Last week, some of Africa’s most influential names jetted into Kigali, Rwanda, for the World Economic Forum on Africa, a remarkable milestone for a city synonymous with the 1994 genocide.
This is no accident; the city is fast emerging as the gateway to central Africa. Rwanda’s ambitious ‘Vision 2020’ development plan aims to transform the country into the ‘Singapore of Africa’ by focusing on education, IT and world-class infrastructure.
Gone are the days when the office in Johannesburg was enough to persuade investors that you have grasp of Africa’s vast business potential. Kigali is just one of Africa’s emerging hubs, where innovative ways of working mean that deep knowledge and powerful networks provide a more credible currency than bricks and mortar.
Just across the Great Lakes lies Kenya’s bustling capital, Nairobi. Long seen as the financial and economic capital of East Africa, it has now emerged at the centre of Africa’s tech revolution.
Nairobi’s tech space is one of the most dynamic in the world. The birthplace of M-Pesa – the pioneer in Africa’s mobile banking and micro financing revolution – the city is host to diverse platforms, from those supporting the continent’s army of smallholder farmers to home delivery apps serving Africa’s growing middle classes.
But Nairobi’s leading role in East Africa has not gone unchallenged. Addis Ababa – capital city to Ethiopia’s 95 million people – is unquestionably ‘Africa’s political capital.’ The African Union Headquarters rises over the city’s skyline as a monument to Ethiopia’s growing assertiveness on the world stage. Once a byword for famine and disease, Ethiopia has consistently posted double digit growth in the past decade.
East vs. West
While East Africa’s cities are exciting investors, strength in numbers lies in West Africa.
Lagos, Nigeria’s business capital, is one of the continent’s three mega-cities (cities with populations of more than 10 million), together with Cairo and Kinshasa. Already home to nearly 20 million people, Lagos is expected to double in size by 2050 to become the world’s 5th biggest city.
Yet numbers are not Lagos’ only game. The city lies at the heart of Nigeria’s vibrant media and entertainment landscape. From Mozambique to Mauritania, Africans are watching Lagos on the big screen, as Nollywood (as Nigeria’s film industry is known) expands its cultural reach.
For some, the city’s pulling power is unrivalled. Former Lagos Governor Babatunde Fashola has likened Lagos to ‘Africa’s Big Apple’. Yet its West African competitors – Abidjan and Accra – are putting up a serious challenge for regional headquarters of multinationals, banks and international organizations.
As Africa’s emerging hubs rise to become the 21st Century’s global cities, they still face an uphill struggle. Nairobi is infamously known as ‘Nairobbery’ on account of its high levels of crime, a challenge shared across the rapidly urbanising continent. Infrastructure is creaking under the pressure of phenomenal population growth. Workers in cities like Accra and Luanda can lose up to 4 hours a day on their commute, stuck in seemingly endless traffic jams.
Africa’s global hubs
The infrastructure deficit does, however, provide an opportunity to consider new models for infrastructure development. Africa’s cities are well positioned to overcome these challenges through innovative solutions.
In a speech at the forum, former President of the World Bank Group, Donald Kaberuka, highlighted Africa’s opportunity: “The future of emerging economies will not rely on natural resources but rather on the skills and talents of their young people. African governments need to see to it that their youth are competitive to be able to access opportunities all over the world”.
With record numbers of people entering work in the next decade, Africans will become the drivers of the global economy. With the continent’s cities playing a leading role, Africa’s emerging hubs will fast become global hubs.