In a recent interview, Executive Director of the Nairobi-based United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) Dr. Joan Clos stated that “urbanization will be a big opportunity for Africa in the coming years.”  It comes as no surprise that harnessing the potential of Africa’s  urbanization will be a top agenda item at Habitat III, the major UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development that will be held in October of this year.  Already home to three of the world’s megacities, Africa is set to be more urban than rural by 2030 and two-thirds urban by 2050.  The private sector has a critical role to play in efforts to leverage the opportunities created by this rapid urbanization.  Across the region, the sector is transforming what some regard as the ills of urbanization — namely, limited space, traffic and waste — into innovative and profitable ventures. 

Coworking. In cities, space can be one of the most limited — and, as a result, one of the most expensive — commodities and therefore lends itself to collaborative consumption.  From Cape Town to Cairo, shared workspace has become all the rage on the continent particularly with the technology community.  With 40 hubs in 20 countries, Afrilabs is one of the region’s largest networks of shared workspaces.  It provides members with space but also with knowledge sharing and collaboration as well as developing capacity and financial sustainability. 

Energy harvesting.  Through piezoelectric technology, London-based Pavegen has figured out a way to harvest energy from one of the key characteristics of cities: foot traffic.  The technology works by harvesting the kinetic energy generated by footfall and converting it into electricity that can be deployed or stored.  It already has been used to generate energy from dance clubs, marathons, music festivals, public transportation stations, schools, shopping centers, and other areas where crowds gather.  At the end of last year, Pavegen launched its largest installation in Africa: a people-powered football pitch in Lagos.  The solar and kinetic energy generated by the pitch can power streetlights in the neighborhood for up to 24 hours.

Waste management. Some see waste as an urban plague whereas others recognize it as “money just lying in the streets.”  In Nigeria, WeCyclers uses a fleet of cargo bicycles to collect household recycling in densely populated low-income neighborhoods and sells the aggregated material onto local manufacturers and recycling processors.  In South Africa, Repurpose School bags repurposes plastic waste into school bags that have solar panel flaps which provide lighting for nighttime studying.  In Ethiopia, soleRebels repurposes a wide range of discarded materials from tires to clothes and transforms them into eco-friendly footwear (in fact, the world’s only World Fair Trade Organization fair trade footwear company).  In Kenya, EcoPost turns plastic waste into lumber for use in fencing, landscaping and other applications.  The list of profitable business opportunities in Africa’s waste market goes on.

These are just some of the innovators who are demonstrating that the private sector should be a leading voice in Habitat III’s discussions about realizing the opportunity presented by Africa’s  urbanization.