well as new technologies in this sector. In this way, this type of financing can help African cities develop low-carbon alternatives to the motorised transport that dominate their roads, repair creaking road infrastructure, and enhance the accessibility of transit options.
As many commentators have highlighted, Africa has a well-documented STEM skills gap, as only one in 10 tertiary students are studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Unsurprisingly, this lack of high-quality local capacity has significant implications for the delivery of sustainable urban transportation. Given their resources and expertise, private sector companies can help African cities equip their youth with the skills needed to deliver high quality and sustainable transport infrastructure. A great example is the Higher Education Partnership Programme, which was established by the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2016, and supported by the Anglo American Group Foundation and the UK Government through the Global Challenges Research Fund. By fostering relationships between academia and industry, the programme aims to ensure that the higher education system in sub-Saharan Africa produces engineers with the skills and knowledge required to meet the needs of industry and to tackle local challenges.
Programmes such as these are beneficial for all parties. By supporting such initiatives, companies are helping to build the hard and soft infrastructure they need to operate successfully on the continent. They also incentivise our talented younger generations to contribute their skills and expertise to Africa’s ongoing sustainable development. Finally, these programmes help ensure that African governments develop the domestic skills base needed to build low-cost mass transport options, which will help improve their residents’ livelihoods and their own standing as targets of investment. Given their potential impact, I would encourage the continent’s private sector companies and philanthropists to support similar endeavours.
Ultimately, the provision and upkeep of sustainable and affordable transportation is a development imperative for Africa’s cities. Given their financial resources and scale, private sector companies can be vital partners to African urban centres by providing financing to expand and develop low-carbon transport options, and train skilled personnel needed to deliver these investments.
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