Healthy Homes for Healthy Cities: Harnessing the Potential of Africa’s Urban Growth

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Dec. 15, 2020 7 min read

Urban development is arguably the single biggest factor which will make or break Africa’s future. Urbanization is strongly linked to economic growth and growth in per capita GDP, and Africa has the fastest growing urban population in the world.

The stakes here are high. If this growth is handled well, it could propel Africa into a position of global leadership. If this challenge is not addressed, however, the problems associated with rapid urban growth could spiral out of control.

To get an idea of the scale of this challenge, consider that Africa’s population is expected to quadruple by the year 2100. It is expected most of the world’s megacities will be in Africa. For example, it is estimated that Lagos, Nigeria alone will grow to 85 million people — more than the present population of Germany.

A Healthy Home: The Key to a Healthy and Productive Life

Promoting sustainable urban growth in Africa is a major challenge. There are multiple areas that need attention to ensure a safe and healthy environment in Africa’s cities — improvements in regulation, sanitation, and transport are required. One of the most urgent needs, however, is affordable housing.

Ensuring that Africa’s growing urban population has safe, sanitary, and dignified housing is key to ensuring that Africans can achieve their full human potential. Unsanitary conditions and overcrowding in urban slums causes elevated rates of infectious disease. Many improvised houses also lack adequate ventilation, leading to respiratory conditions resulting from mold or air pollution from biomass.

Unhealthy living conditions cut into productivity for both students and working residents. Affordable, quality housing is an absolute necessity for achieving the best possible educational and professional outcomes for Africans. This is why affordable housing is one of Engineer Africa’s top priorities.

Engineer Africa’s Affordable Housing Initiative

Engineer Africa is seeking to support the sustainable growth of Africa’s cities through initiatives to design and deploy affordable housing.

Africa needs tailor-made solutions to housing problems for a number of reasons. For one, unique climate conditions must be taken into account. Secondly, design choices may be affected by budget availability. Finally, getting the best possible value requires making use of locally available materials.

We are seeking to bring in a global group of professionals to design locally appropriate, affordable housing designs which can be easily mass produced using affordable, locally available materials. Local partners to implement these designs may be drawn from both the public and private sectors. This is a collaborative process which may involve cooperation between local companies, NGOs, and students. It combines local knowledge and experience with engineering talent from the African diaspora to design suitable housing units and increase production.

Designs are evaluated according to factors like ease of construction, durability, cost of construction, lighting, and ventilation. By open sourcing these plans, we are helping build a knowledge base which can aid in the efforts to develop and improve affordable housing options across the continent. This is discussed further on page 44 of a book we recently released. The book is available for download here.

Building Better Neighborhoods

It’s important to consider not only individual housing units, but also the structure of neighborhoods. Sometimes, government programs seek to move people out of slums and into concrete apartment buildings. While these buildings may have access to electricity and running water, some residents feel less safe in the new housing because the sense of community is not as strong as in the slum or informal settlement where they lived before.

Less community support in formal neighborhoods can also make life more expensive for those moving out of slums or informal settlements. Many people living in slums are not used to paying utility bills, for example, which can also make the transition difficult.

Factors like these mean that in some cases, people may not actually want to leave slums. Sometimes, it may be more practical to upgrade informal neighborhoods than to try to relocate residents.

Sustainability and Education

Engineer Africa is also committed to supporting educational efforts for residents of affordable housing units. It’s important for residents to have a sense of ownership over their properties and to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to maintain the properties.

Part of caring effectively for a home means understanding a different lifestyle than many may be used to. Some Africans, particularly those moving to the city from villages, may not be familiar with the electrical, plumbing, and waste management systems in new homes and neighborhoods. Some knowledge of these systems is required to effectively care for a home and keep it in good condition over the long term.

Unfortunately, not all development initiatives are able to maintain a long-term presence on the ground. This highlights the benefits of having more participation by Africans in African development projects.

Africans are often more familiar with local needs and conditions, and in many cases are better able to communicate with participants in programs to transfer important concepts and understanding. Empowering the beneficiaries of development programs with the knowledge they need to take ownership of development efforts can greatly enhance the sustainability of projects. This is particularly true when it comes to affordable housing.

Affordable housing should be a stepping stone on the way to better living conditions. It can provide families with the stability they need to pursue education and employment opportunities which can empower them and foster independence. As families move out of affordable units and into higher end accommodation, these units will be freed up for other families in need. For this reason, it’s important to take care to extend the lifespan of units as long as possible.

Providing the Tools for Success

There are many diverse actors who need to collaborate to steer Africa’s urban development in the right direction. The role of governments in developing effective urban development and housing policy is key, and so are the efforts of the private sector in producing appropriate products to meet local needs. NGOs can play an important support role in this process as well. Engineer Africa is there to make sure that all of these diverse actors have access to all the engineering resources they need to succeed in these efforts.

While we are also working on establishing some affordable housing projects ourselves, we hope that the designs and programs developed in the course of this work will provide an inspiration for others all across Africa. You can learn more about this project as well as others in a book we recently released: The African Diaspora as a Force for Social and Economic Transformation. It is available for free here.

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