Making Africa’s green cities core of the low carbon and climate resilient future

By |2023-12-19T15:25:37+01:00November 22nd 2017|Resilient Cities and Climate, Sustainable Infrastructure|

How Africa as a continent makes cities work for all while realising a low carbon and climate resilient economy, will determine the success of the Paris Agreement, says Sadiq Okoh. In his article, he outlines possible paths to green development.

Africa faces the twin challenge of ensuring improved environmental quality and a climate resilient economy in the post Paris era. [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”URBANET” suffix=””]The engine expected to drive Africa’s decarbonisation is the city[/inlinetweet], with its large population accounting for 40 per cent of the total population. Unfortunately, urban centres are still locked into a dirty carbon development path. With the [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”URBANET” suffix=””]population of Africa projected to rise to about 2 billion people by 2050[/inlinetweet], the consequential impact on water, energy, food and climate security in cities will be immense. Critically, migration to cities is outstripping the ability of the existing infrastructure to cope, hence pollution is inevitable.

Urban centres are part of the crisis and they will equally play a critical role in resolving the problem. However, charting a middle ground between economic needs and environmental quality poses a complex problem. Nevertheless, overcoming this complexity is critical to urban centres’ transition towards the Green City. How Africa as a continent makes cities work for all (most especially the urban poor) while[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”URBANET” suffix=””] eco-efficiently realising a low carbon and climate resilient economy will determine the success of the Paris Agreement.[/inlinetweet]

But what is a green city, we may ask?

The term “Green City” is a physical attribute as well as a state of being emphasising the transformation of urban areas/dwellers towards environmentally benign and eco-efficient utilisation of resources in a manner that results in less pollution. It strives to place the environmental matrix at the foreground of all changes in cities by charting a path towards an eco-efficient and eco-sufficient utilisation of the living space, which will make it capable of remedying environmental externalities.

This is the theory—which is not tenable in the context of continuous neoliberal rationalisation. The concept of the “green city” is mainly based on economic and environmental sustainability within the framework of neoliberal urbanism, and disregards the social component. It amplifies the free market tenet of economics, transferring it to green infrastructure development and hence projecting corporate interest.

Overcoming urban inequality, fragmentation and spatial segregation is absolutely critical if the green city is to offer a sustainable urban future for all. It is thus crucial to make the social sustainability perspective its central component. Tackling this issue would require proffering multi-sectoral policies that allow the poorest population to utilise all the benefits of a green city.

Building Africa’s green cities face a number of constraints

There is a plethora of challenges stymieing green cities’ role as capable of fostering eco-efficiency in the post-Paris era. Some of these barriers include: Governance deficit, lack of a green city strategy, top-bottom approach, absence of local anchorage and a home-grown green growth vision, poverty, skewed demographic change, migration, institutional debilities, infrastructural deficit, decline in public funding, paucity of funding, climate change, inadequate green job market, inadequate service provision, weak public transport network, inadequate waste disposal, land use changes, inferior and inaccessible building technologies and political constraints. Unarguably, the woes beleaguering the development of green cities are endless. Hence, overcoming the barriers to fast-track green growth in cities requires urgent and substantial transformations.

Examples of African cities on the path to green development

A major step is to develop green city agriculture in gardens, on rooftops, in vacant space and on hydroponic farms[1] in order to reduce the effects of the urban heat island[2] and also act as a sink function3text. Efficient transportation system will reduce undue reliance on fossil fuel if light rails, fuel efficient (electric) cars, stricter standards for passenger and cargo transport, improvement in urban transit, and purchase of hybrid vehicles with efficient fuel usage are encouraged[4]

Efficient transportation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in the form of a newly constructed light rail[5] is a most notable instance of reducing the city’s ecological footprint through the proactive devolution of technology. Similarly, the Lagos State government in Nigeria is championing the drive towards the clean city by enshrining clean transport pathways in the city’s development blueprint. Private-public partnerships (PPPs) are still critical to green transformation as they can promote Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) needed for reordering priorities toward clean energy services. For example, waste disposal in Lagos State, Nigeria is handled by Visionscape, an environmental utility group that has taken over the management of waste as part of a new PPP arrangement. The group is leading a new government initiative named the Cleaner Lagos Initiative[6] (CLI)[7]

The biomass sector is still the biggest employer in the agricultural sector, and over 61 per cent of Africa’s population (including South Africa) rely on it as their primary energy supply. This reliance on biomass for energy is creating new threats to both humans and nature alike. In Accra, Ghana for instance, about 70 per cent of households use charcoal for cooking. The charcoal production process contributes heavily to deforestation and is responsible for high emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane[8] . Thus, the sector should be integrated into the city development plan with priority given to eco-sufficient solutions, such as clean cooking stoves[9]

