London — A shortage of job opportunities has slowed migration from rural to urban areas in many parts of Africa over the last two decades, and has even reversed it in a few cases, an expert on African demography says.
But African cities will continue to grow, experts predict, because fertility rates among city dwellers are not declining as much as expected - one reason Africa's population is set to more than double by 2050.
Contrary to expectations, countries like Ivory Coast, Mali, Zambia and Central African Republic have seen periods in the last 20 years when more city dwellers have moved to rural areas than vice versa, said Deborah Potts, a Kings College London demographer who looks at urbanisation trends in sub-Saharan Africa.
In many parts of the region, "you have tremendous counter-movements out of the cities back to rural areas... because people are finding it really hard to find livelihoods that will sustain them in the cities," she said during a presentation at the Chatham House think tank in London.
This outwards migration has slowed the expected rate of population growth in some African cities such as Lagos, Potts said. That could have important implications for urban planners and for national preparations to deal with climate change.
The lack of jobs in African cities may also challenge widely held assumptions that rural families hit by increasingly extreme weather will be able to adapt by moving to cities or sending family members to work there.
Farmers affected by worsening droughts may move to towns or cities, Potts said, but "there are no livelihood activities for them and if there are no such activities, they will just be refugees. That's a different kind of urbanisation."
In fact, faced with food shortages and weather disasters like flooding, African city dwellers may actually move - temporarily or permanently - to rural areas to try to cope, said Deborah Sporton, an Africa expert and human geography lecturer at Britain's University of Sheffield.
In Africa, rural and urban areas "are very much connected", she added.
RURAL FOR DECADES?
According to U.N. estimates, Africa's population is expected to double by 2050, from 1.1 billion people today to 2.3 billion. That projection is based in part on fertility rates falling from an average of 5.1 children per woman to 3 children per woman.
But that expected decline - based on predictions of increasing urbanisation in Africa and evidence from Asia that many urban dwellers want smaller families - "is completely uncertain", Sporton said.
Better education for women, reductions in child mortality and higher incomes have driven falling birth rates in many parts of the world, particularly in towns and cities. But urban Africa, with its shortage of jobs and persistently high rates of child and maternal mortality, has not seen the declines expected.
Today in Africa, "most urban population growth comes from natural increase in the cities and not from migration. This comes as a surprise to most people," Potts said.
Asia - not Africa - remains the world's fastest urbanising region, she said, noting that Africa "may remain primarily rural for decades", in part because of a lack of employment opportunities in cities.
The African cities that have been growing most quickly are mainly those like Luanda in Angola or Port Harcourt in Nigeria which have benefited from resource booms in commodities such as oil, timber and gold, Potts said. Other fast-growing cities - including several in northern Uganda - have absorbed refugees from conflicts in neighbouring countries.
Recent Chinese investment in African roads, ports and railways has created construction jobs, but most are temporary and unable to support urban families in the long run, Potts added.
Since 2005, birth rate declines have slowed dramatically in some African countries and halted entirely in others, Sporton said. Today, women in Niger, Somalia, Burundi, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Uganda and Burkina Faso can expect to deliver at least six children on average, a birth rate matched in the rest of the world only by Afghanistan.
"We're not seeing fertility decline as expected (in Africa). What we are seeing is some of the highest fertility rates in the world," Sporton said.