Conceptualising slum in an urban African context

The urban age is unfolding, with more than half of the world population now living in cities and urbanisation set to increase by a further 2.5 billion people by the year 2050ii,iii. This situation places excessive strain on cities to plan for and manage the increase in urbanites and their demand for housing, employment and access to basic infrastructure and services; a situation that is becoming vastly untenable for many cities, particularly those in the developing world. Most urban economies in developing countries are unable to meet these basic needs, leading to the emergence of slums or informal settlementsiv.

Slums are generally defined and analysed along various dimensions including: (i) physical characteristics – as pertaining to housing typology, access to services and infrastructure; (ii) social characteristics based on income, employment and economic activity; and (iii) legal characteristics related to land ownership and adherence to planning regulationsv, vi,viii. Notably, these definitions do not consider access to electricity as a measure, which is problematic because about 60% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lack electricityviii. Recent studies are also highlighting the role of electricity in meeting 15 out of the 15 Sustainable Development Goalsix. Using the conventional categorization, slums are conceptualised to fluctuate between Formal and Informal, Legal and Illegal, and Planned and Unplanned, as depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Slum types based on conventional categorisation.

It should be noted that settlement types are not static and may evolve and/or devolve over time. Each settlement type may also be recognised as having a unique set of issues that need to be addressed, thereby creating a framework for deeper analysis of the different slum types and particularly as related to the political context in which they exist viii. For example, the emergence of slums in South Africa is closely tied to the social and political history of the nationx, xi, xii. Furthermore, in considering the political context of South Africa, another category of description emerges, related to the notion of Legitimacy/Illegitimacy.

Figure 2: South African typology of settlements.

Informality should be understood as produced by the state itself through its legal and planning apparatus which determine what is informal or not, who is deserving or not vii. Legitimacy here therefore highlights the complex political struggle associated with recognition by state and as negated through the implementation of technical solutions that do not address socio-political issues. The issue of legitimacy is used to indicate the possible stance taken by formal or government entities based on the provision of infrastructure and level of legal compliance.

Although useful for recognising the physical, infrastructural and legal dimensions of slums, the typology of settlement types should not be employed as the sole basis for understanding slums, but rather as a starting point from which further analysis, including the metabolic dimension, may be applied.


i. This vignette is based on work stemming from Suzanne Smit’s PhD and is an extract from the published paper: Smit, S., Musango, J.K., Kovacic, Z., & Brent, A.C. 2017. Conceptualising slum in an urban African context. Cities, 62:107-119.
ii. UN-DESA (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs) 2014. World urbanization prospects: The 2014 revision. Accessed 28 March 2016 from:
iii. UN-Habitat (United Nations – Human Settlements Programme) 2015. Habitat III: Issue paper 22 – Informal settlements (non edited version 2.0). Paper produced for the UN conference on housing and sustainable urban development, held October 2016. Paper produced in New York, May 2015. Accessed 10 March 2016 from:
iv. UN-Habitat (United Nations – Human Settlements Programme). 2010. The challenge of slums. Global report on Human settlements: revised and updated version (April, 2010) Accessed 8 February 2016, from
v. Srinivas, H. 2015. Defining squatter settlements. GDRC research output E-036. Kobe, Japan: Global Development Research Center Accessed 9 February 2016 from
vi. Turok, I. 2015. Upgrade informal settlements: South Africa. New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy. 2015: 11–15.
vii. Roy, A. 2005. Urban informality: Toward an epistemology of planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 71(2), 147–158.
viii. IEA (International Energy Agency). 2015. World energy outlook. Accessed 14 September 2016 from:
ix. Schwerhoff, G., & Sy, M. 2016. Financing renewable energy in Africa – Key challenge of the sustainable development goals. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. [n Press].
x. Hunter, M., & Posel, D. 2012. Here to work: The socioeconomic characteristics of informal dwellers in post-apartheid South Africa. Environment and Urbanization, 24: 285–304.
xi. Harrison, P. 1992. The policies and politics of informal settlement in South Africa: A historical perspective. Africa Insight, 22(1): 14–22.
xii. Urban Foundation (South Africa). 1991. Informal housing: Urban debate 2010. Braamfontein: Urban Foundation.

