The rejection of a funding application does not necessarily signal the end for a research project. This was the experience of the urban planner Jochen Monstadt from TU Darmstadt, whose participation in a joint application for a collaborative research centre on urbanity in Africa together with the Goethe University was rejected in 2011.
“The subject was so interesting that we simply continued with the research,” says the Professor for Spatial and Infrastructure Planning at TU Darmstadt. This perseverance was eventually rewarded three years later: The Hans Böckler Foundation in Düsseldorf and the Graduate School for Urban Studies URBANgrad, an interdisciplinary academic institution at Technische Universität Darmstadt, approved funding for a joint graduate programme named “Urban Infrastructures in Transition: The Case of African Cities”. In addition, the German Research Foundation (DFG) has welcomed one partner each from Darmstadt and Frankfurt onto its priority programme “Adaptation and Creativity in Africa”.
There is nowhere else in the world where the urbanisation and dynamic growth of cities is as high as in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cities such as Dar es Salaam in Tanzania or Nairobi in Kenya grow by many hundreds of thousands of inhabitants every year – presenting them with enormous challenges, not least when it comes to the provision of infrastructure services.
The scholars at the TU Darmstadt and the Goethe University are carrying out in-depth research into this subject in their joint graduate programme: They are studying the history of, and the current transition of those cities and their interplay with the provision of energy, water, wastewater, transport and telecommunication services.
The scholars have since been collaborating with the universities in both of these global cities in Eastern Africa. The researchers selected the cities of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi as comparative cases.
“Both cities were part of the former British Empire that have experienced sharp increases in population and the unplanned development of settlements,” says Professor Monstadt. While Kenya’s economy has for a long time been more dynamic, the current security situation and ethnic tensions pose political and economic challenges making up leeway for strong economic growth in Dar es Salaam, according to the 48 year old professor.
In their research projects, the researchers in the graduate programme are investigating, amongst other things, the water and wastewater systems in these capital cities. In the city of Dar es Salaam with its around 4.8 million inhabitants, up to 80 percent of the settlements are unplanned. Accordingly, access to centralized electricity, water and wastewater networks is splintered, and critical services are often provided through alternative solutions such as water kiosks and water traders or informal “spaghetti pipes”.
At the same time, only around ten percent of the population are connected to a central wastewater system, with its associated challenges for urban hygiene and public health. As an example, one PhD student is focussing, amongst other things, on the sanitary challenge for women in unplanned settlements.
However, the researchers are also investigating themes such as stormwater management, innovative bus rapid transit systems, mobile water and energy payment innovations and technology hubs in the field of information and communication technologies in the East African metropolises. How does the supply of necessary infrastructure and urban development change when around 90 percent of the inhabitants own a mobile phone and thus can increasingly pay for their bus or electricity and water bills using the mobile currency M-Pesa that was developed in Kenya?
International teams and the vision of a “networked city”
In order to explore these issues, the PhD students and research scientists spend many weeks and months per year carrying out field research in the African cities. The group of PhD students within the Africa Programme have a very interdisciplinary and international background. They originally come from France, Belgium, India, Germany and three East African countries, while their professions include city and urban planners, architects, geographers or historians.
Are recommendations for action also developed at the end of their research projects? “The primary aim is to carry out fundamental research into historical and current trends in African cities and their planning, with less emphasis on advising African colleagues or local partners in these countries,” says Jochen Monstadt. The professor avoids using the term “development assistance” and prefers to describe the goal as “improving the exchange of academic knowledge”.
The focus of the 48 year old’s own field research is the translation of the ideal of a “networked city” in African contexts. A networked city is the ideal concept for a modern city in which all areas and city districts have access to universal services at uniform prices, quality and comprehensive connections to, for example, electricity, water, health facilities or means of public transport.
Megacities in Africa, however, defy such an ideal of urban modernity developed in the global North. In Dar es Salaam, the reality is that only 30 percent of the population have access to a central water supply networks according to Monstadt. The researcher from Darmstadt is investigating how the transfer of this model of a networked city has shaped urban and infrastructure planning and development, as well as which alternative modernities are being developed in these cities.