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The Settlement of Central and Eastern Africa: Inherited Logics and Contemporary Urban Development

Le peuplement de l’Afrique centrale et orientale. Logiques héritées et développement urbain actuel
Hervé Gazel
Traduction de Richard Hillman
Cet article est une traduction de :
Le peuplement de l'Afrique centrale et orientale. Logiques héritées et développement urbain actuel [fr]


L’objectif initial de l’étude présentée ici était l’évaluation de l’état de l’urbanisation en Afrique centrale et orientale et son évolution depuis les années 1960. Il s’agissait de situer géographiquement la multiplication du nombre des agglomérations de plus de 10 000 habitants et leur croissance démographique. La création de ces données et leur analyse nous conduit à réinterroger la relation séculaire entre activités agricoles et croissance des villes en croisant localisations urbaines et occupation agricole et non agricole du sol. Les formes et formations du peuplement apparaissent alors liées à des logiques d’habitation successives qui peuvent s’effacer, émerger, se combiner et conduire à la reconnaissance de territoires régionaux différenciés. Cet article les met en évidence à partir d’un support cartographique détaillé.

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  • 1 The report of the FAO on ‘L’état de la sécurité alimentaire et de la nutrition dans le monde’ (The (...)
  • 2 The FAO’s study of world agriculture ‘suggère que le taux de croissance de la production agricole m (...)

1Agriculture, demography and food supply for rural and urban populations are three fundamental and perennial elements, interrelated and instrumental in causing settlement. The food crisis of 2007-08 and the increase in 20161 of the number of people suffering from malnutrition in the world [FAO, 2017] make it impossible to forget that agriculture has supplied for a very long time, in good years and bad, the nutritional needs of a human population in demographic growth2 [FAO, 2015]. Since what is conventionally termed the Neolithic Revolution, for 10,000 years, as Jean-Louis Biraben has stressed, the evolution of the number of human beings has been linked to the ‘complexe néolithique’ (Neolithic complex), which associated ‘à la sédentarité, la culture à la houe, l’élevage, la céramique, la navigation ’ (with sedentism farming using the hoe, animal raising, ceramics, navigation) [Biraben, 2003]. This long-lasting link between agriculture and the evolution of the number of human beings is found on all the continents, in Africa as elsewhere. Jared Diamond has reminded us of the importance of surpluses of food production in his work Guns, Germs and Steel. The Fates of Human Societies [Diamond, 1997]. This link concerns the question of population discussed by G. Baudelle but relatively little dealt with by contemporary French geographers, with the exception of the approach by Lena Sanders [Sanders & al, 1997] in terms of modelling simulation of settlement systems. It is a question of the peopling process in which, on the basis of the map of population, one quickly perceives that the distribution of men and women can be explained only partially by natural factors, because ‘entre l’homme et le milieu, il y a l’histoire et la culture (between man and the environment there is history and culture) |Baudelle, 2000].

  • 3 B.P: Before Present (1950).
  • 4 Agriculture represented 57 % of the total employment in sub-Saharan Africa in 2017 according to the (...)

2Our work in the project AFRICAPOLIS on the urbanisation of Africa, begun in 2007, has led us to investigate the peopling of central and eastern Africa, its distribution, its evolution and the territories resulting from it. The number of people involved is uncertain: the demographic data have long been, and still are, deficient – anciently (5000 -1500 BP3 ) because of the scarcity of written traces, more recently because of the multiple effects of slave-trading (1500-150 BP) and silences of colonisation (150-0 BP), today (since decolonisation and accessions to national independence) because of demographic growth and migrations of a very large extent. It is also important to recall that from the Neolithic period to our time,4 agriculture has been the human activity which has engaged the greatest number of men and women – always the greatest number, even if the demographic expansion was irregular. The amount of work furnished has transformed the natural environment (water, soil, air, vegetation and animal life) – produced the landscape, that is, if one accepts the proposition of A. Berque, modified the physical dimension and created the phenomenal dimension of a given space |Berque, 1990].

