5 tips to bridge Africa's rural-urban divide

An aerial view of Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire. Most of Africa is still rural and is expected to remain so until 2030. Photo by: Basile Zoma / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

Africa’s population is projected to double to 2.1 billion in the next 35 years, and both urban and rural populations will continue to grow well after that date. Meanwhile, young people will continue to stream into the labor market. This has sparked a lively debate about alternative scenarios — is the continent looking forward to a demographic dividend or listening to the ticking of a population time bomb?

The answer will depend on the policies adopted in the coming years, experts agreed at last week’s 14th International Economic Forum on Africa hosted by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation Development Center in Paris.

“Demographic growth does not have to be a curse,” said Bruno Losch, a political economist at CIRAD, a French research center working with developing countries to tackle international agricultural and development issues. “It could be a benefit if the appropriate measures are in place,” he told Devex on the sidelines of the forum.

In Paris, some experts attending the OECD Development Center meeting recommended macroeconomic and diplomatic initiatives, such as a call for greater regional economic integration by Kordjé Bedoumra, Chad’s minister of finance and budget, but other specialists offered practical measures that can be addressed without waiting for a call from the presidential palace.

A blurred urban-rural divide

When it comes to territorial development, a number of delegates stressed that people must understand most of Africa remains largely rural. While the rest of the globe is already predominantly urban, Africa should retain its rural majority until 2030. Despite constant migration to cities from the countryside, the continent’s rural population is expected to continue to grow until 2050.

At the same time, the lines that define the urban-rural divide are being blurred. The sprawl of big cities is engulfing what used to be outlying villages like in the case of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire’s economic hub.

“These people have been pushed around as [industrial] plants and roads have come into what were formerly villages,” said Noël Akossi Bendjo, mayor of Abidjan-Plateau. “They are stuck there, but now they have to deal with urban problems. You have to find a way to get them urban services.”

In Africa’s rural areas, mobile phones and motorcycles are the essential tools for doing any type of business. Digital technology and improved transportation links create an environment where a farmer might continue to till the land, but his son might sell phone cards in town, returning to visit regularly, noted Losch. Another child might live abroad, sending occasional remittances. “You cannot say that rural is here on this side and urban is over there on the other side,” he explained.

During the forum, a number of key lessons emerged from the discussions on how to bridge the urban-rural divide, meet the challenge of providing future generations with adequate economic and social opportunities, and how new territorial policies can transcend traditional divides in a sustainable manner. Below are five practical tips we gathered from the experts.

1. Break down the silos. “One of the main issues is that government and donor policies are mainly and mostly in silos,” said Losch, who noted this goes for policymakers, donors and the wider development community. “There are specialists and policies dedicated to rural issues, agriculture, HIV, Ebola, migration, climate change, etc. It’s difficult to address because of the history of public policies in Africa, which were broadly withdrawn at the time of the structural adjustment policies. You have very few multisectoral development policies. You need to de-compartmentalize.”

2. Gather better statistics. “Statistics are needed to shed light,” Anthony Mothae Maruping, commissioner for economic affairs at the African Union, told Devex. “They need to be adequate, accurate and timely so they can be used for diagnostics, policymaking and evaluation.” One step forward is the AU’s plan to establish a pan-African statistics union based in Tunisia, he noted. However, some countries seem to have all but abandoned data collection and analysis due to budget cuts. Madagascar, for example, has not performed a proper census in 25 years, according to Losch. “The public sector has withdrawn on this one,” he said. “That creates an opportunity for donors to reinvest in statistics, to rebuild [the statistical infrastructure].”

3. Invest in women. With small-scale agriculture falling largely on their shoulders in rural areas, investment in women is a must. Key issues such as land ownership, where women are hugely underrepresented, cannot continue to be ignored by policymakers, but the development community can adopt other actions too. Abdoulaye Sène, president of the Dakar-based think tank Global Local Forum, described capacity building efforts in Senegal for women who tend to livestock and another initiative to help women design, build and sell energy-efficient cooking stoves. “Household fuel is always in issue,” he noted.

4. Take a bottom-up, decentralized approach. “The first step, in my opinion, would be acceptance at the national and international levels that the territorial base should solve the problems,” said Sène. Each year the Global Local Forum tackles a single pressing issue, such as food self-sufficiency. Its process involves consulting relevant players on the ground, while scouring the globe for useful lessons and case studies that can be used by locals as benchmarks. “You have to listen to people to see what they want and figure out how you can help them do it,” he added.

5. Invest in education, capacity building and training. AU Commission President Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma stressed this point in her opening remarks, and several other delegates echoed her thoughts in conversations with Devex. “We talk about Africa designing its own future,” said Bedoumra. “To make that happen, human capital is a key element.” Losch added: “It is good to have more people to work, and to increase the ratio of people who are working versus those who are not … But you need to train those people.”

Ultimately it comes down to creating the conditions for Africans to address their own problems and shape their own future — a “by Africa, for Africa” approach. Bedoumra concluded, “My message [to the development community] would be to help African people develop their own capacities, knowledge and education. It cannot be external.”

Devex was a proud media partner of the 14th International Economic Forum on Africa hosted by the OECD Development Center in partnership with the African Union. Stay tuned as we roll out news and interviews from the forum, have your say online via the forum's online discussion, or join the conversation on twitter using the hashtag #AF14.

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About the author

  • Bill Hinchberger

    Bill Hinchberger is a global communications professional and educator. He studied at Berkeley and has taught at the Sorbonne. Based mostly in Paris, he spends quality time in Brazil and the United States, and works extensively in Africa and Latin America. He has served as an international correspondent for The Financial Times, Business Week, ARTnews, Variety, and others. One current focus of his work is content creation for foundations, NGOs and other organizations, especially those working on issues related to international affairs, the environment and development. He also runs training programs for professional journalists, notably in Africa, and is an associate of Rain Barrel Communications, a leading consultancy for social justice projects.