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The Origin of Primate Cities in Africa

The Origin of Primate Cities in Africa: How European Colonies Have Led to Urban Primacy

A country’s urban system has a strong effect on national and regional economies, and for this reason, the governments of developing countries are greatly concerned with the factors influencing the development of urban primacy. Particularly in Africa, many people migrate to primate cities to find new opportunities, and governments are concerned that this urban growth will have adverse effects.

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If such governments are interested in new policies pertaining to urban growth, then a strong understanding of why primate cities have developed is important. With a focus on the developing countries of Africa, this paper first discusses how economic and colonial histories have led to urban primacy. It then examines the ways in which particular characteristics of African countries today have contributed to the development of primate cities.

These factors include a country’s size, level of economic development, economic structure, ethnic composition, income inequality, or government structure and policies.

In Africa, the development of many countries has been significantly impacted by previous colonization by Europeans. Traditionally, most countries worldwide have developed urban systems that somewhat resemble the model of central place theory (CPT). CPT states that urban systems develop under a well-ordered structure of agglomeration economies and transportation costs (Becker).

The theory behind this process is based on the triangular model of interaction between large cities, small cities, and agricultural areas. The large cities mass-produce goods, which are then shipped to smaller cities for distribution to more rural agricultural areas. The agricultural areas then produce food that is shipped back to the urban areas, thus completing the triangle. However, the colonization of Africa did not permit a natural course of development, and CPT has little application on this continent.

For CPT to be relevant, a region must have an agricultural surplus and adequate infrastructure to lower transportation costs. However, prior to and during colonization, manufacturing and other forms of industry were not common in Africa. Subsistence agriculture was most common throughout the continent, and without a significant agricultural surplus, it is difficult for the manufacturing of goods to occur outside the informal sector (Becker). Almost no manufacturing centers drawing from nearby natural resource bases saw the realization of scale economies (Becker).

During the pre-colonial period, however, urban areas did develop to some degree. Some urban areas arose for defensive reasons, while others grew as a result of minor trade networks (Becker). Barter did exist between some societies, and permanent settlements eventually developed along trade routes.

The onset of colonization, however, was the end for many of these urban areas along the trade routes of Africa’s interior. Because barter between societies was unimportant to the Europeans, colonial settlement paid very little attention to the existing trade routes. Instead, the goal of European colonies was the extraction of natural resources and the production of export cash crops (Becker). Colonies constructed new roads and railways from these sites to the improved ports, and old routes were largely forgotten as the old interior settlements suffered from the competition with European ocean navigation.

The ruling European powers also exerted administrative power over the African landscape, and this new control had a great impact on the location of cities. The trade patterns, infrastructure, and administrative centers that have endured since that time were established by the colonial powers.

The problem is that these three components of Africa’s economic geography developed on the periphery of the greater European economy rather than stemming from a naturally developed African market. The infrastructure supporting agricultural production was designed for the harvesting of European cash crops-not the general food production of the African people (Becker). Moreover, the growth of urban areas was not encouraged by colonial powers because this would shift African workers away from jobs useful to Europe as well as potentially bolster political unrest and increase the demand for social services (Becker).

Because colonial powers rarely established cities, urbanization in Africa was restrained by European colonies. However, the small administrative centers, new trade patterns, and increased infrastructure did encourage growth in some cities while smothering others. Since independence, most of these cities have experienced rapid population growth, resulting in primate cities. Three basic factors have contributed to this rapid urban growth.

First, mortality is much lower in urban areas due to the availability of health services. Second, many individuals from rural areas migrate to urban areas because of the greater opportunity for higher income. Third, fertility may be higher in rural areas, which should result in an increasing rural population, but with rural-urban migration, the increasing population may be moving to the urban areas. Also, because colonialism had a restraining effect on urbanization, migrants must move to primate cities because they have no other choice.

Many general factors may also lead to urban primacy. Income inequality is a major factor in maintaining urban primacy. Individuals with high income are concentrated in primate cities because it is only there that they can find the services and luxury goods they are able to purchase. These individuals look for better schools and hospitals, as well as income-elastic goods that can only be found in the city because of the low level of economic development in LDCs.

