The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 1, 2015

How do urban migrants access land and services in African cities?

June 1, 2015

Africa is on the move. Cities across the continent are continuing to grow, shrink, and transform in response to the demographic and economic pressures that drive urban migration.

By conservative estimates, every hour Dar es Salaam, Tanzania is growing by 47 people; Kinshasa, DR Congo by 53 people; and Lagos, Nigeria by 58. Today about 40 percent of Africans are city dwellers, and that number will rise to nearly 60 percent by 2050 as sub-Saharan cities swell with 800 million new residents.

This tremendous shift in where people live represents a major opportunity to guide development, but it also raises important questions. In places where land is scarce and expensive, how do urban migrants find a foothold? What opportunities or anchors do people use to establish themselves in the city? How do they buy or rent land for their own use and welfare? And what does this mean for governments?

Informality has become a defining characteristic of urbanization in Africa. As these cities expand, formal systems aren’t able to accommodate everybody in terms of access to land, resources, and services. Perhaps more clearly than ever before, urbanization and economic growth are failing to produce the improvements to welfare and personal opportunities that we often expect of cities.

Living on unregistered land in slum conditions is the daily reality for the majority of urban dwellers in Africa. Most new urban growth takes place in the peri-urban zones surrounding cities, as people build homes on land not accounted for in city development plans.

By design, local governments are on the frontlines of leading the transformations of urban communities in ways that provide stability and economic opportunities. But recent research suggests that few authorities across southern Africa are positioned to manage the huge demographic changes that are already underway, and our classical model of “formal vs. informal” land tenure just isn’t cutting it.

The Urban Institute is working with the US Department of State and local partners in three African cities to understand how urban local governments provide services to the most vulnerable migrants, and how international partners can work with those authorities to achieve shared goals of improved service provision and better outcomes in health, access to work, and access to housing.

Last fall, Urban invited expert researcher Caroline Wanjiku Kihato of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars to discuss her recent findings around these issues and provide important context for our work in the region. Dr. Kihato’s research highlighted several important lessons for our work:

  • Land markets in sub-Saharan cities are highly active and complex. Land is being claimed, purchased, traded, and incrementally improved even when it is not sanctioned by the state. The process may not be “legal,” but it tends to be regulated within communities. These community-level systems depend heavily on social networks and social capital within the community.
  • The common distinction between “formal” and “informal” falls short, failing to describe the complexity of community land markets. It is not helpful to talk about tenure issues in binary terms when a family may have been living in a community for more than 100 years without a government-issued title.
  • The cost of being legal is exclusionary. The official processes for acquiring a deed to the land your family may have lived on for generations can cost an inordinate amount of time and resources.
  • These “informal” land markets don’t ensure fairness, but neither do the official processes. A 2006 World Bank survey of business managers in Africa showed that more than one-third did not expect courts to uphold property rights in a dispute, further reducing incentives to become formal title holders.
  • There is a disconnect between the macro-level government structures and micro-level governance within communities, and in that space we see an undocumented blurring of roles and powers. Failure to recognize and engage with these communities and understand their de facto tenure systems can undermine effective municipal land-use planning. This disconnect also creates opportunities for rent-seeking and gangster-like behavior among landholders or intermediaries, and obscures who is responsible for providing services to these communities.

The current model of “formal” land tenure is not going to meet the challenge given the pace of urbanization in Africa. Urban’s ongoing work confronts an important part of this problem by generating clearer information for local authorities and humanitarian agencies about roles and responsibilities on the ground, so that programs supporting urban refugees and displaced peoples—often the most vulnerable urban migrants—can more effectively address systemic obstacles and gaps in critical public services.

You can learn more about our work on our web site and take a look through the slides from Dr. Kihato’s presentation.

AP Photo/Lekan Oyekanmi

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.