Africa faces the most challenges of any region in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) commitments, given its high levels of environmental degradation, poverty, and unemployment along with rapid population growth and weak state institutions. In ESI ThoughtLab’s survey of 167 cities across six regions designed to explore cities’ progress on the SDGs, African cities overall trailed those in all the other regions. Unlike other regions, all African cities are in emerging economies, which struggle more than advanced economies to make headway on the SDGs.
Just 55% of African cities surveyed said they had adopted the SDG framework into their plans (vs. 78% of all cities on average), and just 31% on average reported notable progress on the goals (vs. 59% for all cities).
However, progress has been uneven and is further along in some areas. With increasing temperatures and sea levels threatening their citizens and economies, African cities are moving most aggressively on climate action—with 55% saying they have made considerable progress in this area. They are also making moderate advances on partnerships to achieve the SDGs, education, poverty alleviation, health, gender equality, decent work, and life on land. Conversely, they are far off track on goals such as clean energy and water, and industry and innovation.
Smart city technologies and solutions can help African and other cities to meet their social, environmental, and economic goals. However, as part of the least economically developed region, cities in Africa invest less than others in such technologies and have the smallest average technology budgets—just $2 million annually (vs. $9.8 million on average for all cities). Yet despite smaller budgets, African cities are making large investment in a few technologies, notably mobile, biometrics, IoT, and cloud.
Accra stands out
Notably, one African city—Accra, Ghana—stands out ahead of the others on that continent in advancing its SDG agenda. Under the maturity framework developed as part of the study, Accra is the only city in the region classified as a “sprinter”—among those making the most progress on its goals. While Accra leads, Addis Ababa, Ekurhuleni, Kigali, and Touba are not far behind—they are classified as advancers. The remaining 20 African cities are classified as early-stage implementers.
What has Accra done differently that has put it ahead of the others? Besides Accra, only one other African city (Kigali) has incorporated all the 17 SDGs into its plans. And Accra reports having made considerable progress on more of the SDGs (14) than any other city in the region.
Accra has also followed several critical steps that can help ensure the success of an SDG program. It has a high level of support for the SDGs across government departments; it regularly monitors SDG efforts; and it has designated a specific department to take the lead on SDG initiatives. It is also using technology solutions across more urban domains than other African cities and has made important headway on citizen engagement—another key component of SDG achievement.
Environmental sustainability, particularly related to clean water and sanitation (SDG #6), is one area where Accra has adopted bold initiatives. The government has committed to make Accra one of the cleanest cities in Africa, and in 2019 it drafted a new national plastics management policy to reduce plastic pollution. The policy was designed to promote recycling of plastic waste into other products as well as to begin an intensive environmental education program. At the same time, Ghana became the first African nation to join the Global Plastic Action Partnership, a public-private platform dedicated to fostering action to combat the plastics pollution crisis.
Funding of SDGs programs is one of the biggest challenges for Africa cities and is another area where Accra has taken a strong approach. In 2018, the country’s Ministry of Finance in collaboration with the Ghana Investment Promotions Centre and the SDGs Advisory Unit launched the annual Accra SDGs Investment Fair to encourage private financing of the SDGs. The fair aims to facilitate collaboration between investors and sustainable public and private-sector project and businesses. The 2020 fair was conducted virtually and was designed to develop post-COVID-19 funding strategies, since the pandemic has further squeezed already constrained public finances.
In 2020, the government also partnered with the Sustainable Development Investment Partnership (SDIP), an initiative of the World Economic Forum and the OECD, to hold the first SDGs Country Financing Roadmap Roundtable in Accra. It was the first African country to partner with the SDIP. The event brought together governmental institutions, donors, multilateral organizations, development banks, and private investors to investigate innovative strategies to finance the SDGs, including foreign investment and private equity.
Ghana’s approach to funding the SDGs also engages leaders at the local level. The SDGs national budgeting and financing process involves a bottom-up approach where local authorities actively participate. And in addition to national efforts, Accra city leaders are looking to diversify their sources of financing. According to our survey, the main sources of funding now for Accra are multilateral financing, government-based borrowing, and user fees taxes. Over the next three years, multilateral financing will remain important for the city, but the other main sources will be private-sector financing and crowdsourcing from the public.