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Decen­tral­ized infra­struc­ture offers sus­tain­able alter­na­tive for Africa’s rapid urbanization

Across Africa, rur­al areas have tra­di­tion­al­ly been under­served for a vari­ety of geo­graph­ic and polit­i­cal rea­sons. Some of the rea­sons are pure­ly finan­cial: low pop­u­la­tion den­si­ties lead to high cap­i­tal and oper­at­ing costs, while the pro­vi­sion of last mile net­work con­nec­tions is com­plex and finan­cial­ly / logis­ti­cal­ly demand­ing. It is esti­mat­ed that the aver­age inter­na­tion­al last mile cost for each man­u­fac­tur­er is about 28 per­cent of the total cost of the prod­uct. How­ev­er, with­in Africa, these costs rise to 35–55 per­cent due to issues such as weak infra­struc­ture, lim­it­ed sup­ply options, and poor sup­ply chain analytics.

The weak infra­struc­ture in Africa’s rur­al com­mu­ni­ties has far-reach­ing impli­ca­tions, per­pet­u­at­ing exist­ing social and eco­nom­ic struc­tures and pre­vent­ing real progress. In search of a bet­ter, more promis­ing future, mil­lions of rur­al dwellers are mov­ing to Africa’s ever-grow­ing cities.

The fastest urban­iza­tion rates in the world

The pro­ject­ed growth rate of cities in Africa is astro­nom­i­cal. By 2050, an addi­tion­al 950 mil­lion peo­ple will live in the con­ti­nen­t’s cities. In 1950, most African coun­tries were agrar­i­an soci­eties, and only eight coun­tries had an urban­iza­tion rate above 20 per­cent. In 2010, 47 African coun­tries were above the 20 per­cent thresh­old, and the num­ber of coun­tries with urban­iza­tion lev­els above 50 per­cent more than dou­bled. With a growth rate of 65 mil­lion urban dwellers annu­al­ly, Sub-Saha­ran Africa (SSA) is the fastest urban­iz­ing region in the world. Urban areas are cur­rent­ly home to 472 mil­lion peo­ple, and the num­ber of urban dwellers is expect­ed to dou­ble in the next 25 years, sur­pass­ing the num­ber of rur­al dwellers for the first time.

The SSA region is expe­ri­enc­ing an annu­al urban pop­u­la­tion growth rate of 4.1 per­cent, com­pared to a glob­al aver­age of 2 per­cent. These urban agglom­er­a­tions are devel­op­ing with­out poli­cies or invest­ments capa­ble of address­ing the infra­struc­tur­al chal­lenges that such large set­tle­ments require.

Invest­ment in decen­tralised infra­struc­ture to off­set the rate of urbanisation

Rur­al areas across Africa offer the great­est oppor­tu­ni­ty for growth and pros­per­i­ty, as well as a real chance to mit­i­gate mas­sive rates of urban­i­sa­tion. If rur­al com­mu­ni­ties can final­ly get the infra­struc­ture they need and deserve, entire fam­i­lies could choose to con­tin­ue liv­ing and thriv­ing in their famil­iar sur­round­ings, while the finan­cial con­straints they cur­rent­ly face could be lifted.

The only way to imple­ment ade­quate last mile cov­er­age in rur­al areas in SSA is through the new­ly emerged decen­tral­ized infra­struc­ture sec­tor. With their afford­abil­i­ty, scal­a­bil­i­ty and island­ing aspect, decen­tral­ized infra­struc­ture solu­tions are tak­ing the con­ti­nent by storm. Off-grid solar sys­tems and mini-grids are becom­ing the pre­ferred solu­tion for pow­er sup­ply, gas bal­loons are already in use for clean cook­ing, satel­lite-based island solu­tions are replac­ing expen­sive fibre broad­band con­nec­tions and off-grid pumps are replac­ing nation­al water pipes. All of these prod­ucts embody the core needs of African gov­ern­ments and rur­al com­mu­ni­ties alike, as they pro­vide an answer to the var­i­ous prob­lems posed by nation­al net­work solutions.

Accord­ing to the Inter­na­tion­al Ener­gy Agency (IEA), achiev­ing the glob­al goal of “elec­tric­i­ty for all by 2030” would require an annu­al invest­ment of $52 bil­lion, most of which would have to go to sub-Saha­ran Africa. Specif­i­cal­ly, micro­grids would require a total invest­ment of $187 bil­lion, while elec­tri­fi­ca­tion through off-grid sys­tems and grid expan­sion would require $90 bil­lion and $114 bil­lion, respec­tive­ly. By focus­ing on off-grid solu­tions, these costs could be cut in half.

In order to pro­mote rur­al devel­op­ment and decent liv­ing con­di­tions for the rur­al pop­u­la­tion, as well as to curb the rate of urban­i­sa­tion, decen­tralised infra­struc­ture solu­tions must become the first choice for gov­ern­ments across the con­ti­nent. This is the only way to pro­mote real finan­cial growth while cre­at­ing an inclu­sive real­i­ty for all.

Short­ened ver­sion. Orig­i­nal arti­cle: The New Times