“Africa’s time for urbanisation is now. Let us get it right”

The executive director of the Kampala Capital City Authority on the urbanisation of Africa.

No country in the world has ever developed without urbanising. This has been the case in Europe and North America, and in recent decades, cities provided the foundation of the so-called “East Asian Miracle”.

This week, the 9th World Urban Forum, the biggest global conference on cities, will take place in Kuala Lumpur. I will be there discussing why now is the moment for African cities to seize the opportunity to get urbanisation right.

Urbanisation is a positive force for growth – having people and firms located close to each other connects producers to consumers as well as their markets. It also provides firms their labour and the ability to source for inputs. The resulting connectivity makes people and therefore firms more productive. This is why urbanisation can provide the backbone of growth for national economies.

Density in a city, however, also comes with its downsides. In Kampala, we feel the effects of this on a daily basis with congestion. There are estimates that approximately 24,000 hours of labour per day are lost just by people sitting in traffic jams.

Density, if it is unmanaged, can take its toll on liveability in the city as well. This is particularly evident in densely packed slums that sprawl through our city. To help manage these downsides, prioritising urbanisation on the national agenda in order to make investments in sound public policy and adequate infrastructure is key.


The major challenge in this respect are that cities, like Kampala, are urbanising quicker than necessary infrastructure investments can be made. With the urban population growth rate estimated to currently be about 5.2 per cent, Kampala is projected to become a ‘megacity’ of over 10m people by 2040.

Furthermore, unlike in Europe and North America, cities in sub-Saharan Africa are urbanising in low-resource environments, making financing the necessary large infrastructure challenging. This is exacerbated by the fact that some estimates predict that retrofitting infrastructure investments, after the city has already grown, can be up to three times more expensive than at the beginning of a city’s development. 

Despite all these challenges, we have made great strides in managing our city in the last six years. We have improved our own-source revenue collection by 186 per cent. Part of this revenue is reinvested in infrastructure; the rest goes towards providing social services including education, healthcare, sanitation, and workspaces for the growing Kampala population. Through a loan from the World Bank, we have managed to reconstruct over 200km of roads in the city. Furthermore, garbage collection has increased from 16,000 to 31,000 metric tonnes.

We are also improving liveability in our city through other ways. In particular, through improving and increasing the number of green spaces as well as undertaking a number of beautification efforts, communities will increasingly be able to enjoy public space in the cities.

All these efforts have reinstated confidence amongst a variety of stakeholders in the direction that Kampala is taking. Most importantly, it has restored hope and provided a sense of direction for residents in the city and firms looking to invest in Kampala.

As countries in sub-Saharan Africa strive to become middle-income, cities like Kampala still have a major opportunity to provide the backbone for economic growth. This is because we are still at the beginning of our urbanisation journey, with nearly two-thirds of our cities still to be built.

Now is the opportunity to get urbanisation right and make it a force for productivity and change. As our urbanisation paths are very different from those taken by other cities in the world, we also need to build up our own evidence base and learn from each other.

This is why, together with leaders from other African cities and distinguished academics on urbanisation Edward Glaeser at Harvard University and Sir Paul Collier and Tony Venables, both at Oxford University, I am spearheading a new initiative Cities that Work through the International Growth Centre.

With this initiative, we aim to provide the evidence-based support for urban policymaking in cities like Kampala. This policy support is, most importantly, based on our priorities. Given different policies are needed in varying contexts, the initiative also presents a menu of different policy options for people like myself who face tough decisions on a daily basis. We are growing our network of policymakers, practitioners, and academics because harnessing the opportunities of urbanisation requires the finest minds working together to provide innovative solutions to the challenges we face.

Uganda aims to become a middle-income country within the next decade. As history has shown us, this will not be possible without our cities. Now is the time to get urbanisation right.

Dr Jennifer Semakula Musisi is executive director of the Kampala Capital City Authority, and a member of the “Cities that Work” council at the International Growth Centre. She is giving a keynote talk at this week’s UN’s World Urban Forum.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”