The third edition of AFRI CONVERSE 2021 kicked off with experts from Japan, Singapore, and Africa sharing insights on leveraging the transformative power of urbanisation to accelerate the development of cities in Africa.

The conversation focused on current progress, hurdles and investment opportunities to create cities across the continent that are both smart and sustainable.

The Director of UNDP’s Representation Office in Tokyo Mr. Tetsuo Kondo noted that, by 2050, two-thirds of the global population (6.5 billion people) will be living in cities.

“When looking at the current COVID-19 pandemic, we see that 90 per cent of infected people are residing in cities. We absolutely need a solution to improve living conditions and the quality of life for people in cities, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

According to Mr. Takeshi Oikawa, Managing Director and Partner for the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the pandemic has revealed some of the shortcomings of urban centres in Africa. Using Kenya as an example, from a recent joint study by BCG and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Oikawa highlighted areas for improvement.

“COVID-19 has certainly highlighted transportation and safety challenges in urban areas. Despite the risk of COVID-19 transmission, many people continued to use matatu (mini-bus), which is generally overcrowded and not safe for physical distancing They do sobecause they cannot afford other means of transport when their income was affected by the pandemic . This presents an investment opportunity to develop safer yet affordable transport systems for the future,” said Mr. Oikawa.

Mr Oikawa also highlighted that access to the internet is a key concern as it remains unaffordable for many in Kenya, and across Africa. JICA and BCG findings also show that to ensure people in African urban centres are not left behind in the digital revolution, cities ought to provide broader and affordable access to the internet especially for lower-income populations.

Ms. Asuka Tsuboike, Senior Director of the Urban and Regional Development Group, Infrastructure Management Department at JICA, suggested putting in place digital and manual tracking technologies for scenarios such as COVID-19, as well as for future pandemics.

“Data and analytics are vital for early detection and response. There is a need for more area-focused, evidence-based, real time data collection, coordination and management,” said Ms. Tsuboike.

She however added, “The smart city solution is not a “one size fits all” approach but is based on a number of detailed approaches taking into consideration the specific challenges each city would like to overcome.”

Sharing these sentiments, Mr. Calum Handforth, UNDP Advisor on Smart Cities and Digitalisation, said that there needs to be a redefinition of the popular perception that smart cities are futuristic hubs of technology.

“A smart city is not just about technology, but is also about innovation more broadly, and includes elements such as nature-based solutions, local knowledge, behaviour change, good urban planning, citizen engagement in policymaking processes, and collective intelligence. So, it’s not just about 5G, it’s also about nature and people,” he said.

He further pointed out that sustainable cities and communities are fundamental and interwoven into each of the 17 SDGs.

UNDP Technical Expert on Smart Cities and Digitalisation Ms. Elba Fuster Figuerola said an increasingly smart city enhances relations between key innovation actors. Building the local innovation ecosystem can serve to generate employment opportunities, attract and retain national talent and thus mitigate against a country’s ‘brain drain’.

She however highlighted the environmental challenges brought about by the development of megacities. “Cities generate 70 per cent of greenhouse gases, consume two thirds of the world’s energy, and are particularly at risk from climate change.”

An example of how talent and innovation can step up to the myriad of challenges facing cities was provided by  Mr. Franc Kamugyisha, CEO of Ecoplastile in Uganda, who has turned plastic waste into plastic timbers and roofing tiles in his home country.

Globally, more than 90 per cent of plastic is never recycled and a staggering 8 million tons are estimated to end up in oceans and water supplies annually.

“I witnessed the dire consequences of poor waste disposal and a housing crisis. This is how I decided to launch Ecoplastile, a social enterprise, whose mission it is to recycle plastics into sustainable building materials while creating 2,000 jobs for the marginalised,” explained Mr. Kamugyisha.

UNDP is committed to working with African governments, the Government of Japan, the private sector, and other partners to realise a new and more inclusive African development agenda. Smart and sustainable cities in Africa are central to this collaborative effort.

AFRI CONVERSE will continue to be held bi-monthly and build momentum for the Tokyo International Conference on Africa’s Development 8 (TICAD 8) by mobilising a diverse range of stakeholders from Africa and Japan to find the best solutions for the continent.

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