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Solving Africa’s housing deficit requires pan-African solutions

Housing a continent

Solving Africa’s housing deficit requires pan-African solutions

To solve Africa’s housing deficit we must focus on the policy environment, and the best way to do this is through multilateral action, says Babatunde Oyateru, Head of Communication and External Affairs at Shelter Afrique.

It would appear an odd moment to make a case for multilateralism, at a time of Covid vaccine nationalism and Brexit unilateralism, but Africa, on the other hand, is embracing it.

On 1 January, 2021, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) went into effect. Historically, this is nothing new; cooperation has always been at the normative heart of African nations’ foreign policy; it is often philosophised as pan-Africanism.

In many areas, such as security, immigration and education, African countries have often been keen to cooperate, rooted in the in-group feelings created by a shared colonial legacy. Beyond the much-touted benefits of the AfCFTA, it offers a new opportunity to reconsider a pan-African approach to development on the continent – especially in response to the predictions of some.

In 1994, Robert Kaplan’s essay ‘The Coming Anarchy’ described an African future with nations decimated by conflict, disease, overpopulation and insufficiency. This and many other similar predictions have proven to be inaccurate.

However, resilience is elastic to an extent and should not be taken for granted. The world is in the throes of a global pandemic, but not to forecast is to be prisoners of the moment.

The next crisis is on the horizon; Africa is expected to enjoy a youth bulge. According to a Brookings Institution Report, Africa’s population will swell to 2.5bn in 2050 – double the current figure – and be majority urban a decade before that, in 2040.

This growth is against a backdrop of marginal industrialisation. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) argues that the contribution of Africa’s manufacturing sector to the continent’s GDP has remained at 1% over the last few years, from a high of 12% in the 1980s.

The African Development Bank (AfDB), which through its High 5 agenda has made industrialisation front and centre of its programme, notes that in 2019, the industrial GDP of Africa grew 17% to $73bn. However, they countenance this with the geographic limitation of industrialisation to five economies – and the reversal of any gains by the pandemic.

These facts present two interrelated problems; on the one hand, the population increase will drive rural-urban migration, especially with young people, whose expectations of a better life are far more immediate than those of their parents.

On the other hand, the industrialisation necessary for jobs and the infrastructure of growing cities is also lacking; this will contribute to mushrooming informal settlements and slums and dampened expectations.

The coming anarchy for Africa is mounting, with unmet expectations; the next crisis in Africa will wear an urban face. There are signs of this already; a Eurasia report details how the Arab Spring in 2011 coincided with a majority urban population.

The recent Lekki Tollgate demonstrations in Nigeria have also coincided with the country attaining an even urban-rural parity according to the same report. Shelter Afrique believes that housing and the urban-rural divide will be at the heart of the next crisis.

A dynamic policy environment

Shelter Afrique is a multilateralism product created on the sidelines of an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) meeting in 1981. The organisation was created to address the growing housing deficit on the continent. 2021 will mark 40 years of existence – as such, we are uniquely positioned to evaluate and appreciate the role multilateralism plays.

Multilateralism assumes commonality of problems and as such, it also provides for a commonality of ideas; what is often referred to as best practice. In recent times we have come to appreciate that we cannot only focus on the affordable housing finance and access to it, but must also address the policy environment. The best way to do this is multilaterally.

Most housing policies in Africa are a holdover from the post-colonial period; major initiatives by newly independent African nations focused on mass housing and housing for civil servants, who for many African nations were often the largest labour force and the largest pool of voters.

It reflects the thinking that government alone can stimulate demand and generate enough supply of housing; this is the eternal battle between public sector intervention and private sector capacity. The debate will remain unsettled but at its heart is what we believe is the right approach; large-scale deficits require large-scale housing.

Public-private partnerships are the most viable way to address the housing deficit across the continent; one of Shelter Afrique’s marquee projects fits this bill. Rugarama Park Estate in Kigali, currently in development, is a sustainable housing development of 3,000 affordable units.

A model of the Rugarama Park Estate in Kigali, Rwanda.

Many of our other member states are keen to develop these kinds of projects; but there are very few legal or policy frameworks to support this.

The solution to this is a multilateral one; the African Union and other partners such as UNECA and the UN-Habitat in cooperation with the Shelter Afrique Centre for Excellence are driving research into creating a Model Law for housing on the continent. The Model Law will seek to create a regulatory framework for housing in Africa. While ambitious, the scale of the solution is a possible acknowledgement of the scale of the problem.

More than just the spirit

Beyond the ethos of multilateralism, there are practical and tangible benefits to the approach. For one, the rationale of creating an organisation like Shelter Afrique is to pool resources and capacity to address an issue that is common to all.

Beyond that, collective action on things like trade addresses the shortages of building materials which are often imported. The AfCFTA is a lofty ideal which will no doubt experience challenges as all multilateral efforts do, however, a single market will remove trade barriers, push back against protectionist policies and more importantly, create a norm, a tradition where intra-African trade has priority.

The future is urban

There is a tenet of foreign policy, named Miles’ Law; it simply states that ‘where you sit determines where you stand’, to imply that policymakers have a narrow focus on their office’s needs.

However, with Africa’s urban and fast-approaching future, policymakers will have to learn to sit in many seats; if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that all policy areas are interconnected.

This is not only a health crisis; it is an education, housing, transport, informatics, economic and security crisis. The future of Africa is urban and urban voters vote on urban matters, housing, transport, health, education, and a host of others.

Growing resentment about unmet expectation is a debt that many African countries will have to pay, and it has an expected date, 2050. Shelter Afrique realises this and has rededicated itself to a pan-African solution for affordable housing.

Nations coalesce around common issues to proffer solutions; these are often matters that transcend borders. Affordable housing should be moved into that agenda; it should be considered a human right, especially for African countries.

Every generation owes the one behind it the opportunity to dream, and while not all these dreams will come true, we owe them a place to lay their heads and have them.

Babatunde Oyateru is Head of Communication and External Affairs at Shelter Afrique, the only pan-African finance institution that exclusively supports the development of the housing and real estate sector in Africa.

To read more articles from our special report on affordable housing in Africa, coordinated by AFFORD UK, visit the Housing a Continent webpage.

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