Future of African cities: Nigeria (Part II)

Following on from part one of our blogpost on the future of Nigerian cities, in this second entry we continue our conversation with Mathias Agbo Jr. This time, we look at topics such as mobility, retail and a rising urbanisation, and discuss how these may develop up to 2030 in both Abuja and Lagos. 

There are two key topics that I would like to bring up now, both of which gained a lot of traction during our EU-based project: mobility and retail. Let’s start with mobility. What would you say 2030 holds for urban mobility in Abuja and Lagos?

These two cities are actually very different when it comes to mobility. In Lagos, because of the high population, high density and high traffic, they have adopted a sort of multi-modal mobility system. They have a developed rapid bus network, are working on a light rail project and are also looking to further develop their water transport infrastructure. Lagos is a lot more forward-thinking in this regard than Abuja is. Unlike Lagos, Abuja is landlocked, so water transportation is not an option. The city recently commissioned its light rail project, actually the first light rail built in West Africa. Abuja has a much better road network than Lagos and the mobility infrastructure is well-planned. Most people there are happy to drive their cars to work, which is not the case in Lagos. In both cities Uber and Taxify have been running quite well for a few years now. But when you look at other types of transportation like ride sharing, there are deep cultural inhibitions we need to overcome in both cities, because people still don’t feel comfortable sharing their cars with complete strangers. I can imagine this type of mobility solutions could take a while to take off. For 2030, I think the prevalence of privately-owned cars will persist in Abuja because of the way the city is socially and physically structured. For Lagos, if they are able to execute their ambitious mobility plans, they should be able to consolidate a very robust multi-modal transportation system within the next few years.

Do you think the situation will be as different for Abuja and Lagos when it comes to the future of physical retail as well?

Not really. Historically, local markets have been a key component of traditional African societies, and this holds true for both Abuja and Lagos. Some communities actually grew around their local markets and some towns even went to war on account of market disputes. In Nigerian cities it is quite common to have stalls on the street sides around markets – a “spillover market” of a sort. In Lagos and Abuja authorities have been banning street traders because of the domino effect they cause: traffic congestion, waste management, security, and so on. But street traders are also a key social aspect of our urban dynamics. Personally, I believe that it doesn’t make sense to completely ban street traders; they should just be regulated and confined to specific areas.

In the EU, we see online retail replacing physical retail to a great degree. In Berlin and London we’ve already seen initiatives to repurpose abandoned malls as clubs or most recently even housing solutions. Does this resonate at all with Nigerian cities?

I don’t see online retail substituting physical retail in Nigerian cities, not in 2030 for sure. Even if African online retailers like Jumia and Konga have exponentially grown in the past years, physical and online retail have very different audiences here, and for most people, physical commerce is still very important for social exchanges. In the near future, I see Lagos and Abuja becoming even stronger hubs for online and physical consumerism, not just for local but also for international brands that are increasingly becoming symbols of an aspirational urban culture. It is important to mention though, that when it comes to commerce, Lagos will always have an edge over Abuja. As an urban population, Lagos has a much more sophisticated consumer base because of the diversity of its very large population.

On the note of Lagos, according to a 2015 UN report, the city is expected to grow to 24 million by 2030, which is the current population of Shanghai. How do you think this exponential growth will impact Lagos?

Well, there is an opportunity in there. Naturally with more population there will be a higher demand for goods and services and by extension national productivity. So, it’s not exactly a bad thing. But I must also say that as an African, sometimes I feel these population projections are solely based on historical precedence and are missing vital parts of the big picture. It is true that Africa has one of the highest fertility rates, hence it is expected that there will indeed be many births. But on the other side, the average Nigerians living in cities are now getting married in their mid to late thirties, much later than they used to. They are having less children too. Yes, urban population will peak, but I feel cities like Lagos or Abuja will grow because of a higher migration from rural areas, not necessarily because the overall Nigerian population will rise at the same speed.

Lastly, before we wrap-up, I’d like to ask you: In the past you’ve mentioned that one of the things you are most interested in is culturally responsive design. What should this mean for those who design city-scale experiences in Nigeria?

First, it is fundamental to understand Nigeria as a multi-cultural society. We have at least three hundred different tribes and they all have different cultures, ethnic and religious nuances. The things you do in Christian-dominated regions, could be seen very differently in Muslim-dominated areas. Sometimes, you can’t always copy a product/service design you saw in Abuja and paste it in Makurdi or anywhere else in Nigeria, you will have to take note of the local socio-economic and socio-cultural realities and adapt your design to suit same. It is important that people understand that there is no set rule on how to design things in Nigeria or even in Africa. Every group of people are unique, and businesses will need to clearly understand the ethnography of each community before they move in.

In the next edition of this blogpost series, we will continue to explore the future of African cities, this time in a new country and new cities. If you’re interested in being interviewed for this blogpost series, feel free to contact me at caterina.conte@claropartners.com. See you next time!