  • 5 This term ‘nomadité’ (nomadity) seems to us preferable to the term ‘nomadisme’ (nomadism) because t (...)

3The central element of the ‘Neolithic complex’ is undoubtedly sedentarisation and therefore also its complement, ‘nomadité5’ (nomadity). Sedentism, understood as the relation to a fixed and permanent space of habitation, is the product of sedentarisation, understood as the attachment of human beings to a particular place. Sedentarisation has produced inhabitants of a fixed and permanent place: cabins, huts, houses, villages, cities

4Thus sedentism, development of agriculture, demographic and urban growth are connected. Over the long term, the combination is the basis of a form of inhabiting the world which is preponderant, dominant and ‘populating’. A population, a term instructively polysemous, signifying at once the number of inhabitants, their organisation and the dynamic of peopling, unfolds by revealing its form and its formation. From this it follows that the enumeration and the localisation of agglomerations (and villages) derived from spatial imagery, the evaluation of their populations and their demographic evolutions, based on different censuses and national surveys, as well as the cartographic visualisation of their spatial distribution, become material for the study of settlement, of its forms and formation in Africa. Now, given the very recent character of the demographic and urban expansion, satellite imaging takes on a particular significance and dimension in sub-Saharan Africa: images no more than forty years old attest better there than elsewhere to the ‘ancestral’ organisation (of forms) and spatial dynamics (of formations) of settlement, which have been able to endure until a few decades ago.

5As we are reminded by the volume Peupler la Terre [Sanders, 2017], contemporary urban development does not come out of nowhere but from a territory peopled from the origins of humanity, as is attested by prehistoric archaeological sites (in Ethiopia, Kenya, Chad…). This territory is a vehicle of logics, such as the ‘agricultural revolutions’ permitting urbanisation by means of the inevitable surplus generated [Bairoch, 1985]: logics related to the general History of Africa [UNESCO, 1964-1999] and a History revisited [C.A. Diop]; logics that can be explored in the historical Atlas of Africa [C. McEvedy, 1995] and the Histoire des villes d’Afrique noire [C. Coquery-Vidrovitch, 1993]; logics present in forested central Africa, with its towns and its itinerant burn-farming practised in a familial context [R. Pourtier, 2015], as in Ethiopia, with the maintenance of the ancient realm of Axoum to the present day, with a ‘centralised state’, cities and villages [J. Gallais, 1989] – a State-empire currently in rapid transformation [B. Tamru, 2013]. We use ‘logics’ here in the sense of J.-P. Ferrier, whereby the geography of a region of the world is related to the revelation of the logics of a territory [Ferrier, 1984].

6Accordingly, presentation of the methodological elements utilised, then of the inherited logics chosen (in the above sense), will permit us to highlight some regional groupings.

I. An empirico-logical approach to reveal the logics of the territory: enumerate, localise, estimate, date, map the local population units6

  • 6 By local population unit we mean localities included as a basic statistical unit present in the sta (...)

7The objective of explaining the logics of an immense territory depends on simple and practical methodological elements: enumeration, location, demographic evaluation et evolution, cartography. All these multiple tasks have been undertaken with François Moriconi-Ebrard in the studies AFRICAPOLIS (2008, 2009, 2013, 2015, 2018). To these tasks are added data crossing between the AFRICAPOLIS data and those of the Global Land Cover 2000 Project (GLC 2000) on Africa [Mayaux P. & al., 2003], where the long-term connection between agriculture and urbanisation takes shape again.

8These are the operations which we performed in the framework of the project AFRICAPOLIS 2 [AFD, 2009], then brought up to date. They concern the population of central and eastern Africa, that is, 19 states (20 today with the partition of Soudan) and entail:

  • constructing the database permitting international comparisons,

  • producing a unified subnational demo-cartographic foundation,

  • effecting a crossing with the data concerning occupation of the soil.

