State of African Cities report – Does it reflect the reality of Addis Ababa?

On 28 of February UN-Habitat released its State of African Cities report, with a focus on “re-imagining sustainable urban transitions.” Having lived in Addis Ababa for the last nine months, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare the information presented in the latest report with my own personal experience and knowledge of the city. From which I could assess the relative accuracy and usefulness of the information presented in the report and whether is reflects the reality ‘on the ground’ so to speak.

The section headings below reflect those used in the State of Africa Cities report where Addis Ababa is mentioned and I have added my reflections on the information provided.

Urban Spatial Transitions

The first reference to Addis Ababa comes in the report’s discussion about urban spatial transitions, specifically the stage referred to as Extended Metropolitan Regions. These Extended Metropolitan Regions are defined as “…a large to very large regional urban system comprising multiple towns and other settlements, centred on a single metropolitan core and which functions as a de facto single urban entity.” Presumably in the case of Addis Ababa this refers to the urban corridors that link the city with the nearby towns of Bishoftu, Sabeta, and Holeta, which have a combined population of approximately 4 million.

The report states that the Extended Metropolitan Region of Addis Ababa and other African cities “…could soon qualify as de facto “megacities” if a wider concept than that dictated by somewhat artificial administrative municipal boundaries is taken into account.”

This prediction has some merit, particularly given that the Addis Ababa-Bishoftu corridor is part of the busiest transport route in the country (with the worst traffic!). It will also soon be linked by a brand new expressway that will extend all the way to the regional city of Adama/Nazret, which is likely to encourage further urban development and growth. However, the area between Addis Ababa and Adama/Nazret remain important agricultural areas and rapid urban development along this corridor could be problematic and highly contested.

In addition, it is worth noting that many areas on the periphery of Addis Ababa retain a very rural character, with agricultural land-use practices still predominating and only limited urban development. So it remains to be seen whether the classification as an extended metropolitan region or mega-city would be an accurate description, given many areas close to Addis could not really be considered as ‘metropolitan’ in the conventional sense.

Urban Greening

The next reference in the report to Addis Ababa is regarding the city’s “urban greening strategies.” In this section it mentions the construction of the new light rail, the management of ecosystems that provide critical environmental goods and service to the city, and the establishment of green growth priorities. There isn’t enough detail to make any judgements on the information presented in this part of the report. But suffice to say these strategies are still yet to prove themselves as making a significant contribution to the environmental sustainability of the city.

Population and Urbanisation rates in East Africa

According to the data contained in this section of the report, Addis Ababa is the third largest city in the region with a population of just under 3 million in 2011. Albeit is projected to have the slowest urban growth rate of the nine largest cities in East Africa from 2010 to 2020, reaching a population of 4.7 million by 2025. This seems at odds with the report’s earlier prediction about the Extended Metropolitan Region of Addis Ababa becoming a de facto mega-city, given that implies a population of over 10 million (unless they are expecting another 3-4 million people to be living in the urban corridors).

It is also worth highlighting that Ethiopia remains a predominantly rural population with only about 4% of the total population living in Addis Ababa itself. As such, there is the potential for the projected population growth rate of the city to increase dramatically, due to an influx of people from rural areas as a result of climate change or other factors that could trigger rural-urban migration. Therefore, the projected growth trends given in the report need to be taken with some caution.

Poverty and Inequality

In this section the report states that Addis Ababa had an unemployment rate of 31% in 2008 (presumably this refers to formal employment). The accuracy and usefulness of this statistics is questionable, given that the data is somewhat dated and the important role played by the informal sector in the city. I can’t help but wonder if this figure would be very different now due to all the urban development and construction activities occurring across the city, which is providing employment opportunities but also negatively affecting some small businesses. However, it is very difficult to assess these figures based on my experience alone.

Urban Governance

The report states that Addis Ababa has the highest proportion and the highest absolute number of slum dwellers in the East Africa region. I certainly can’t dispute these figures as I have seen many of these so-called ‘informal settlements’ across all parts of the city. However, many of the houses in the informal settlements in Addis Ababa are made from traditional materials (mud, timber and straw). As a result, the character of informal settlements in Addis Ababa is somewhat unique compared to the other African cities I have visited, such as Nairobi, Durban, and Cape Town, where informal housing often consists of corrugated iron shacks or a combination of corrugated iron and concrete bricks.

Moreover, given that this type of housing is also prevalent in rural areas and regional cities in Ethiopia, it begs the questions of whether ‘slum dwellers’ is an appropriate term for the Addis Ababa context. It also makes the distinction between conventional classifications of urban and rural poverty and formal and informal housing somewhat fuzzy.

The report also notes in this section that “strong centralised governance in exercised in Ethiopia…over functions, control mechanisms, and services…although a level of decentralised has occurred in Addis Ababa.” Presumably this refers to the devolution of responsibility for service delivery to the Addis Ababa City Government and its status as a charted city.