The combination of the high-income group and a supporting infrastructure also concentrates the industry that produces income-inelastic goods in the primate city (Mutlu, 1989). Moreover, because income is concentrated in the urban area, the markets in rural areas are extremely underdeveloped because there is little demand for manufactured goods. Combined with the lack of infrastructure, the restricted market makes it very difficult to industrialize away from the primary city.

This higher level of economic efficiency in the primary city further reinforces the cities economic viability (Richardson, 1993). The increased infrastructure and education provide the necessary foundation for economic growth. This will continue until it becomes more beneficial for the industry to locate farther away. This may happen once the urban area becomes too congested with industry, or when increasing environmental problems such as pollution force higher-income groups and industry out. A new market may then develop in smaller cities or even in rural areas closer to the inputs of production where the land and labour costs are lower (Richardson, 1993).

Whether or not a country’s economy is founded on free enterprise or a command-control economy will also influence the degree of primacy a country experiences. Free enterprise systems lead to more primary urban distributions than command economies for a few reasons (Mutlu, 1989). First, command economies have greater control over the flow of migration and suppress income inequality between urban and rural areas.

This decentralizes urban growth for the previously stated reasons. Second, command economies frequently have policies requiring full employment. Such policies fabricate inefficient markets that may decentralize attention away from the primate city. Finally, command economies aim to utilize the full natural resource base of an economy. Resource bases are frequently dispersed, and this will also divert markets away from the primate city (Mutlu, 1989).

Similarly, the way in which a government’s administration is organized affects urban development. Some governments are more centralized than others, and these governments are often focused on the primary city. In this way, administrative processes have greater access to social infrastructure such as health and education. This creates a “critical mass” within the region closest to a primate city, and this area will be given the greatest attention, thereby making primary cities even stronger (Mutlu, 1989). In Africa, one result of colonialism was a centralized administrative government-another source of urban primacy in Africa.

A country’s ethnic composition also plays an enormous role in its urban development. If a country can be described as having geographically distinct ethnic populations, then primate cities may not develop (Mutlu, 1989). A distinct ethnic population that is located a great distance from the primate city will probably not be given enough attention because it would be outside the “critical mass.” In this situation, the group would most likely retaliate against the government and even threaten to secede. In this way, ethnicity imposes a check on primacy, and countries with a primate city are most likely composed of a single ethnicity.

The final major factor that influences the development of urban primacy is a country’s size. Size is directly related to CPT in that the greater the total area, the higher will be transportation costs of production and distribution. Therefore, the larger the country, the more urban production areas there must be (Mutlu, 1989). With the exception of a few countries such as Nigeria and Sudan, many African countries are small, which has also led to the development of primate cities.

A myriad number of factors have shaped urban growth and development in Africa. With European colonization, the course of economic growth took an entirely new course for the future. Europeans created new trade patterns, infrastructure, and administrative centers in Africa, but this only developed Africa’s economy as a resource on the periphery of the greater European economy.

The African economy could not develop at its own speed, and leaving the natural progression of development has resulted in urban primacy. Today, the current forces acting upon urban development are continuing to strengthen the primate cities; however, it remains unclear what course African urban development will now take.


Servet Mutlu, “Urban Concentration and Primacy Revisited: An Analysis and Some Policy Conclusions” in Economic Development and Cultural Change, Vol. 37, No. 3 April 1989, pp. 611-613.

Harry W. Richardson, “Efficiency and Welfare in LDC Mega Cities” in John D. Kasarda and Allan M. Parnall (editors), Third World Cities: Problems, Policies and Prospects, Sage Focus Editions No. 148, Sage Publications, Newbury Park, California, 1993, Ch. 2, pp. 32-57.

Charles Becker, Andrew Hamer and Andrew Morrison, “African City Systems and Urban Growth”, Chapter 3 of Beyond Urban Bias in Africa, by Charles Becker, Andrew Hamer and Andrew Morrison, Heinemann Publishers, New Hampshire.

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The Origin of Primate Cities in Africa. (2021, Feb 18). Retrieved June 19, 2021, from