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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