However, there is no discussion of whether this has resulted in any genuine improvements in service delivery or urban management. Anecdotal evidence and my own observations indicate that there remains enormous gaps in the administrative capacity within public sector organisations at all levels in Ethiopia, including the City Government.

In addition, an authoritarian culture remains pervasive in many government agencies reducing the ability for autonomous and responsive governance. In my experience it seems that it is primarily the adaptability and resilience of the residents in Addis Ababa (as discussed in a previous post), particularly those working in the informal sector, that enables the city to continue functioning relatively effectively in the absence of effective urban management and governance.

This section of the report also states that “in Addis Ababa some 40% of housing stock is formal, yet 26% of those in formal housing lack access to toilets; 33% share toilets with more than six families; and 34% rely on public water taps that have unreliable supply.”

These figures date back to 2008 and so the accuracy and relevance of these figures is questionable given the high levels of urban development and housing construction that has occurred in Addis Ababa over the last five years. However, it is likely that many people still lack access to sanitation facilities as it is very common to see men urinating in the streets or people bathing in drains and rivers located in the city. Moreover, due to the construction of new urban infrastructure in the city, most prominently the light rail network, many houses and businesses have faced intermitted and unreliable water and electricity supplies across the city, which has affected residents of all socioeconomic standings.

Access to Services

In this section the report states that “…in 2005, 96.9% of Addis Ababa’s population enjoyed access to electricity, 68.8% had access to piped water but access to sewerage was still low, at 8.9%.” This is arguably the most misleading statistic in the report, because ‘access’ to electricity and piped water does not mean that power or water are actually available, not to mention that these stats are almost a decade old.

As mentioned above, there have been city-wide electricity and water shortage in Addis Ababa over the last year, which is largely as a result of ageing electricity and water distribution networks and large-scale construction activities. Some of these networks are being upgraded, which will hopefully improve the reliably of water and electricity supply as well as extend access to more residents. However, it remains to be seen what the improvements will be and more up-to-date data is required.

Culture and Identity

In this section the report states that “…even in cities that were once praised for diversity and pluralism, such as Addis Ababa, the emergence of gated communities and sprawl threatens to eradicate any memory of tolerant coexistence.” This appears to be an unsubstantiated statement, and from my experience in Addis Ababa the city still retains many areas where households from different socioeconomic standings and cultures live side by side. Moreover, as I mentioned in a previous post, the city does not have the same stark contrast between rich and poor areas that is exhibited in many other African cities.

However, this pluralism is likely to change if the growth in urban development projects targeted at middle and upper class households continues and in the process squeezes out the remaining lower class households. But as it stands the current ad-hoc nature of urban development in Addis has yet to result in the development of large-scale enclaves of prosperity or poverty and it is still very common to see informal housing next to high rise apartment complexes.


As the analysis above demonstrates, the information presented in the State of African cities report about Addis Ababa does not always depict an accurate picture of the current circumstance facing the city and it residents, at least when compared to my own experience and knowledge. I am sure that the authors of the report would concede this fact, and would have been happy to include more up-to-date data if it was readily available. However, I think UN-Habitat should be more up front regarding the reliability and accuracy of the statistical data it presents in reports such as these.

Given the dearth of data and the dynamic nature of urbanism in African cities, I think that the UN-Habitat should radically rethink its approach to the production of reports such as this. For example, they could consider a more open approach and transparent approach that enables people from African cities to contribute their own stories and data. Alternatively, publishing reports in a wiki style format could enable data to be updated more easily and comments and feedback to be provided on the accuracy of the information being presented.

One of the key messages in the State of Africa Cities report is that “Africa has few realistic options other than a profound reimagining of what exactly constitutes the road towards sustainable urban transitions.” So perhaps UN-Habitat could lead the way by reimagining how is compiles its data and publishes its reports.

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4 Responses to State of African Cities report – Does it reflect the reality of Addis Ababa?

    • Adrian Young says:

      Hi David. Thanks for the link. It confirms my suspicion that the UN Habitat’s data is often inaccurate. I also wonder what effort was made to seek more updated data for this latest report.

      By the way, I am honored that you read my post, as I am a big fan of your work with IIED around urban poverty and community-driven urban development processes. In particular, I found the ACCA case study to be very interesting, and a model that could not only be replicated in African cities, but also potentially in a rural development context as well.

      • david satterthwaite says:

        Thanks for your very nice comment. I worry about so many of the statistics that the UN and aid agencies and development banks use which suggest far more progress in achieving development goals than is the case on the ground – because standards are set too low or definitions so broad

        best wishes david

      • Adrian Young says:

        Yes I absolutely agree David. I thought the point that you and Diana Mitlin made in your recent book on urban poverty about the fact that the use of the $1.25 a day baseline to measure urban and rural poverty ignores the cost of living differences, despite the fact UN agencies have their own cost of living indexes for setting wage scales in different cities, was very pertinent indeed!

        I wonder if all UN agencies should be required to adopt the same approach as the IPCC and indicate the level of confidence in their figures when using data and statistics?

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