Demographic growth and digital transitions: 3 African city leaders’ advice to their Mayors

The planet has reached 8 billion inhabitants according to UN mid-November this year. Since 2007 when the balanced tipped and the majority of the world’s population started living in urban settings, cities are the fastest growing demographic hubs. Among them, African cities are top contestants.

Lagos, Nigeria, is said to welcome approximately 2000 people a day that come to the city to find jobs and opportunities and they very rarely go back. The city is also estimated to double in size between 2015 and 2030. But how does that growth combine with sometimes lacking infrastructure, insufficiently safe and healthy living conditions for all or a local administration that struggles to offer quality services for all?

During Smart City Expo, in Barcelona last November, we spoke with 3 city leaders, experienced practitioners that have been leading innovative digital projects on their territory. The main question we asked them, how can digital & tech support Mayors in their quest to transform their cities, in a context of increased uncertainties and fast demographic growth?

“Don’t be scared of the unknown, believe in your capacities to overcome challenges. As long as you’re a changemaker in a city you have to open your path and create new frameworks.” Aminata Lo, Director of the urban planning and development, Nouakchott Region, Nouakchott, Mauritania

Three years ago, Nouakchott decided to tackle once and for all the thorny problem of the addressing system in the city. Several past attempts failed because the city was growing faster than the administration could map and register. Their first thoughts were “we are a Region itself, we need to have the capacity to manage our addressing system’’ and now they are in the process of achieving this with the support of the national state.

First, they decided to use digital tools, which were not part of the solution before. “Today, besides the normative framework that isn’t still 100% clear, all challenges we had at the beginning were tackled” says Aminata. Nouakchott managed to unify all stakeholders (companies, civil society, politicians) around a common theme, which was something that they weren’t used to do. Together they were able to tackle the right issue and to find solutions together. Then the group was able to impulse a change and to work in a new framework that wasn’t existing before. The technical solution has been tested in a neighbourhood and with some finetuning it’s ready to the scaled up.

The most challenging part for us is the legal framework”, Aminata continues. Since 2018, with the creation of Nouakchott Region as the legal entity in charge of the urban development of the city, there is no clear text of law that sets the perimeter over the addressing system. There is already a consensus within the Council supporting the technical solution and the Action Plan developed by Aminata’s team and work with the national government is underway to give clear path to the Region to implement the new addressing system. Aminata is confident. As she says: “Don’t be scared of the unknown, believe in your capacities to overcome challenges. As long as you’re a changemaker in a city you have to open your path and create new frameworks.

“Use data in your decision-making processes, if you want the administration to be more solid and transparent in front of its citizens.” Randolf Wilson, Head of the Transportation Department, Kumasi Municipality, Kumasi, Ghana

Back in 2019, Kumasi made a choice of sustainability. Instead of starting another project on mobility, definitely necessary but difficult to maintain once the funding stopped, Hon. Osei Assibey Antwi then the Mayor of the city, together with a team of top executives decided to make a bold move. They decided to look into one of the grey zones of the city administration — a crucial and equally complex area — tax collection. Their question: how can we make our administration more autonomous in our project management and also more accountable in front of our citizens?

Fast forward to late 2022, the city was able to update their data regarding business and private housing in one of the five neighbourhoods of the city. By November 2022, this lead a steady monthly increase of 16% in tax collection with respect to 2021. All the data collected on the field is being automatically transferred to a central data centre where the information is used across the different Departments of the Municipality. “Making data the common denominator among the various sectors and policy areas, allows us as a team to function better and make smarter decisions for our city in the long run”, Randy adds.

Kumasi administration is divided in five sub-divisions, one of them was chosen for the pilot. Once the system was tested, the aim is to scale-up the program to the other areas and to other axes as well. The action plan detailing the roll-out was voted by the General Assembly. Randy is confident about the outcome. “Technical solutions give you updated data that allows you to collect more taxes and make projects more sustainable.

“Look at the challenges as opportunities and communicate with your citizens. Change is hard for everyone but as long as you hear people out and consider their needs, even the most ambitious projects can succeed.” Hamadou B Yalcouye, Deputy Director General, Regional Development Agency of Bamako, Bamako, Mali

Like Kumasi and many other local governments around the world, Bamako was confronted with the challenge of doing more with less and for the Mayor and his team, keep the promises made to their citizens. Furthermore, many sub-Saharan countries have delegated only some key competences to local level like healthcare or education. Very often digital transition is not one of them. But how do you provide better services, adapted to users’ habits and needs without using digital & tech? The answer Hamadou gives is simple “You can’t”. He also adds, with regards to the approach taken by Bamako: “We realised that we can work on digitalisation only if it is linked with the modernisation of our administration. Next, we decided to look into the only one tax that is 100% managed by the City Hall. This way we could have a clear picture of what we were doing and adjust in real time.”

Bamako first created a local action group that gave equal voice to politicians, citizens and NGOs and also private companies and start-ups. The first challenge for this group of stakeholders was to make sure they were speaking the same language and understanding each other. “When we explained our need to modernise the collection of the two-wheels yearly tax “vignette” to our private partners, they came up with a solution in one day. It was great but it wasn’t any good to us. Only when we explained them how our administration system works, which are the internal procedures and what’s the tax collection flow, they were able to propose something that was in line with citizens’ needs and functional for us.

The web platform “Ikavignette” (meaning “your vignette” in Bamabara language) that was co-designed through this process, allows today citizens to pay online their tax using mobile solutions and also increases the financial resources of the Municipality (3M € before the tax, now estimations of 9M€), allowing politicians and civil servants to have a clear view on their budget estimates and track the evolution during the fiscal year. It also brings more transparency between politicians and the citizens, who see how much they contributed and how the money will be used afterwards. Looking back at the whole journey, Hamadou, adds: “At the beginning of our project, citizens felt attacked by our work. Now everyone likes it. Throughout the whole process, we had to stop several times and make sure their needs and ideas were heard end embedded in the solution. It was crucial for us to think from their point of view before jumping directly into execution.

What these three projects have in common is a non-linear approach to service design, working with citizens and private stakeholders alike, using small-scale experimentations and frequent iterations to implement services that best fit users’ needs. In situations of rapid demographic growth, blended with scarcity of resources, approaches like the ones above show that city leaders can be one step ahead and innovate in a rapid changing environment.

Nouakchott, Bamako and Kumasi are part of ASToN, a network of 11 African cities using digital tools to overcome local and global challenges. Through peer exchange and learning, engaging local stakeholders and taking a results-oriented approach, these cities are making their territories more sustainable and inclusive places to live and work.

You can read more about ASToN here

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ASToN Network

ASToN network brings 11 African cities together to develop digital practices in order to create sustainable & inclusive cities.