9The construction of the AFRICAPOLIS database adapts the method of the e-Giopolis base, which is the current version of the initial Geopolis base created by F. Moriconi-Ebrard en 1993, which contained harmonised data on the evolution of the population of urban agglomerations for each decade from 1950 to 1990 on a global scale [F. Moriconi-Ebrard, 1994]. The construction of AFRICAPOLIS was undertaken in several steps:

  • Inventory of the demographic sources and historic reconstitution of of the population series (series beginning in 1960), at the smallest administrative level available

  • Analysis of the territorial divisions and of their evolution

  • Documentation of the official definitions of ‘urban’ in each country and of the evolution of the definitions

  • Compilation of the geo-referenced data on the localisation of populated places with more than 5000 inhabitants in 2000.

  • Definition of the physical perimeters of the urban agglomerations on the basis of satellite images. The urban agglomerations are population units of more than 10,000 inhabitants respecting the rule of 200 metres maximum between constructions (Geopolis definition).

  • Crossing of three sources of information: demographic data (1960, 1970, 1980,1990, 2000, 2010e et 2020e), geo-referenced data (statistical unit with geographic coordinates) and physical perimeters of the agglomerations.

10The method which leads to the subnational demo-cartographic base is founded on analysis of territorial divisions and their evolution in each state, in order to identify the smallest common and stable territorial statistical unit for the total group of countries studied, so as to authorise comparisons between countries and tendency analyses on the subnational scale. This base includes 457 spatial unites whose size is mid-way between the French ‘région’ and ‘département’, that is, the equivalent of the standard levels ‘NUTS 3’ / ‘NUTS 4’ of the European classification.

11The maps of the physical perimeters of the agglomerations and of the demo-cartographic subnational base (map 1) have as attributes the data of demographic evolution (1960-2010).

Map 1. The 457 ‘subdivisions’ of the regional base and the e-Geopolis agglomerations

Map 1. The 457 ‘subdivisions’ of the regional base and the e-Geopolis agglomerations

12Crossing these data makes it possible to calculate rural densities for each date: it suffices to subtract the total urban population from the total subnational population in order to obtain the total rural subnational population, and the measured agglomerated surface from the total surface of the subnational territorial unit, then to relate the total subnational rural population to the non-agglomerated surface of the subnational territorial unit. It is then possible to produce a collection of maps of rural densities and the population of agglomerations from 1960 to 2010 (maps 2a to 2f).

Maps 2a et b. The agglomerations and rural densities in central and eastern Africa in 1960-1970

Maps 2a et b. The agglomerations and rural densities in central and eastern Africa in 1960-1970

Carte 2c et d. Les agglomérations et les densités rurales en Afrique centrale et orientale en 1980-1990

Carte 2c et d. Les agglomérations et les densités rurales en Afrique centrale et orientale en 1980-1990

Maps 2e and f. The agglomerations and rural densities in cenral and eastern Africa in 2000-2010

Maps 2e and f. The agglomerations and rural densities in cenral and eastern Africa in 2000-2010

13This diachronic compilation suggests the existence of a relation between the territories with a rural density superior to 30 inhab. /km² in 1960 and the increase in the number (density of the distribution) and size of the agglomerations (number of inhabitants) to the present day. Therefore, if one allows that agricultural activities are the dominant activities of rural populations, notably in central and eastern Africa in 1960, then the former presence of a relatively dense population practising agriculture and the presence of the ‘first’ agglomerations is undoubtedly not due only to chance. Whatever the case, what is the logic, or logics, behind this? Crossing the AFRICAPOLIS data with the GLC 2000 data concerning occupation of the land makes it possible to relate the inherited logics that reveal themselves to the agricultural activities and contemporary urban development. This leads to identifying the regional forms of population in central and eastern Africa. These forms should be understood in the context of the long history of Africa, for the most ancient migrations linked to Holocene climate warming or Bantu expansion, the slave-trading of medieval or modern times, and the colonisation of the 19th and 20th centuries have played a large part in the formation of the population.

