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They have been called the "worst cities in the world", all the while providing an other-worldly allure that draws outsiders in and changes them forever. Africa’s dynamic cities are full of opportunity, and almost as many challenges.

Some are tempted to look to the cities of the northern hemisphere for a how-to manual of solutions for urbanisation and development. But Nico Venter, from engineering conglomerate Arup, says development strategies must consider the fact that developing-world cities have their own complexities and circumstances that require a different approach.

A UN report on population prospects in 2015 estimated that Africa’s population will double to 2bn by 2050, and then again in 2100 to 4bn. It suggests that 4bn of the world’s 11bn people will live on the African continent by that date .

Venter, who heads the recently formed Cities unit at Arup Southern Africa, has started a multiphase study looking at challenges facing five rapidly changing and growing African cities: Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, Dar es Salaam, Accra and Nairobi.

Venter says Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, faces the challenge of keeping up with the country’s fast-growing GDP, which averages above 10%/year. The city needs to develop new infrastructure and housing in a sustainable way.

Kenya’s Nairobi, on the other hand, has to grapple with the reality of dealing with informality . Apartment towers wouldn’t be a solution there, he says. The city hosts the biggest slum in the world, Kibera, which is home to about 2m people.

In Tanzania, Dar es Salaam’s population is young. This means that the demand for affordable housing will spike dramatically and quite suddenly.

One of Johannesburg’s biggest challenges is the depth of the divide between rich and poor. And Accra, in Ghana, made the cut into Venter’s study because it is seen as a model for urban governance reform.

Common to all the cities is the need for adequate housing, clean water and integrated transport networks.

Venter’s team has collected case studies of projects across the world that solve some of the issues African cities face. He believes studying them, and their possible application in Africa, offers a source of fresh ideas on city transformation.

The successful projects include systems such as the Pluvia rainwater microturbine in Mexico City, which filters rainwater and produces electricity.

Another, the "half of a good house" concept, was developed for Chile to provide housing. It provides a basic concrete frame with a kitchen, bathroom and roof to homeowners, who are asked to build the rest themselves. The result, visually, stands in stark contrast to the identical blocks of traditional social housing projects.

Venter says achieving city transformation by different means will need the support of developers, as well as governments, institutions and residents.

University of Johannesburg associate professor of architecture Amira Osman says competition for space in cities is compounded by the standoff between the requirements of big business and those of the man on the street and small business owners.

In areas such as Jeppestown in Johannesburg or even on the banks of the Nile in Sudan’ s capital, Khartoum, developers are competing for space with people from lower-income groups who already inhabit those spaces .

In Jeppestown, Osman says developers see the potential because the existing buildings and infrastructure can be transformed for business use , as well as for residential use, where residents can afford to pay high prices for city apartments.

"We are seeing this in Johannesburg, and we are seeing it in Durban ... I see this as competition for opportunities and land, and space between money and the smaller person," she says.

Osman believes it is possible for government to intervene to bring about far more mixed communities in function, income and affordability level s, where there could be differentiated rentals within a precinct or even in a building.

That approach will require out-of-the-box thinking, which research projects such as Arup’s could yield. Venter’s research intends to develop localised applications for successful projects.