Which cities hold the key to unleashing growth in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Sub-Saharan Africa is moving onto the C-suite's agenda

As labour costs in Asia starts to increase and pressure remains to keep prices competitive, CEOs are increasingly recognising the untapped potential of the Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries.

This is mainly driven by Africa's unparalleled demographic edge compared to other parts of the world: Africa is the world's youngest continent and is expected to have the biggest labour force in the world by 2040. So where should businesses focus their attention within SSA?

Cities are hubs of commerce, investment and production

Cities are the typical entry points for businesses trying to expand in new overseas markets. This is because they enable closer interaction with customers in a relatively small geographic space which in turn helps contain distribution costs.

Population trends in the top 3 and next 10 cities in SSA

Fig 4 Population trends in the top 3 and next 10 cities in SSA

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Most Western companies already have some presence in one of SSA's `Top 3' populous cities: Lagos, Kinshasa and Johannesburg (see Figure 4). However, we think the real opportunity lies in the `Next 10' large cities in SSA, the populations of which are projected to almost double in size by 2030, growing by around 32 million people. In fact, the latest United Nations projections* show that, by 2030, two out of the `Next 10' cities (Dar es Salaam and Luanda) could have bigger populations than London has now.



By 2030, the `Next 10' cities are projected to triple their economic size


Bigger cities lead to bigger economic opportunities

Fig 5 bigger cities lead to bigger economic opportunities

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Urban population growth is expected to lead to more economic activity. Figure 5 shows that, on average, the `Next 10' cities are expected to almost double their population and triple their economic output by 2030. Specifically, we estimate that economic activity in the `Next 10' cities could grow by around $140 billion dollars by 2030 (at constant 2012 dollars). This is roughly equivalent to the current annual output of Bangladesh. These estimates are based on the following key assumptions:


  • National GDP growth rates follow those projected by the IMF in its latest World Economic Outlook report (which do not take into account the latest  Nigerian GDP rebasing);
  • City GDP per capita grows in line with the rest of the country (which may be a conservative assumption):
  • Constant real exchange rates, which could also be a relatively conservative assumption given that real exchange rates might be expected to rise in the long run in dollar terms for emerging economies with relatively rapid productivity growth.

Key hurdles to be overcome to realise growth potential

However, we see three key hurdles which could derail the pace at which the `Next 10' grow. These are issues that most SSAS countries have been trying to tackle for many decades with limited success:

  • Low quality of `hard' infrastructure like highways, airports and trains, which increases the cost of doing business, eats away at business profits and discourages investment. Figure 6 shows that most SSA economies have sub-standard roads compared, for example, to countries in the  Middle East and North African (MENA) region.
  • Inadequate `soft' infrastructure like schools and universities, which could lead to a persistent skills gap that hampers long-term business growth. Figure 6 shows that this is a real risk in countries like Burkina Faso, Mali and Ethiopia where literacy rates remain low.
  • Growing pains stemming from the inability of regulators and policymakers to manage effectively a larger and more complex economic system as growth proceeds. These problems could, for example, manifest themselves in the form of credit or property bubbles developing as a result of rapid economic growth, or a failure to tackle issues relating to corruption and excessive bureaucracy that deter international investment.

The challenge that policymakers are faced with is to convert Africa's demographic dividend into economic reality by overcoming these hurdles, but history suggests this will not be a quick or easy process. Potential investors should therefore form their own plans to mitigate these problems (e.g. by supporting infrastructure and skills development programmes).

Some SAA countries face gaps in hard and soft infastructure compared to MENA

Fig 6 Some SAA countries face gaps in hard and soft infastructure compared to MENA

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