Future of African Cities: Nigeria

In one of McKinsey’s latest podcast about their new book: Africa’s Business Revolution, senior partner Acha Leke states that at the moment “there’s no better place to invest in than in Africa”. As a continent rich in natural resources, Africa is growing and urbanising fast, and is quickly leapfrogging to the latest technologies. Case in point: Africa has the highest number of mobile money subscribers in the world. It also has an important private sector, with more than 400 companies with revenues of more than $1 billion a year – 70% of which are African.

At Claro Partners we have been conducting work in Africa for over six years, interacting with research participants, clients, and stakeholders in the corporate, startup, government, and NGO sectors. To better understand some of the future challenges and opportunities in Africa, we set out to talk to African practitioners with local expertise to construct an early vision of how African cities may look in 2030. This effort builds upon a project we closed earlier this year on the future of cities, where we developed city-based scenarios to illustrate how changes in urban infrastructures and societies may impact European cities by 2030.

In this first two-part blogpost, we talk to Mathias Agbo Jr. about the future of Nigerian cities. Mathias is a Nigerian designer and researcher with over ten years of professional experience. He currently runs a design-build consultancy in Abuja and writes periodically on topics ranging from architecture, to urbanism and business design. This first part of our conversation is an introduction to the cities of Abuja and Lagos, and an overview of what the future holds for them.

Mathias, when you think of Nigerian cities and the opportunities they may hold for the future, which cities come to mind?

Well, in Nigeria, every city is unique in its own way. They all have very interesting characteristics, but Lagos and Abuja definitely stand out from the lot. They both have the most cosmopolitan disposition; one that’s at par with many international cities.

And for those who are not familiar with Abuja and Lagos, could you briefly explain what characterises them?

Lagos and Abuja are two very different cities. A fitting comparison would be New York and Washington DC. The tempo in Abuja is a lot calmer, much slower, mainly because it is was designed that way. It’s a purpose-built capital city driven solely by government agencies, a place for bureaucrats to live and work. Lagos is a very boisterous city; it literally never sleeps. It’s home to some of Nigeria’s biggest businesses and the hub of Nigeria’s entertainment industry. In terms of GDP, it is touted as Africa’s fifth largest economy and also has a much larger population than Abuja. There’s a famous aphorism in Nigeria, that if you succeed in Lagos, you can succeed anywhere. Lagos used to be Nigeria’s capital since colonial times, until 1991 when the government officially moved to Abuja, the new capital city.

Now, if you think of these two cities by 2030, what would you say most excites you about their immediate future?

I am really excited about the youthful energy in both cities and all the initiatives young people are driving therein. Despite the very little opportunities they have been given, they are changing things in the most innovative ways in nearly every sphere. Interestingly, over the last decade, young people have found a way to not only survive outside the system but also shape national discourse even as outsiders. They have created opportunities for themselves, and are leaving their marks in business, technology and the creative industries. Their ideologies and global mindsets will define the future of Abuja, Lagos, and smaller cities across Nigeria and I earnestly look forward to that future.

That makes complete sense. In fact, this youth is boosting Nigeria’s startup ecosystem and turning it into one of the (if not the) most robust ecosystems on the continent. How do you think this will affect working dynamics in Abuja and Lagos by 2030?

The startup culture is definitely spreading all over the country. If I’m not mistaken, at the moment there are around thirty-four established co-working spaces in Lagos alone, in Abuja we also have a handful, as well as outside these two cities. I have only recently completed the design and remodelling of the North East Humanitarian hub in Yola, commissioned by Nigeria’s Vice-President. Presently, many Nigerian startups have caught global attention, and are getting funding from not just local investors but also from international venture capitalists. Interestingly, some of the most innovative small businesses in Nigeria started because their owners couldn’t find appropriate jobs right after they graduated from university. As a country, we are creating far less jobs than are needed, so I foresee a future where more young people will start their own businesses and create more jobs for themselves and others.

And then, on the less positive side, what would you say is your biggest worry when you think about the future of Abuja and Lagos?

Now, unfortunately, the agendas for Nigeria’s big cities are driven by politicians and their politics. At the moment, there isn’t any strategic plan to bridge the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. I’m worried that city authorities are demolishing slums and are handing those lands to the rich, to build luxury apartments rather than replacing them with social housing. This is troubling because most of these people have lived in these slums for over a hundred years, as was the case with some riverine communities in Lagos. Overall, I’m worried about rising inequalities. I’m worried about the social problems marginalised urban poor will create for all of us in the near future.

Would you say this is the direction Nigerian cities have already set for 2030, or could there maybe be an inflection point?

Well it is changing to some degree. Earlier I mentioned there are younger people doing new and interesting things across the country. I believe their creative restlessness will find solutions to these problems too, and this could change the direction of a lot of things in the near future. For instance, there is a social-leaning startup in Nigeria called Tracka, that advocates for disadvantaged communities. What they do is follow public money to make sure it is being used in the way the government says it would be used. They take photos of project sites, engage policy makers, and are very active on Twitter and other social platforms. Another example is YourBudgit, that focuses on making public data available to encourage participatory governance. Like them, there is a handful of other social ventures all run by young people across the country.

Many of these startups exist around technologies such as IoT, AI or AR/VR. When you think of these technologies applied to urban environments, do any specific use-cases come to mind for the Abuja and Lagos of 2030?

At the moment, in Nigeria, technologies like these are mostly used in the context of entertainment, financial services and in some few cases, healthcare. I do remember there was a massive project for Abuja that involved putting a CCTV camera network all over the city, but sadly that project failed. Overall, I believe that for 2030, city authorities in Lagos and Abuja will be more likely to apply new technologies for tactical purposes like traffic management, civil security, land documentation or general city administration. When it comes to consumer-facing technology applications in the city, I believe they should be deployed cautiously. Just because there are fancy technology applications on the streets of Stockholm or Milan, doesn’t mean you have to bring them here.

In part two of this blogpost, we will discuss the impact of mobility, retail and rising urbanisation on Abuja and Lagos by 2030.

Nov 29, 2018