The 20 most resource intense African cities

Making the shift towards global sustainability requires direct focus on both cities as centres of resource consumption, economic activity, social upliftment and environmental threat, and resource flows and the infrastructure systems that conduct them. In order to compare the sustainability of cities, a resource consumption baseline is useful, particularly to draw out similarities between cities. This can then inform urban decision makers about which infrastructure interventions may be suitable in similar contexts to theirs, and thus find where partnerships may be formed.

The global typology of cities was produced in 2010i. However, when compared with multiple global cities, African cities show very low levels of consumption. This is often confused as being resource efficient, as opposed to lacking equitable access to resources. The agenda for urban practitioners in contexts of local resource deprivation and global calls for reductions in consumption, is to provide greater access to services in a resource efficient manner. The inquiry by Currie and Musangoii aims to draw our the subtleties of resource consumption in African cities which are lost in global comparisons.

1Africa Resource Consumption top 20sm
Figure a & b: 20 most resource intense African cities

Figures a and b represent one output of this inquiry and display the twenty most resource intense cities on the continent in terms of overall consumption (a) and consumption per-person (b). Both maps also show the proportions of biomass, fossil fuels and construction & industrial minerals consumed in each city. This is useful for speculating about the level of development of industry, as well as quality of life enjoyed in these cities, both of which are correlated to consumption of fossil fuel energy. A few insights are shared here:

Figure a shows most of the continents large cities, which are understandably the largest consumers of resources. Notably, Cairo, Alexandria, Algiers, Johannesburg, Tshwane, Durban and Cape Town consume larger proportions of fossil fuel and less biomass than most other cities, which relate to the strong economies and lower proportions of informal settlements seen in Northern and Southern Africa. Cities in Eastern, Middle and Western Africa show larger proportions of biomass consumption, suggesting that this may still be the predominant energy carrier and construction material. Notably, with the exception of Lusaka and Nouakchott (largely extractive economies) these cities are absent in Figure b. This suggests that, despite their size, citizens experience lower levels of resource consumption in these cities. Northern and Southern cities are widely present in this map, congruent with the stronger economies and higher quality of life. Zambian cities, Windhoek Libreville and Nouakchott show high material consumption, likely due to mineral processing and refining present therein.

High water consumption curiously takes place in cities in water scarce countries. This could reflect a larger need for industrial and residential water in dry spaces, or better tracking of water consumption due to only limited sources of water.

Only 31 of 120 cities examined are showcased here. The quantities of resource consumption are likely overestimates as they are scaled from national data. However, they prove useful for comparison between cities and as starting points for cities in which minimal city-level data is collected.


i. Saldivar-Sali, A. 2010. A Global Typology of Cities: Classification Tree Analysis of Urban Resource Consumption. Cambridge: MIT, September.
ii. Currie, P.K. and J.K. Musango. 2016. African Urbanization: Assimilating Urban Metabolism into Sustainability Discourse and Practice: African Urbanization. Journal of Industrial Ecology.

Differential African Resource Consumption

As part of an inquiry into the resource implications of rapid African urbanisation, we present 25 maps which depict differential population size, urban proportion and consumption of materials and energy, as well as carbon emissions for 53 of 54 African nations. Such maps are necessary tools for shifting discussion away from ‘a singular Africa,’ particularly in the context of urbanisation and resource requirements. What follows is a (by-no-means exhaustive) discussion of what we observe from these maps.

Africa has a population of almost 1.2 billion people, 30% of which is concentrated in five countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (64 million), Ethiopia (89 million), Egypt (79 million) Nigeria (164 million) and South Africa (51 million). Countries that have the highest proportion of urban dwellers, such as Algeria, Djibouti, Gabon, Gambia, Libya and Republic of the Congo, have smaller overall populations. The overall population of the country shows some correlation to the level of aggregate resource consumption, while the level of urbanisation shows direct links to the level of per capita resource consumption. This is partly due to our expectation that urbanisation typically promotes diversification and strengthening of economies, processes which require more resources. Whether urbanisation in Africa is driven by industrialisation or demographic shifts is a debate for another place – though it should be cognisant that each country will differ.

