In Uganda’s small but fast-growing cities, ‘one planner is not enough’

Tabitha Kakuze is the only planner in Jinja, Uganda. She hopes more staff will come when the central government officially designates Jinja a 'city'. (Amy Fallon)

JINJA, Uganda — Located on Lake Victoria at the source of the River Nile, Jinja is literally a breath of fresh air for Ugandans and tourists who come to escape the chaos of Kampala, the capital city two hours west of here.

Jinja is still relatively small, as urban areas go — about 80,000 people live here and another 350,000 in the surrounding region. But like many “secondary” cities in sub-Saharan Africa, Jinja is poised to grow rapidly in the coming decades as migrants from rural areas arrive seeking jobs.

Already home to two hydropower plants, four steel companies, two international hospitals and one international school, Jinja has other major projects underway. East Africa’s first shipyard is being built here, and a car assembly plant is under construction. In the pipeline is a road project that would cut driving time to Kampala in half, as well as airport upgrades to accommodate larger commercial aircraft.

The question for Jinja, as it is for many small but fast-growing urban areas, is whether local authorities are ready for the influx. At Jinja’s town hall, built not long before Uganda became independent of Great Britain in 1962, there’s just one urban planner — and she has more work than she can handle. Like all local governments in Uganda, Jinja depends heavily on the central government for revenues. The funds are never enough to pay for the staff and services necessary to keep up with all the growth.

One result is a growing sprawl of unplanned settlement several kilometers from the city center. About 20,000 people in these crowded areas are living with limited water, power and sanitation services, with the constant possibility of eviction. And these areas are growing.

Samuel Mabala, who works with the Brussels-based global partnership Cities Alliance in Uganda, says it’s not too late for Jinja and other secondary cities to get ahead of the growth — but they have to start now. “We know that in the next three decades, half of the African population will be in cities,” Mabala says. “We don’t have to wait until we get there to begin talking about preparing for this.”

Building capacity

A number of efforts are underway in Uganda to do just that, both in Jinja and in other smaller cities that will grow big before long.

One of them is called Future Cities Africa. This is a partnership between Cities Alliance and the UK Department for International Development intended to boost the long-term planning capacities of local governments in Uganda, Ethiopia, Ghana and Mozambique. In Uganda, the focus is on 14 secondary cities, including Jinja, that are seeing the most rapid population growth.

Jinja’s population is currently about 80,000 and is expected to grow quickly. (Amy Fallon)

The Uganda program is working with local governments, civil society, slum dwellers and others to assess the long-term growth coming to their communities, as well as changing risks posed by climate change and other factors. It’s also helping them to develop long-term strategic plans to grow in a more inclusive and “resilient” way.

“Many of these cities will become megacities,” says Mabala, who runs Uganda’s division of the Future Cities Africa program. “In most African cities, planning is done short term, in five-year or maybe ten-year plans. It’s important for these cities to increase their planning horizons to 30 years.”

The project has started off by assessing the capacities of local governments. Mabala says it’s identified large gaps in terms of planning, financing, revenue, administration and governance.

This effort builds on a previous partnership between Cities Alliance and the Ugandan government to build local government capacity and engage the urban poor in planning. It also builds on a US$150 million loan from the World Bank for developing local infrastructure. That funding is also targeted at helping local governments to better manage their finances, and develop their own sources of revenues outside of central-government transfers.

Martin Onyach-Olaa, a senior urban specialist at the World Bank in Uganda, says these funds are allocated among localities in part based on the results of annual performance assessments. Jinja’s government has most of the key staff members in place, such as a town clerk, engineer, physical planner and financial, environmental and social managers.

Jinja has a “very good working relationship with their political leadership,” Onyach-Olaa tells Citiscope. “That’s why three years in a row they’ve been performing well in the assessment and qualifying to get funding.”

In addition, national leaders have promised to declare Jinja a “city” under Uganda’s Local Government Act. Local leaders have been hoping for this action for a decade; it’s expected to finally happen later this year. Currently, Jinja is classified as a “municipality.” As the Daily Monitor notes, the new city status would qualify Jinja for more national funding to help pay for roads, garbage collection, schools and health centers. It also would signal to businesses that Jinja is a place to invest.

