Africa’s emerging mega-cities

Tokyo skyline in morning mist

By 2050 the world’s urban population will have increased by two thirds, climbing from 3.9 billion people presently to a projected 6.3 billion, according to the United Nations’ estimates. Nearly 90 percent of this growth will take place in Africa and Asia, resulting in over 20 percent of the world’s urban population living in African cities.

Most of the urban population growth will likely take place within medium sized cities of less than one million people or small settlements of under 500,000 people. But in several African countries new mega-cities of more than 10 million people are rapidly emerging. Africa is already home to three mega-cities (Cairo, Lagos and Kinshasa) and this number is predicted to double by 2050. Cities on this scale are a relatively new phenomenon. New York was the first mega-city to emerge in the 1950s and to date only 21 nations have any experience with them. As such, they pose a unique set of problems as well as opportunities.

The three up and coming African mega-cities are Johannesburg, Dar es Salaam and Luanda. These cities are all significant trade and economic hubs. Johannesburg will be the first African mega-city that is not on the coast or next to a large river. The images and figures below show the developing footprint over the last 25 years of these nascent African mega-cities. These are colossal urban spaces arriving at exactly the point where climate change, post-industrial economies and informality are raising many questions around the form and function of Africa’s cities.

Are our new mega-cities likely to look different to those that have developed over the last 50 years? If not, should they? The change in the images below took place over 25 years, implying that there is still a significant amount of growth to come in the next 25 years and therefore the potential to ensure a positive path forward.


Dar es Salaam, Tanzania



Johannesburg, South Africa



Luanda, Angola



(A note on images and mapping: This set of images are not at comparative scales due to significant area differences, legibility, oddly cropped source images and a lack of consistent spatial data. The need for historical data where little existed means that a large amount of this is interpreted by hand from a combination of satellite and aerial imagery, with all the looseness that implies. Apologies for anything that edges uncomfortably close to artistic license here).


Mark Jackson is an editorial intern at UrbanAfrica.Net with a background in environmental sciences as well as city and regional planning. He is presently studying at UCT in the engineering and built environment department, doing research into the project management success factors behind large scale urban developments.

Data sources:

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2015. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, (ST/ESA/SER.A/366).

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2015. World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP.241.

Mapping data:

© OpenStreetMap contributors

USGS Landsat

Map tile set by Stamen Design used under CC BY 3.0

Photo Credit:

Rob M, via flickr

Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply