Chad: New York Rents in the Sahara? Living in Africa's Most Expensive City

Storm clouds over N'Djamena (view from the Kempinski Hotel).

N'djamena — The city of N'Djamena on the edge of the Sahara was ranked the most expensive in Africa and 11th in the world this year, with residents saying the city is prohibitively expensive

Chad is one of the world's poorest countries, but in its capital, N'Djamena, rents rival those of New York or London at upwards of $2,000 a month for a two-bedroom flat in the city centre.

The dusty city on the edge of the Sahara was ranked the most expensive in Africa and 11th in the world this year by global consulting firm Mercer, which bases its annual index on the average cost of living for employees working abroad.

The ranking is aimed at expatriates, whose modern flats are a far cry from the tin-roofed shacks where many locals live.

But Chadians said that for them too the city is prohibitively expensive, with the price of housing and utilities in particular pushing many people out to neighbourhoods on the periphery with no roads, electricity or running water.

"Everything is expensive here," said taxi driver Mahamat Tahir, who spends his days in a cloud of hot fumes on the city's potholed streets, where roadsides are crammed with people selling peanuts and mosquito nets.

The minimum monthly wage is 60,000 CFA francs ($100) but Tahir estimated daily expenses to buy food and get around the city at about 5,000 CFA.

A typical roadside lunch is 2,000 CFA, and bringing home a small chicken for dinner costs twice that.

The numbers don't add up, said Tahir, and it causes constant financial stress.

Chad's landlocked location, oil-dependent economy and lack of infrastructure all contribute to the high prices, according to researchers. Nearly everything from food to clothing to furniture is imported and often by plane.

Although N'Djamena is at the far end of the spectrum on cost of living, it also exemplifies a problem across the continent, said Shohei Nakamura, an economist at the World Bank focusing on poverty and equity.

In a study published this year, Nakamura and colleagues found that African cities are on average at least 20% more expensive than cities in other parts of the world with similar income levels.

Goods and services such as transport, communications and housing are especially pricey, he said - mainly because the supply of decent housing and infrastructure falls far behind demand.

Williams Deonodji Ngargoto poses for a portrait outside his family home in N'Djamena, Chad. Photo taken November 25, 2019.

Chad's government spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

LUXURY PRODUCTS

Like many Chadians of his generation, Williams Deonodji Ngargoto has a good job but, in his thirties, still lives with his parents, siblings and cousins in the family home.

It is tradition to live with your family until you are married, he said, but also a necessity due to the rising cost of rent.

Frustrated with their situation after university, Ngargoto and a group of friends in 2014 created the Association Against the High Cost of Living, for which he is now the spokesman.

They hold protests and press conferences, and try to pressure the government to introduce reforms.

The group has had some successes, Ngargoto said, such as a reduction in the price of cooking fuel earlier this year and in 2017 the elimination of a tax on trucks entering N'Djamena market.

In May the government launched a "fair prices" initiative to reduce consumer prices for food products throughout the country, but Ngargoto said it has made little difference.

The Central African nation has been weighed down by drought, a refugee crisis and a costly military campaign to combat militant group Boko Haram, which is based in neighbouring Nigeria but wages attacks across the region.

The number of Chadians living in poverty is projected to reach 6.3 million in 2019 up from 4.7 million in 2011, according to the World Bank. The population is about 16 million.

On the U.N. Human Development Index, which measures health, education and quality of life, Chad ranks third to last in the world.

In N'Djamena's "European quarter", as some locals call it, guards sit outside modern apartment buildings and restaurants favoured by expatriates.

In neighbourhoods further from the centre, the streets are unpaved and people pump water in dirt courtyards. This is where Ngargoto lives with his family, just within city limits where he said a room costs about 40,000 CFA francs ($68) a month to rent.

But even that is unaffordable for many, who instead live across a bridge where the landscape becomes rural, with small houses scattered through scrubland. This neighbourhood, called Toukra, is home to many middle-class commuters, said Ngargoto.

Alongside the one paved road, students and professionals walked in the sun hoping to hitch a ride into town.

A residential neighbourhood in N'Djamena, Chad. November 22, 2019.

There is no water or electricity network here, so houses are powered with generators if residents can afford it.

If not, they go without.

"Water and electricity have become luxury products in Chad," said Ngargoto, who plans to build a house in this neighbourhood when he can afford it.

GETTING WORSE

Chad's expat population has grown in the last decade with the development of the oil sector, the military operation against Boko Haram and the humanitarian crisis that came with it, said Paul Melly, a consulting fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House.

These changes "put much more pressure on the available space that expatriate people would consider acceptable or secure," he said, raising prices and pushing poor people further out.

Private developers are generally keener to build luxury apartments than affordable housing if there is someone to pay for it, which expats are, said Nakamura.

"The formal housing supply is very limited in many African cities, so for ordinary people there is no chance to live in decent, non-slum housing," he said.

Transport can also become expensive because it is limited and inefficient in fast-growing cities, he added.

"Without developing more adequate infrastructure, there's no way cost of living can be reduced in the future," said Nakamura.

About 40% of people in Africa live below the global poverty line of $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank's latest figures, and the majority of the poor still live in rural areas.

But Africa is rapidly urbanising as people abandon the countryside in search of jobs, meaning that poorer citizens will start to shift toward cities where the pressure on transport and housing will only get worse, Nakamura said.

"Without adequate actions, we will see a clear rise in urban poverty," he said. "It's not a negligible issue at all."

($1 = 589.2200 CFA francs)

(Reporting by Nellie Peyton, editing by Zoe Tabary. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, and covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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