Africa is the continent with the "fastest urbanization trend in the world"

This week is taking place in Nairobi, Kenya, the second session of the Assembly of UN Habitat, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. The appointment takes place every 4 years, the last one took place in 2019. From Monday until Friday 9 June, more than 5,000 participants, representatives of UN Member States, its specialized agencies, local authorities and civil society are discussing together. Interview with Oumar Sylla, Africa Director of UN-Habitat.

The Mathare slum in Nairobi, home to 200,000 people, April 26, 2023. AFP - AMAURY FALT-BROWN

Text by: Albane Thirouard


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RFI: The objective of this international meeting is to reach a strategic plan for 2024-2027. And respond to the challenges of a growing population. This is a particularly important issue for the African continent.

Oumar Sylla, Africa Director of UN-Habitat: Africa today is the continent that is in the fastest urbanization trend in the world. By 2030, we will have reached what is called urban transition in Africa, with more people living in urban areas than in rural areas. Where are we going to put them? What water will they have? And what infrastructure will they have? These are major challenges. It is necessary to anticipate and anticipation goes through spatial planning.

Today, what are the main obstacles in terms of access to housing for populations on the African continent?

We see very high interest rates in several countries, so to have access to what is called mortgage, or housing credit, it is very expensive. And this is where the problem lies because today, we are talking in Africa about 80% informality. How can these people access housing? At the root of all this too, it is land, access to land, which today is a major problem in Africa. The more expensive the land, the more expensive the housing. That's why the role of the state in terms of subsidies is important to reduce housing prices a little, it can be playing on the prices of building materials, but also on the prices of access to land, and that's important.

But how can the state finance these subsidies? Kenyan President William Ruto mentioned this at the opening of the UN-Habitat Assembly on Monday. He cited lack of funds as the main obstacle to housing development.

We need to find blended financing mechanisms that work with the private sector, that work with communities to have a mechanism that meets the needs of people, especially grassroots people.

I think that today, all the thinking in Africa is how to finance the housing market. We realized that our housing policies in Africa have failed for years. Many countries have failed from a public point of view to deliver the number of housing units expected, because also the state alone cannot finance housing.

I think there is also a need to have a new paradigm of cities. A city is not just a dormitory, it is a space of production and productivity too. This urban population is a market of 800 million inhabitants today. And in 2030, it will be a billion people. They will need access to energy, digital, vehicles, transport... These are all opportunities.

Kenya: Government plan to tackle housing crisis controversial

The issue of housing has been at the heart of political debates for several weeks. According to World Bank figures, the country has a deficit of 2 million homes. As Kenya experiences increasing urbanization, President William Ruto has pledged to build 200,000 homes a year during his tenure. And he announced that he wanted to set up a housing fund, financed by a new tax, paid by Kenyans. In a context of strong economic crisis, the project is much criticized, both within public opinion and the political class.

The project of a Housing Fund is part of the Public Finance Act presented next week by the government. If approved as is, Kenyan employees would be forced to pay an additional tax equivalent to 3% of their income. The same goes for their employers. However, these two contributions would be capped at 2,500 Kenyan shillings each, or about 17 euros.

According to the government, the revenue generated by this tax will be paid into a fund reserved for the construction of new low-cost housing, intended primarily for the most precarious households.

The project has elicited many reactions. Many in public opinion are worried about this new tax when the cost of living has already exploded in Kenya. In the opposition, some point to the unequal weight of this tax on the lowest incomes. Others denounce a lack of clarity: Who, for example, will have access to these new homes? What guarantees will be given for the proper use of this fund?

President Ruto believes that this project is necessary. 61% of Kenyans living in urban areas live in slums. Access to housing is therefore, according to him, a major challenge. It estimates that more than half of Kenya's population will live in cities by 2050.

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