Connection is key: lessons from the Africa Urban Infrastructure Summit

by Ifeoma Ebo

Relationship building and citizen engagement are vital for ensuring the sustainable growth of African cities in the future. Urban Africa‘s Ifeoma Ebo reports on the Africa Urban Infrastructure Summit held in Cape Town in April.

Imagine a future for urban Africa in which free thinking reigns supreme, roof tops are ordained with urban parks, and the streets are littered with electric powered scooters. Imagine an African urban future where the journey from Cape to Cairo can occur in a single flight, international partnerships are formed in the virtual realm and the true power of urban change lies in the hands of citizens.

In his keynote speech at the recent Africa Urban Infrastructure Summit in Cape Town, Guy Lundy, an investment professional and strategy consultant, painted a future of urban Africa that was both exciting and hopeful. He presented a vision that not only acknowledged the challenges and limitations to Africa’s urban growth, but also inspired the audience to think bigger.

In April, the African Business Conferences series convened various stakeholders across Africa, including investors and financiers, private sector business representatives, government practitioners, ministers and academic researchers with interests in urban infrastructure, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre in South Africa for the inaugural Africa Urban Infrastructure Summit.

Numerous African nations were represented at this pinnacle event that explored the challenges, opportunities and experiences in the design, planning and financing of urban housing and infrastructure in the African political, social, economic and cultural context.

Africa’s population and economy has grown exponentially, resulting in soaring levels of urbanisation which presents opportunities for growth and innovation. Consequently, rapid densification of urban centres exerts unexpected pressure on its infrastructure. The impacts are critical and are showcased in the increasing water demand and decreasing water supply foregrounding the need for better water management programmes, increasing pressure on aging bulk services of sanitation and sewage, increasing demand for electricity, growing demand for decent affordable housing, and improved transportation systems and other public services. In the African context, where urbanisation is often driven by the migration of the urban poor to cities, these infrastructural challenges are compounded by social challenges of inequality, unemployment and crime, among others. The dynamics of these forces on African cities lie at the heart of presentations and discussions in each session of the Africa Urban Infrastructure Summit.

In the opening session on the structural and social challenges of African urban growth, Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities, stressed the urgency for new platforms for national debates on key urban issues and a long-term growth and management strategy for small cities and towns.

Gaetan Siew from the Global Creative Leadership Institute emphasized the importance of connecting people, ideas and goods through his “5 Cs” slogan for African development: “Connecting the City to Change Chaos and Crisis” (download Siew’s presentation). New processes of ‘design thinking’ were explored by Richard Perez, the Director of the City of Cape Town’s World Design Capital 2014, in which city administration collaborates with citizens to define problems and derive design-based solutions to social, economic and cultural issues (download Perez’s presentation).

Kecia Rust, Coordinator at the Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa, shared information on microfinance initiatives for the urban poor in the summit’s subsequent session on affordable housing development and finance in the urban African context (download Rust’s presentation).

Through an analysis of the costs of housing construction, Christopher Jannou, founder and CEO of SmartHomes International,  illustrated  the birth of innovation from economic challenges through the efficient use of construction materials to create new and inventive ways to build affordable housing for the urban poor.

The day culminated in a final session with exciting presentations on various land development strategies for the formation of new African cities. Robert Choudury, Managing Director of Hawkwood Properties, demonstrated current trends in urban development through a presentation of a new mixed land use development in Western Africa created through reclaimed land from the Congo River (download Choudury’s presentation).

Lastly, Trevor Ward, Specialist Consultant with the W Hospitality Group, emphasized the importance of hotels in attracting investment in the urban economy and creating jobs in cities (download Ward’s presentation).

The second day of the Summit was charged with stimulating discussions on the connections between technology, finance and renewable energy in the improvement of African urban efficiency, regional connections and service delivery. Through the showcase of an abundant array of infrastructural projects in Africa Mota-Engil, the summit’s main sponsor, demonstrated the positive impacts of its work on the proliferation of national and regional partnerships (download Mota-Engil’s presentation).

The presentation by Busso van Alvensleben on the types of urban energy infrastructure that is funded by the KfW Bankengruppe ignited an open request by the Mayor of Juba and the Liberian Minister of Internal Affairs to invest in their respective countries (download presentation).

The highlight of the session series was the many ways that regional, national and international partnerships can be cultivated and fostered through the investment in urban infrastructure.

The diversity of perspectives and approaches to infrastructure created a stimulating environment for the exchange of ideas and capacity building for all participants in the summit. The overarching theme was the importance of relationship building on the future growth of African cities. From the inclusion of citizens in policy formation, the development of successful public- private partnership models, to the strengthening of regional, national and international linkages it was clear from each session that for Africa connection is key to deriving solutions that are sustainable.

Mr. Jean-Pierre Elong Mbassi, Secretary General of the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa, presented the perfect finale to the summit with the translated African proverb – “what you do for me, without me, is against me” – emphasising the importance of citizen engagement in urban governance and the continued assemblage for future summits to exchange knowledge and adopt new paradigms that address international calls for sustainability.

Image via IC Publications Group at Flickr.

This article originally appeared at the website of our partners, Urban Africa on May 16, 2013.