5 Ways African Governments can Address Chronic Homelessness in Cities

In this article originally published on business day, Ronald Chagoury Jr, the Vice Chairman of Eko Atlantic City, speaks on the challenge of homelessness in Africa and highlights the ways in which governments across the continent can address both homelessness and housing affordability while boosting both urban and rural development.

We Africans have a once in a lifetime opportunity, but it is an opportunity that currently looks like our biggest challenge: Homelessness. Over 68 million Nigerians are homeless or living in unplanned housing. And homelessness often goes hand-in-hand with poverty. In fact, 75 percent of the world’s poorest countries are in Africa. Why is this the case?

To start, we must acknowledge that poverty is a complex issue. There are many contributing factors found in our shared history, culture, and policy decisions. That said, a major reason why poverty is prevalent in our continent is that the African population is outgrowing economic development. According to a World Bank report, while East Asian countries invested over 40 percent of their GDP over a 30+ year urbanisation period, African cities hover around 20 percent. Meanwhile, when the East Asia and Pacific region became 40 percent urbanised, their GDP per capita was $3,600. Sub-Saharan Africa is approximately $1,000. Healthcare spending is also low, and infrastructure is lagging. In other words, Africa is urbanising while poor.

But, again, there are future opportunities in our present-day challenges. That’s why I believe that in our generation, African governments can solve chronic urban homelessness. Let’s look at a few trends that explain why Africa is well-positioned to solve homelessness.

  • Innovation is moving east: A 2011 research paper suggests that the flow of innovation is no longer solely from west to east, but increasingly east to west. There are also doubts about America’s future as a world superpower. Asian countries, specifically China and India, are catching up. And Nigeria could be Africa’s first global superpower in the future if it can help lift its people out of poverty.
  • Using microfinance: How can the poor lift themselves out of poverty? Microfinance services like m-PESA and Kiva allow low-income users to access small loans for food, healthcare, education, not to mention entrepreneurship. Microfinance in Africa expanded 1300 percent between 2000-2012 and can be applied to building new or renovating current public housing.
  • Embracing frugal innovation: You know what they say, necessity is the mother of invention. What can countries do when they have big problems and little resources? They turn to Frugal Innovation, the ability to use minimal resources to maximise value. It’s an idea that originates in India, has been making its way to Africa, and can be applied to addressing homelessness as you will see.

What more can governments do?

None of these trends are single solutions to eradicating poverty and homelessness. However, in my opinion, here are five recommendations that African local governments can adopt to make a difference on this issue.

1. Modernise and invest into city planning departments

To address homelessness and to grow sustainably, local governments need to grow their city planning departments with the goal to improve building regulations, attract more qualified building developers to their city and approve more building projects. The majority of homelessness is due to a lack of supply in the housing market and poverty among housing buyers/renters—promoting new construction addresses both of these problems by creating local construction jobs and adding new building units for people to live in.

2. Take advantage of new technology

Related to the point above, it is also vital that local governments use technology to create ‘smart cities.’ Let’s face it. Humans are prone to error. There have been studies exploring how AI and machine learning can help city planners by analysing and suggesting changes to optimise our cities. These technologies promise to reduce cost and increase efficiency, thereby freeing up resources to invest in housing.

3. Promote the development of high-rise buildings, but not too high

Building developers like myself are well aware of an interesting paradox when it comes to density in urban areas. Buildings that are taller reduce the square meter cost of living space, allowing for more affordable living spaces in a single plot of land. But when you build buildings that are too tall, it can actually increase the cost of each living space due to the extra costs that go into more expensive elevators, fire suppression systems, and many other building codes. This is why local governments need zoning regulations that encourage the development of many more buildings while limiting their height to no more than six to 12 stories.

4. Keep buildings simple

All city planners love approving the construction of buildings with eye-catching designs, but when it comes to addressing homelessness, simpler is better. Square or rectangular building designs optimise the use of floor space, allowing builders to fit more units per building while also keeping per unit costs lower than average.

5. Invest in future building techniques

I plan to explore this topic in a future article, but I will say that we are seeing more innovation in construction techniques today than I’ve seen in the last two decades. For example, companies in the US and China are experimenting with construction-grade 3D printers that can print homes and buildings in days instead of months. In China, they are also experimenting with mass producing entire building floors that can then be shipped to the construction site in pieces and connected together like LEGO pieces. Using these innovations and more will dramatically reduce the cost of housing development and improve the affordability of public housing.

There you have it, five recommendations that can have a real impact on improving African housing affordability and reducing homelessness over time. It’s clear that Africa is already off to a great start. It also helps that these recommendations are beginning to accelerate globally, making it easier for African cities to adopt them with minimal risk.

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