14A presentation of the inherited logics at work, followed by presentation of the transnational regional sub-groups which these can bring to light, may then be proposed.

II. The logics of population

15The population of central and eastern Africa is (on average) far from dense, despite its heterogeneity, but it possesses a structure, organisation or form which corresponds to the logics of population and the exploitation of space. These have successively figured there since homo sapiens appeared in eastern Africa, as revealed by archaeology in the valley of the Omo (present-day Ethiopia), 200,000 years ago [McDougall I. & al. 2005].

16The first of these logics was the logic of the ‘gatherer-hunter-fisher’. This has persisted to our own time with the peoples known as ‘khoisan’ and ‘pygmies’. If it seems remote, it is instructive to recall that the adoption of agriculture by the Baka pygmies of Cameroun dates only from the 1960s [C. Leclerc, 2012] and that this mode of existence is still found in Africa.

17It is at the end of the last Ice Age that the ‘agro-pastoral’ logic appeared, which combines the logic of ‘shepherd-breeder’ with that of farmer. These might as readily be combined as opposed, depending on places and epochs.

18More recent, the ‘colonial’ logic is an exogenous logic, entailing plantation agriculture, commercial agriculture, mines, ports, transportation, cities… It is the logic of a period both creative and destructive, whose ‘brutality’ cannot be ignored, to take up a concept of G. Mosse [G. Mosse, 1999].

19The logic of ‘slave-trading’, contrary to the other logics, is not one of ‘population’ but of ‘depopulation’. Identifying its territorial imprint is more difficult. If a habitat indicates the presence of inhabitants, if cultivation or pastures indicate that of agro-pastoral activities, their absence does not necessarily signify ‘depopulation’. Moreover, the possible depopulation may have a quite different origin. But slave-trading implies at least transportation networks and markets for deliveries. Their presence is only a possible sign.

  • 7 190,000 years out of 200,000 years.

20Each of these logics, which contribute to the formation and the form of population, is built into its organisation and distribution. Their traces are more or less visible but unfailingly rich with meaning. They attest to changes which occurred in past times but are discernible in the present space and landscapes. In fact, more than 90 % of the time of the presence of homo sapiens in the world7 has been dominated by the logic of ‘gathering’, of which hunting and fishing are forms. In central and eastern Africa, it was 10,000 years ago that this began to be overlaid and replaced by the animal-raising and agriculture that mark the arrival of a Neolithic age succeeding Paleolithic times. Several centuries of slave-trading (Atlantic, trans-Saharan, Oriental and intra-African) were grafted onto this logic, destroying it in places and creating other forms of population. And a few decades have sufficed for the ‘colonial’ logic to make its mark on the territories.

21The presence of these logics can be seen on the Global Land Cover images realised on the basis of satellite images and representing the occupation of the land. This spatial coverage, crossed with the demographic data of AFRICAPOLIS (the 2010 density of the distribution of points on map 3), makes it possible to disengage form and formation of the population in central and eastern Africa by resituating them in a long history of population, applying the migratory past of the African peoples and the geographic distribution of the great linguistic families (map 3).

22The first important migration is that of the vast palaeolithic diffusion of homo sapiens. It unfolded from the eastern Highlands, spreading to the west and the south. It is not represented on map 3 because it remains largely hypothetical [McDougall I. & al. 2005].

23The second migrations of a major kind are those linked to the Holocene climate change (7000-3000 BP). They constitute one of the foundations of the establishment and formation of settlement in Africa:

  • From the Sahara toward the south in the western part (Niger basin, mountains of Nigeria and Cameroon) and toward the east in the central part (Nile basin).

  • From the Ethiopian uplands to the west of the continent.

24By means of these Neolithic migrations, agro-pastoral practices were diffused.

