Understanding small and intermediate urban centres in Sub-Saharan Africa

As urbanization in Africa continues at high rates, there appears to be a revived interest in urban centres other than large cities. Often called small and intermediate urban centres, these are however difficult to define and categorise, in terms of lower threshold and upper threshold. For example, what makes an urban centre not a village? And what makes it too big to be called “small”?

In a paper published by the Urban ARK institute, David Satterthwhaite, who has produced extensive work on the issue, evokes the need for a more precise definition of small and intermediate urban centres, but also points out the pitfalls of such a rigid categorization, arguing instead for a better understanding of the rural-urban continuum.

According to Satterthwhaite, Sub-Saharan Africa has “approximatively thousands of urban centres with under 20,000 inhabitants and probably over 1,000 with between 20,000 and 49,999 inhabitants” (p:3).  Yet, “it is not possible to generalize about demographic trends in small urban centres” (p:13) . These proportions vary a lot between countries: 24.6% of Gabon’s population lives in urban centres with under 20,000 inhabitants, while this percentage is only 2.9% in Kenya.

These results need to be approached very carefully as definitional methods vary a lot between countries. Some definitions put more emphasis on the cities’ settlement size, while some will focus more on the economic function of the urban centre, or its administrative importance. Perhaps the best indicator, Satterthwhaite argues, would be to look at the decreasing percentage of active population working in agriculture, and map income sources which are not from it.

Yet, even this definition does not catch the variety of functional forward and backward linkages between rural and urban environments. For example, it does not capture how rural households depend on urban income resource through remittances, or how on the other hand urban dwellers depend on food produced in rural areas.

The main issue arousing from these definitional problem, however, lies in the potential changes such a definition can have in terms of resource allocation to these small and medium urban centres. Given most government and international agency programmes still function along the rural-urban divide, “one worry is that if such a settlement is seen as ‘rural’ by government agencies, it may inhibit the development there of infrastructure and services that would have strong economic and social benefits” (p:12).

As the demographic and economic importance of small and medium urban centres seems to be increasingly acknowledged, Satterthwhaite concludes with the necessity to now better identify and act on the risks these urban centres face. They often face many types of risks, mainly a lack of water and sanitation facilities, but nevertheless have very “little local capacity to address it”(p:23).

Article available via open access from Urban Africa Risk Knowledge.


Publication Type Working paper
Publisher Urban ARK
Year 2016
Author(s) David Satterthwaite
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