Vast opportunities of renewable energy in wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal energy generations should be explored to reduce fossil-dependency. Kenya is championing off-grid solutions through the devolution of MwangaBora solar-powered LED lamps in Nairobi[10]

Poverty reduction schemes are gaining traction in urban centres. But green growth in urban centres is a neoclassical concept, full stop. In neoclassical reasoning, nothing matters except the markets. By recognising the supremacy of the markets, neoclassical theorists seem to agree poverty and growth are relational, i.e. one condition leads to the other. If so, green growth in urban centres is a necessary condition for wealth creation for some, while it will equally replicate (or worsen) conditions of poverty for others. As the argument goes, while initial growth will benefit only few, in the long run it will create growth opportunities for everyone (this assumption is in line with the neoliberal dictum, ‘with time all boats will sail with the tide’).

However, this assumption does not take into account the fact that poverty, pollution and growth overlap, combine and even clash in complex ways. No doubt, growth engenders inequality and is nurtured by marginalisation, as poverty is a necessary condition for green growth to take root. Growth on the back of the poor will seriously undermine inter- and intra-generational equity, thereby leading to further poverty. Hence, the neoliberal notion of growth serves only to amplify corporate interests of globalising ecological degradations onto the poor. While the poor do share a proportion of the blame for the depletion of resources in areas surrounding urban centres, it is ethically wrong to expect them to continually live at the level of subsistence when the means to improve their wellbeing are readily available.

Hence poverty reduction schemes should correct inequality within cities, thereby ushering in a dawn of “green citizens” who consume resources with moderation. Such schemes need to be capable of disrupting both the vicious cycle of poverty and the wanton depletion of resources. Examples from Africa include: Mobile money services that ease the impacts of poverty by making money transfer and saving much easier (e.g. MTN in Nairobi, Kenya); the waste to wealth scheme[11] in Lagos State, Nigeria, where more than 5000 people are engaged as waste collectors by the 350 PSPs operators; or the MwangaBora solar energy[12] that reduces health hazards associated with fuelwood and kerosene utilisation while at the same time improving education and reducing the poverty level through job creation.

There is also the imperative for sustainable infrastructure development to improve human wellbeing, but this depends on good governance, the bedrock of green development. Proper planning processes such as those implemented in Johannesburg and Cairo set the path for other cities. Green City Masterplans by cities like Lagos, Nairobi and Addis Ababa should be mainstreamed into the national development plans. Conversely, country development plans such as the Rwandan Green City Pilot Strategy should also integrate green city strategies as a bottom up approach, thus creating synergies between the different visions of building a low carbon economy. Simultaneously, strong self-governance as proposed for the Eko Atlantis City currently under construction in Lagos should be encouraged[13]

Other measures include: An upgrade of the informal settlements and slums, deployment of smart technology, rainwater harvesting to reduce water stress, pursuit of a comprehensive green innovation strategy, and develop green buildings/parks/walking space with sustainable waste disposal and creation of low carbon development zones. All these will not only drive new investments, but will foster environmental sustainability that can catalyse climate change resilience and low carbon growth.

Green City: the way ahead

Africa has the opportunity to catalyse an eco-city development without sacrificing economic growth, but this will be through a re-prioritisation of their needs. Realising this dream requires a new framework of Food Sufficiency Economy (FSE) advanced in my new book. The FSE is a home-grown green development paradigm based on Africa’s eco-biocommunitarian14text food sovereignty and sufficiency economy perspectives where green jobs are created via new investment schemes capable of making cities more efficient in the utilisation of resources.

A green city within the FSE framework is a city with food and energy sovereignty. It recognises access to food and clean energy as a human right, and everyone is involved in determining the appropriate amounts of food and energy for oneself and one’s family. The aim is to return the control over urban centres and resources to local users from corporations seeking to maximise profit, regardless of the impacts on the environment and consumers. FSE accords great value to local food, and technology, with women and children in urban centres as critical actors within Africa’s eco-biocommunitarian metaphysical framework. Within this framework, the sustainable urban future does not consist of reification of green cities or merely painting existing structures with green trimming. Rather, the solution is to place the people at the fulcrum of green development by formulating policies based on their needs while also fostering an amiable environment for the transition to a climate resilient and low carbon civilization.


Okoh, A. I. S. (2013). Political Economy of Climate Change in Africa, Lambert Academic Publishing. Available at: Change-in-Africa/dp/3659373117
Okoh, A. I. S. (2017). ‘Pathways to a Green Economy in post-Paris Africa. Available at:
Tangwa, G. (2004). Some African Reflections on Biomedical and Environmental Ethics. In Kwasi Wiredu (Ed). A Companion to African philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell publishers.

Sadiq Okoh