25The third significant migration took place around 3000 BP, in conjunction with an especially dry climatic episode which caused receding of water from the savannahs and the Great Forest to the south. From the highlands of southwest Nigeria/western Cameroon, the agro-pastoral Bantu conquest advanced to the east and south. The result was a Bantu half-continent still discernible today across a major linguistic and cultural boundary: to the north, the Nigero-Congolese, Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic languages, to the south the Bantu languages. Within this Bantu sub-continent, to the southwest (Kalahari) and in the heart of the Congolese forest, subsist the Khoisan languages of the peoples present prior to this expansion.

26It is with this earlier distribution of population that the diffusion of Islam (beginning in the 10th century), the creation of European trading-posts (from the 15th century), the different slave-trades (10th-19th centuries) and colonisation (19th-20th centuries) combined.

Map 3: Formation of settlement in central and eastern Africa

Map 3: Formation of settlement in central and eastern Africa

III. The territories of settlement

27Identification or recognition of the differentiated spatial areas which we call territories of made possible by combining three factors. These are the geographic distribution of countryside dominated by agricultural occupation of the land (classification GLC 2000), which is an expression of adaptation to environments; the distribution of languages, which are central components of cultures (as informed by the contributions of linguistics, archaeology and history); and, finally, the distribution of agglomerations, which tends to distinguish rural and urban populations (the Africapolis base).

28The areas in question are few in number. Table 1 and Maps 4-10 give the principal characteristics. Together, they total, extending over about 5.3 million km², 337 million inhabitants (12.85 million km² and 375 million inhabitants for the 20 states): 90 % of the population inhabit territories where agriculture is the dominant occupation.

29Along these, two are associated with the agro-pastoralism of the savannahs and Soudano-Sahelian steppes: the Sahelian corridor and the Ubangian road (Maps 4 and 5). Four are linked to agriculture in the approaches and interior of the great Congolese forest: the Bantu routes north, west, east and south (Maps 6 to 8), which encircle the flooded heart of the rain-forest, and two to the agro-pastoralism of the austral Savannahs. The last two are associated with the agriculture and pastoralism of the highlands and the mountains of the East of Africa: the Ethiopian area and that of the Great Lakes (Map 10).

30The settlement of all these areas is very much affected by the logic of the slave-trades. Without taking Mediterranean antiquity into account, how could it be otherwise, when from the 10th to the 19th century, sub-Saharan Africa fuelled the commerce of human beings and slavery destined for other continents, with an intensification during the Atlantic slave-trade directed to the American continent? The human losses sufficiently weakened the population that the medieval cities and kingdoms of that time could not grow ‘normally’, including those of the Sahelian corridor (Kanem, Bornou, Dongola, Soba, Kordofan, Davour), or of the Bantu routes (Kongo, Zimbabwe, Mutapa). Only Nubia and especially Abyssinia maintain a state over the long term (successive kingdoms) with the presence of a precocious distribution of cities [B. Tamru, 2013].

31Th settlement also owes much to the colonial logic. The main agglomerations of the present day are creations of that epoch, local relays of the former metropolises, which, after independence, became capitals of the new states or regional metropolises (oriented toward port facilities or mining, such as Kinshasa, Luanda, Nairobi, Dar es Salam, Yaoundé, Douala, Lubumbashi, Ndjamena, Bangui… Only the agglomerations of Addis-Ababa (the creation of King Menelik beginning in 1886) and Khartoum (the creation of the Viceroy of Egypt, Mehemet Ali, in 1823), have escaped that origin, although in different ways.

32Finally, the current population make-up is obviously due to an exceptional demographic increase in the course of the 20th century, especially since 1960, the initial year of the demographic data of AFRICAPOLIS. Since then, the population of the areas under study has quintupled, the rural population has quadrupled and the urban population multiplied by 17! The Geopolis rate of urbanisation was established at 7% in 1960. It stood at 24 % in 2010. The number of agglomerations has passed from 109 to 916. The largest was Addis-Ababa in 1960, with slightly less than 0.5 million inhabitants. Now it is Kinshasa with more than 7 million.

