Using Technology to Plan for Africa’s Urban Expansion | Land Portal

By Sarah Logan and Mallory Baxter

African cities are rapidly expanding as the number of urban residents rises due to rural-urban migration and population growth. Ad hoc urban expansion contributes to an increase in unplanned settlements, urban poverty and inequality, and constraints on new residents, who are attempting to secure access to adequate housing, property rights, employment, and basic services.

These trends are undermining the economic benefits of agglomeration traditionally associated with urbanization. African governments, particularly at the city authority level, are facing the daunting task of overcoming these challenges in order to harness this rapid urbanization into an effective driver of economic growth. To be able to do this, city authorities and other public institutions need to better understand the dynamics of their cities’ growth so that they can plan appropriately for the coming years. Central to this is the need for policy makers to have access to reliable, real-time data on these trends. 

Like numerous other African cities, Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, is experiencing rapid urban growth. Rwanda has the densest population in mainland Africa, making rising urban population density a particular concern. However, Kigali is making a notable effort to get ahead of these planning challenges by gathering the data needed for public authorities to develop appropriate evidence-based policy to govern the city’s rapid expansion. To do this, city officials are teaming up with Laterite, a social and economic development data and research firm, to pilot the use of conTEXT, a new SMS data collection tool, to gather dynamic information on Kigali’s unplanned settlements in a study funded by the International Growth Centre.

This study will test the viability of using short high-frequency SMS surveys to collect data on rapidly changing populations in Kigali’s unplanned settlements. SMS surveys have great potential to improve the quality of information available on unplanned settlements for two key reasons: they yield rapid results and they’re low cost. Because unplanned settlements are by nature dynamic, it is difficult for officials to maintain an up-to-date understanding of the rapidly changing situation on the ground. Traditional survey work can be cost prohibitive, especially when collecting data across multiple points in time. While SMS surveys are not a panacea—they rely, for example, on the ability of respondents to self-report—they do potentially offer a low-cost method of collecting data on a high-frequency basis.

For this study, survey questions will be designed in collaboration with Kigali officials. Agreements with Rwanda’s telecom companies will enable Laterite to reverse charge the cost of survey responses, as well as reward respondents who complete survey questions with free mobile phone credit, thereby providing a strong incentive to participate.

Laterite will survey a panel of residents of Kigali’s unplanned settlements over a four to five month period to collect data on four key areas of interest to urban planners: 1) mobility and migration of unplanned settlement residents, 2) housing arrangements and conditions, 3) access to and cost of basic services, and 4) employment dynamics. These areas are of interest to Kigali officials and could help them design and implement suitable policies and programs to govern a range of urban development issues.

To carry out this study, Laterite will first test their research tools and their strategy for engagement with the residents of unplanned settlements through a pilot study. The pilot will be carried out in a neighborhood that has been selected by city to participate in an upgrading program. Under Kigali’s upgrading program, unplanned settlements are improved through the provision of services such as water, electricity access, and roads.

One of the most challenging, but potentially most valuable, aspects of this study will be the development of a panel of unplanned settlement residents who will take part in the surveys. The survey group will be based on basic demographic characteristics such as household size, average household monthly income, and household members’ age, gender, marital status, location, level of education, occupation, and ownership of specific assets. Laterite and Kigali will work on the creation of the panel with community leaders and civil society organizations at the district, sector, and cell level.

Once created, this household panel, in conjunction with the SMS survey tool, could be used by Kigali and other public institutions to obtain information and/or feedback on a variety of other issues affecting the residents of unplanned settlements, including the impact of different city policies and programs on different segments of the areas’ populations.

If surveys are conducted with an adequate assurance of participant anonymity to encourage honest communication, this level of citizen feedback could improve citizen inclusion in effective city management. The data collection and analysis offered by this study could give Kigali faster, cheaper, and more nuanced data than it has access to at present. If proven effective, the SMS survey tool could potentially be used by more government agencies in the future to obtain data on other issues affecting different groups within Rwanda’s population. To this end, Laterite is currently working on creating a Kigali City panel, an almost fully representative panel of Kigali citizens, consisting of approximately 10,000 people who have signed up to participate in future conTEXT surveys.

With accurate, real-time data to guide infrastructure and other investment strategies and decisions, Kigali’s high and increasing population density could be an advantage rather than a challenge. Greater density allows for more business linkages to develop through more frequent social and economic interactions. It makes new infrastructure investments—such as public transportation systems—more financially viable. It also facilitates a more cost-effective delivery of public services, such as health, education, and electricity.

A larger urban population also means the availability of a greater number of skilled workers, which is necessary to advance Rwanda’s industrialization. A focus on industrial growth in Rwanda, and in Africa more broadly, is of key importance in the wake of the commodity super cycle collapse. The Rwandan government is currently developing a number of special economic zones in order to cluster industrial firms and activity. Having skilled workers in proximity to these zones is therefore vital.

Securing access to important population and urbanization dynamics data will be invaluable for Kigali and the Rwandan government, as it will enable them to design and implement appropriate urban policies and programs to better address current and future urbanization trends. This will allow them to harness and shape Kigali’s urbanization to create a more efficient and productive city. Africa’s cities have the potential to spark the continent’s economic transformation, and developing data to support evidence-based urban growth policies will be a crucial step in this direction.


Mallory Baxter is a senior research associate at Laterite and specializes in public finance, policy analysis, and program evaluation. 

Sarah Logan is a lawyer and development economist with a background in foreign investment, natural resource management, and public administration.

[Photo courtesy of Simisa]

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