Across many Sub-Saharan African countries, more than 55% of the population in cities live in slum-like conditions. With insufficient access to clean water and inadequate healthcare facilities, urban slums are more vulnerable to diseases such as the current COVID 19 pandemic. As of 27th April 2020, there are now more than 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID 19 across Africa. With over 3 million confirmed cases globally, health experts are fearing under-detection across Africa and the possible collapse of the fragile health care system in the eventuality of a massive outbreak.

To reduce transmission, City authorities are enforcing lockdowns and social distancing measures. Unfortunately, these measures are not feasible for the majority of Africans living in urban slums on less than $6 earned daily in the informal economy.

Lagos, before the pandemic. Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei

Realities of African urban areas amidst the pandemic

With global calls for self-isolation, many Africans are challenged with space limitations in their place of abode. In Nairobi, 6% of the city land is occupied by two-third of the total population while over 50% of occupants in Abidjan live three in one room. Also, more than 70% of families occupy a single room in Kampala.  In Lagos where I reside, more than five people sleep in a room. These projects the possibility of virus widespread amongst occupants living in congested settlements.

READ: Africa’s Housing Menace.

For long, the rapid rural-urban migrations across Africa has been majorly associated with economic elements. Migrants move to urban areas with the ambitions of economic improvement. Most of their activities require manual labour and physical presence and cannot be executed remotely. As such, the social distancing measures reflect economic displacement for a lot of individuals. Many would resort to flouting the measures in search of their daily meal as exemplified in Kenya.

To cushion the economic effect of the COVID-19 outbreak, the government of major countries across Europe and the US have pledged financial support and regulatory cushions. Access to demographic data of their citizens has made economic monitoring and sharing of palliatives possible. On the contrary, many African governments do not have adequate information on their citizens which hinders support. The situation of statistical paucity is such that an African President is uncertain of the population size of his country.

Evaluating the silver-lining for African urban slums

In the face of disasters and pandemics, cities across the globe have reshaped themselves. Many of the iconic developments in urban planning and management have been influenced by outbreaks. Pandemics such as the Cholera outbreak influenced the development of mid-19th century sanitation systems in London. The 1920’s Bubonic plague facilitated stringent urban planning policies in Kumasi, Dakar, and Lagos. Just as America’s cities are also expected to change forever after the COVID 19 pandemic, the current pandemic presents an opportunity to reinvent African cities. Here are four strategies amongst others.

Increasing investment in Healthcare systems: African healthcare systems have been underfunded and technically starved. For example, Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds across many African countries are less than two dozen in number and some countries do not have Ventilators required. The government and health parastatals must now prioritize investment in health systems across Africa. Innovations that support smarter health delivery should be promoted.

Innovative financing for infrastructure development: The infrastructure deficit across Africa is huge. The AfDB expressed that about $170 billion is needed yearly to bridge the gap. African urban areas need to harness the potentials of the informal sector to generate capital. Policies that support public-private partnership, investment assurance and seamless mortgage access should be enacted to encourage increased foreign and domestic investment.

Advancing digital and smart infrastructure: the potentials that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing to cities across the world needs to be incorporated into African cities. New technologies and smart cities infrastructure can help improve urban living. These include IoT sensors, Satellites, Solar systems, and other indigenous innovation. WhereIsMyTransport, based in South Africa, is using technology to provide sustainable urban mobility solutions across African cities.

READ: Smart City Planning.

Promoting safe and sustainable affordable housing: The development of affordable housing is rising across Africa. Family Homes Funds, the largest housing fund in Sub-Saharan Africa, is looking to develop 500,000 housing units within 5 years. Housing professionals across Africa must now pay attention to providing safe and sustainable housing units that provide quality living for occupants. Adequate water and sewage infrastructure must also be incorporated into cities to ensure sustainable cities and communities towards achieving SDG 11.

More than 1.3 billion people would live in African cities by 2050. The COVID 19 outbreak is only a foretaste of challenges that will be facing African cities. An adequately planned urban area is designed to foresee and manage pandemics. In shaping the African urban future, the government, urban planners, designers and development professionals have a responsibility to embark on strategic approaches to urban development. The greatest minds in urban planning, sustainability, resilience and public policy are required to decide the quality of life for the future African urban occupant.


Moses Itanola is a Quantity Surveyor and BIM Specialist with interests in sustainability and technology in the African Construction Industry. He is a Researcher, Advocate & Trainer exploring the use of AR, VR, UAVs, and BIM-compliant Construction Management software. He serves as the Executive Director of BIM Africa and a Project Associate with Family Homes Funds Limited. Aside Construction and Technology, you’ll find him playing the Theobald Boehm’s Flute.