Why don’t urbanisation and economic growth correspond in Africa?

Kinshasa, DR Congo. Image: Getty.

Most of the time, urbanisation and economic growth go hand in hand.

This might seem counterintuitive; when most people think of fast-growing cities across Africa and Asia, they think of the squalor and poverty of slums. So why do urbanisation and economic growth correspond?

Most people move to cities in search of economic and social opportunity. They are looking for more education and better jobs, and cities create wealth; people become more productive as they move from agriculture to industry and services. As a result, there is a close relationship between urbanisation and income.

Source: Coalitions for Urban Transition based on World Bank data.

In sub-Saharan Africa, most countries have enjoyed rapid economic growth as their towns and cities have expanded. In Ethiopia and Tanzania, for instance, the rural-urban transition has seen incomes rise as people grasped new employment opportunities in cities.

However, as the next graph shows, the relationship has broken down in too many African countries.

This graph shows the relationship between urbanisation and GDP per capita in 17 African countries. The direction of the arrows shows the direction of this relationship between 1990 and 2017.

If urbanisation and economic growth corresponded, every arrow would be pointing to the top right corner. But as you can see, the arrows point in every direction.

For Burundi, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Zimbabwe, all of their arrows point to the top left-hand corner. This indicates that as the country has become more urbanised, average incomes have fallen instead of risen.

In CAR in 1990, 35 per cent of the population was living in urban areas and the average person earned $490 per year. In 2017, 40 per cent of the population lived in urban areas but the GDP per capita had dropped to $418.

Why has this happened? One possible answer is that urbanisation in CAR has not happened because of “pull factors” such as better livelihoods in cities. Rather, it has happened because of “push factors”, where people have fled to cities to escape the violence in the countryside.

Equatorial Guinea tells a different story. In the graph above, the country has an almost horizontal arrow pointing to the right: this means that it has enjoyed a tremendous increase in average income without corresponding growth in the urban population.


Does this mean that rural Equatorial Guineans are now super-rich? Sadly, no. It just means that the large oil reserves discovered in the 1990s in Equatorial Guinea have led to much higher average incomes.

Most of this money has been captured by those directly involved in the industry, rather than shared within the country. Resource extraction is a capital-intensive activity that barely creates any local work. As a result, the benefits in this instance are not effectively distributed across society.

Furthermore, Equatorial Guinea does not have any significant industrialisation. There are no decent jobs drawing people to cities. As a result, urban growth has lagged far behind economic growth – and inequality has soared.

Of course, these factors are only a part of the answer. The graph presents many different countries with very different economic, social and political contexts. However, all of these examples call for ambitious policies from African national governments to ‘fix’ the relationship between growth and urbanisation and sustainably tap into the potential of cities.

By providing essential infrastructure and land tenure to urban dwellers, governments can enhance health and education and therefore economic productivity.

A new report from the Coalitions for Urban Transitions shows that National Urban Policies (NUPs) are a powerful tool at the service of African governments to drive change in cities and unlock their economic, social and environmental potential. If well designed, NUPs can ensure that urbanisation serves the national economic interest – and can ‘repair’ the broken relationship between urbanisation and growth on the African continent.

Catlyne Haddaoui is a research analyst for the Coalition for Urban Transitions.

 
 
 
 

What’s behind the rise of the ornamental restaurant toilet?

Toilets at Sketch restaurant, London. Image: Nik Stanbridge/Flickr.

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the toilets of a zeitgeisty new Italian restaurant in east London called Gloria. As with so many contemporary restaurant toilets, those in question were an aesthetic extension of the establishment’s soul. The inventive menu was matched by two-way mirrored toilet doors.

The setup was this: cubicle occupants could see out while the unisex crowd milling around the taps could check their outfits on the exterior mirrors. All fun and games, I thought. But then I found myself mid toilet with a guy peering into my door to change his contact lens. Either he had spectacularly bad manners or he was unaware of the two-way door thing. (Let’s hope it’s the latter.)

Gloria’s toilets aren’t unique in their attempt to be distinctive. The loos at nearby Mr Fogg’s Maritime Club & Distillery are adorned with specimen boards of dead spiders. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s The Sun Inn invites patrons to pee in buckets, and trumpets double as urinals in The Bell Inn in East Sussex. Men can wee into the vista if they’re dining in the Shard. And Sketch’s ovum shaped loos are the stuff of urban legend.

Further afield, transparent doors become frosted only after they’re locked at Brussels’ Belga Queen. In Otto’s Bierhalle in Toronto, diners can press a button to activate their own private rave. And the toilets in Robot Restaurant in Tokyo have gold-plated interiors and dancing robots.

What’s behind this trend? Are quirky toilets just a bit of fun – or an unnecessary complication to the simple act of going for a wee and checking you don’t have tomato sauce on your chin?

Yotam Ottolenghi’s London flagship restaurant Nopi crops up often in conversations about restaurant bathrooms. A hall of mirrors glitters enticingly ahead of loo-bound diners. “The bathroom needs to be the nicest part [of] the whole place because that’s where you’re on your own,” says Alex Meitlis, the designer behind the space.

But no one is truly alone in 2019. If surveys are to be believed, nearly 65 per cent of millennials take their phone to the bathroom with them. Mike Gibson, who edits the London food and drink magazine Foodism agrees that the bathroom selfie – searches for which, incidentally, yield over 1.5m results on Instagram – is part of the reason that contemporary lavatory design is so attention seeking.


“Any new venue that's opening will be super aware that there's probably not an inch of their restaurant that won't be photographed or filmed at some point”, he says. But bathrooms like Nopi’s predate this trend. Indeed, Meitlis believes he has created a haven from the smartphone obsession; Nopi’s mirrors are angled in such a way that means you have to seek out your reflection. “You can choose whether to look for yourself in the mirror or not.”

Another driving force is the increasingly competitive restaurant landscape. “It’s almost like there’s some sort of ever-escalating competition going on amongst new openings, which makes every visit a faintly terrifying experience”, says food writer and New Statesman contributor Felicity Cloake. Gibson agrees. “Restaurants want an edge wherever possible, and design definitely comes into that.”

So novelty bathrooms get you noticed, promote social media engagement and entertain diners who are momentarily without the distraction of company. (Although, it must be said, quirky bathrooms tend to make the loo trip a more sociable experience; a Gloria spokesperson described the restaurant’s toilets as somewhere you can “have a good laugh and meet people along the way.”)

Nevertheless, I’m not the only one who finds bathroom surprises disconcerting.  One TripAdvisor user thought the Belga Queen loos were “scary”. And a friend reports that her wonderment at the Nopi bathroom was laced with mirror maze induced nausea – and mild panic when she realised she didn’t know the way out. Should restaurants save the thrills for the food?

“I think it's important not to be too snarky about these things – restaurants are meant to playful,” says Gibson. Cloake agrees that novelty is fine, but adds: “my favourite are places like Zelman Meats in Soho that have somewhere in the dining room where you can easily wash your hands before sitting down and tucking in.”

So perhaps we should leave toilets unadorned and instead ramp up the ornamentation elsewhere. Until then, I’ll be erecting a makeshift curtain in all mirrored toilets I encounter in future. An extreme reaction, you might say. But, as I wish I could have told the rogue contact lens inserter, it’s not nice to pry into someone else’s business.