Housing a continent

Housing is at heart of social change in Africa – UN-Habitat

Housing is at heart of social change in Africa – UN-Habitat
  • PublishedApril 21, 2021

Rapid urbanisation in Africa is creating an opportunity for a new paradigm in the way we plan and manage our cities, especially in the context of Covid-19, says Oumar Sylla, Africa Regional Director for UN-Habitat. Interview by Onyekachi Wambu.

How is UN-Habitat overseeing the transformative role that cities can play in social development?

Oumar Sylla: UN-Habitat is a focal point for SDG Goal 11, in the UN system, helping to deliver on indicators to ensure cities and municipalities are implementing the SDGs.

In Africa we are working with the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) Africa to support local authorities and government to generate not only best policy but also to generate data to inform the implementation of SDG 11.

When you have many people in cities, of course they need services, they need transport, they need food, they need goods and we need to establish a value chain for addressing those issues, in addition to the green climate imperatives.

What are the priorities for Africa in the New Urban Agenda?

On the New Urban Agenda, the first element of change is about reducing spatial inequalities; the second is on sharing prosperity for cities and regions; the third is strengthening climate action; and lastly, it is about effective urban crisis response.

I’m leading for the Africa region and we have been working with cities and municipalities to develop strategies on national urban policy, on housing policy and also, how to embed urbanisation into national development plans.

In addition, we are working on the establishment of an urban observatory to not only generate data but also to track the trend of urbanisation in Africa, which is profound – we are talking about 800-900m people living in cities.

This number will increase in the coming years because we expect to see half of the population in Sub- Saharan Africa living or moving to
cities by 2050.

This rapid trend of urbanisation in Africa is creating an opportunity for a new paradigm in the way we plan and manage our cities, especially in this context of Covid-19. We want to move from crisis reaction to prevention, especially in developing a new attitude in terms of prevention of climate change, conflict, and informal settlements.

How important is a multi-stakeholder approach in addressing the challenges?

There was a housing gap of more than 50m in 2015 in Africa, which has grown since then. That is why we believe that partnership working is the way forward. This involves the four Ps – public, private and people partnership – where communities are able to invest in their housing system as well. 

We have developed this concept of owner-driven housing, which is really helping communities to get access to small funds to build their house.

Meanwhile, we expect governments to establish policies on affordability and for access to low-cost housing. We need to be very careful of the human rights dimension to ensure the process of private sector engagement does not lead to more inequalities in cities but that we can really find win-win solutions.

In the context of Covid-19 recovery, the housing sector can play a critical role to increase wealth through job creation, the promotion of local construction materials and affordable housing markets – all of which reduce inequalities.

How can diaspora remittances be mobilised to provide more affordable housing in Africa?

Many times, remittances are just used for consumption in housing, which is not productive. What is missing now is developing specific programmes and incentives that inspire confidence and trust for the diaspora. Policies need developing to incentivise the diaspora to formalise their investments. 

Finally, what is it about your work that excites you?

We are seeing significant progress and transformation in many cities in Africa, like Rwanda, where we have engagement of political will and also, population engagement through cities planning process. Kenya is also making progress on social housing, with the goal of building 100,000 housing units in the coming years.

The fact that urbanisation is high on the agenda for governments, the African Union and donors is a positive sign. We need to make sure that people are at the centre of the process. We plan cities for people and with people.

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

Written By
Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

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