Africa Resources Currie May Consumption Metabolism uMAMA
click map for quality version

Comparing the aggregate consumption level of these countries is useful for global comparisons of consumption, as well as to understand which countries are most responsible for global environmental issues. Comparing per capita consumption may be a better for comparing the resource consumption as it relates to a country’s economy or the quality of life of its population.

Aggregate Consumption

When looking at energy, Northern Africa, Nigeria and South Africa show the highest consumption of fossil fuels and electricity, resulting in high carbon emissions. Due to investment in cheap, non-renewable electricity, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and South Africa show the largest emissions of carbon dioxide. In this way, as much as the global North must accept responsibility for climate change and historical atmospheric pollution, Africa too has its own continental reprobates. These high energy consumers have notably small proportions of renewable electricity generation compared to Middle and East African countries, who are utilizing available hydro-electric and geothermal resources. Egypt and Nigera may be exceptions: they produce a large amount of renewable electricity relative to other countries, but it still makes up only a small portion of their overall consumption. For countries with predominantly renewable electricity generation, their overall level of energy consumption tends to remain low - it will be important to continue to promote renewables here, perhaps through technology leapfrogging, instead of a transition to fossil fuel energy infrastructures. The lowest aggregate energy consumers are Saharan countries as well as Central African Republic, Namibia, Uganda, and Zambia.

Material consumption follows a similar pattern in which Northern countries, Nigeria and South Africa are the highest aggregate consumers of most materials except biomass. The highest biomass consumers are Ethiopia, Nigeria and Sudan, the highest construction material consumer is Egypt and the largest fossil fuel consumer is South Africa. Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Egypt, Mauritania, Egypt and South Africa show high consumption of Industrial Minerals and Ore. This may be a function of data availability, as it is unclear whether these countries show high consumption because they have large extractive industries or because they have strong industrial presence. It is likely a mix of both. The lack of infrastructure and institutions to process, refine and manage these resources represents a challenge described as Africa’s Resource curse, in which extractive economies remain entrenched and unable to diversify.

The levels of aggregate water consumption are somewhat curious as some of the highest consumers are notably water-scarce countries. This may be either due to water-scarce countries having more precise measurements of water consumption (as tracking scarce resources more prevalent, or a reflection of how warm, arid climates, prevalent in Northern and Southern Africa affect both household and industrial water needs.

Per Capita Consumption

South Africa, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria still dominate the consumption of Fossil Fuels, Electricity, Construction Materials, and Water even on per capita basis. They are still the biggest emitters of Carbon Dioxide. Nigeria is an exception as, even though it is a high aggregate consumer of resources, its share of its resources is diluted among a large population. Similarly, though Botswana and Namibia show low aggregate resource consumption, their share of resources is distributed over a small population, leading to quite high per capita consumption of resources.

If we equate resource consumption to quality of life, we might suggest that those living in Nigeria may enjoy a lower quality of life than those in Botswana. However, this does not necessarily take into account economic inequality in which most of the resources may be enjoyed by only a portion of the population, while the rest struggle to gain access to basic services. In this way, inequality measures would be important considerations for further investigation. This also highlights a challenge for promoting resource efficiency in much of the continent – the priority for national governments should be to provide resources those lacking basic services; however, it should be done in resource efficient manners to avoid lock-in to unsustainable infrastructure systems.

Per capita resource comparisons may also be useful for speculating about countries’ degree of progress along the socio-metabolic transition. This is the shift from agrarian economies, which primarily rely on biomass for construction and energy, to industrial economies which rely on fossil fuels for energy, make use of more industrial materials, and may make use of more energy intensive construction materials. Speculating thus, Northern and Southern African countries are farther along the socio-metabolic transition, with Kenya, Tanzania, Gabon, Angola, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Senegal also in transition. Saharan and Middle African Countries show the least progress along the socio-metabolic transition. These are overall speculations and is by no means a rigid categorisation, as pockets of industry, affluence and high quality of life will be present in all African countries.

Data from 2010.