“People have been waiting for this for a long time,” says David Kyasanku, who as Jinja’s clerk is the municipality’s top official, appointed by the central government. “A city attracts better people, resources and capital.”

“If everything goes well,” he continues, “Jinja in ten years will be the best place to stay in Uganda.”

Staffing crunch

Still, there is much local government capacity left to build in Jinja.

The town’s only planner, Tabitha Kakuze, simply has more work than she can handle. In addition to serving on Jinja’s urban physical planning committee, which considers building plans, she also oversees the registry of municipal properties and manages the updating of property rates. She also handles secretarial tasks such as preparing the minutes of planning committee meetings and drafting letters to communicate the committee’s decisions.

Town Clerk David Kyasanku says Jinja will be “the best place to stay” in Uganda in ten years. (Amy Fallon)

“One planner is not enough,” Kakuze told me from her office, sitting near one of the town’s only maps. “You become a jack-of-all trades.” Engineers are also in short supply in local government.

Kakuze is hopeful that more staffing will come when Jinja officially gets its “city” designation from the central government. “The moment we are declared a city, human resources will have to be revised — they’ll bring more staff,” she says. Cities get more central government grants than municipalities, she says, and they enjoy “better and more facilities than a municipality.”

However, Jinja’s local administrative capacity will only be as strong as the central government allows it to be. Staff salaries are paid for almost entirely by the national government, which currently has a freeze on recruitment of staff for all local governments. Jinja could hire more people if it could collect more local revenues — but which comes first?

“If municipalities were collecting enough internal revenue,” says the World Bank’s Onyach-Olaa, “they could use it to collect additional staff.”

Kakuze says a lack of equipment is another big hurdle. She says staff were recently informed that the central government is working to provide Jinja with cadastral and topographic maps. “But we also need software and a computer,” she adds. “A lot is needed.”

Onyach-Olaa says addressing a shortage of computers, software and other equipment for secondary-city governments is part of the World Bank’s program in Uganda. “It will not be enough,” he says, “but it will be able to help them with some basic kickstarting activities.”

Impact with the poorest

Among the Jinja residents with the most at stake in how this plays out are those living in the informal settlements known as Karamoja and Soweto. The average annual household income in these areas is US$100, according to the 2010 Jinja City Profile Report of the National Slum Federation of Uganda.

In Soweto, residents live in corrugated-iron shacks. Rubbish litters dirt roads that become swamps during Uganda’s wet season. Nango Hamisi, general secretary of a local village council in Soweto, says poverty and the large number of orphans are other significant problems.

“But I’ve heard the news about Jinja becoming a city,” Hamisi says. “I’m excited because it’s going to cause a lot of development.”

Hamisi may have reason to be excited — he’s a builder, so he hopes more development will mean more work.  Geoffrey Mazusa, Jinja’s principal community development officer, says the same upside will hold true for many of the urban poor as the growing city draws even more employment opportunities. “I expect slum dwellers won’t suffer,” Mazusa says. “They will actually benefit.”

However Kakuze warns that as Jinja grows, land values will only increase, and slum dwellers will “most likely be displaced.”

“I’m worried,” she says, “because where will they go? The most likely places are in ecologically sensitive areas like wetlands.”

As Kakuze sees it, Jinja’s growth will only benefit all of its residents — including the poor — with good planning. And you can’t have good planning, she says, without more planners.

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Amy is a freelance journalist based in Kampala who works regularly for AFP and Inter Press Service. Full bio

LEARNING FROM JINJA

  • A program called Future Cities Africa is working with local governments, civil society, slum dwellers and others in ‘secondary’ cities to assess the long-term growth coming to their communities,
  • A goal is to increase the planning horizon to 30 years from the current standard of five or ten. 
  • Cities hope they can boost staffing so they have more planners, engineers and other administrative capacity to handle growth. 

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