Table 1: Urbanisation of the settlement territories


Sahelian corridor

Ubangian road

Bantu route (northwest)

Bantu route (west)

Route (northeast)

Routes (southwest)

Angolan trace

Ethiopian area

Great Lakes area

Settlement territories



Total population 1960











24 394,778

93 937 898

Rural population 1960











22,852, 822

87 581 073

Urban population 1960









726 768

4 814 869

1 541,956

6 356 825

Rate of urbanisation (%) 1960













Number of agglomerations 1960













Population of the largest agglomeration 1960












475 681

Average size of the agglomerations 1960












42 663

Total population 2010









115,907, 042

336,761, 756


375 104 281

Rural population 2010










254,831, 210

8,306, 317

263 137 527

Urban popultion 2010











30,036, 208

111 966 754

Rate of urbanisation (%) 2010













Number of agglomerations 2010












1 358

Population of the largest agglomeration 2010







5,230, 000




4,498, 535

7 208 618

Average size of agglomerations 2010












82 450

33Within the ‘settlement territories’ selected here, the rural and the urban populations both increase. In the other territories of central and eastern Africa, where the agricultural occupation of the land is more discontinuous – whether it is insufficiently present to be dominant on the spatial imagery or is totally absent, as in the most arid non-irrigated spaces – only the urban population increases.

The Sahelian Corridor

34The first regional form of settlement appears clearly with the crossing of the AFRICAPOLIS and GLC 2000 data (Map 4). The Sahelian corridor, which runs from east to west, from Ethiopia and Sudan to Lake Chad and beyond to western Africa, is in fact a double route: the northern route, where the steppes and arid pseudo-steppes meet, but also the herbaceous savannahs – open, even somewhat bush-covered – is the preferred space of herders and their animals; the southern route, with its wooded savannahs, treed with bushes, herbaceous, dense, with all growth deciduous, is the site of rain-fed agriculture. This ‘sahel’, or ‘bank’, has its ports, its desert ports and its caravan routes to Chad, Sudan, and to the Red Sea, which largely contributed to the trans-Saharan slave-trade, at once creative with respect to urban centres and destructive of agro-pastoral communities. Five central and eastern African states are traversed by the Sahelian corridor: from west to east, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea.

Map 4: The Sahelian corridor: steppe, savannah, agriculture, high rural density and agglomerations

Map 4: The Sahelian corridor: steppe, savannah, agriculture, high rural density and agglomerations

35In 2010, the total population of the corridor, including space along the Nile and western and eastern extremities, rose to 39.5 million inhabitants, as opposed to 10.2 million in 1960. Rural and urban populations have both increased, the latter more rapidly than the former, which has nevertheless tripled and still represents 80 % of the population.

The Ubangian road

36In the north-east of present-day Nigeria is situated an important centre of settlement of the African continent at the origin of migrations which propagated the agro-pastoral logic to the east as far as southern Sudan. This ‘Ubangian road’ runs between the spaces of open savannahs to the north and the closed forested spaces to the south on the plateaux and among the low mountain ranges. It appears with the crossing of AFRICAPOLIS et GLC 2000 data (Map 5).

Map 5: The Ubangian road: the savannah in movement

Map 5: The Ubangian road: the savannah in movement

37It is inhabited today by 21.5 million individuals. There were 5.3 million in 1960, so the number has multiplied by 4 – growth identical to that of the ‘Sahelian corridor’ (cf. supra). The rural population is by far in the majority, with 17.2 million, or 80% of the population. Its numbers have multiplied by 3.4 in 50 years. It is estimated at 5 million in 1960, which represented 95% of the total population! Few regions in the world can have known such a level, little different from what it might have been over the centuries. The 5 % of urban dwellers have thus become 20 % in 2010.

The Bantu routes

The North-west Bantu route

38To the south of Benue (Nigeria-Cameroon) is located the original homeland of the first of the peoples called ‘Bantus’, from which the agricultural logic swarmed over central, eastern and southern Africa. It is three thousand years since the Bantus began their effort: to cut for themselves, by fire and iron, a route to the east. This route (Map 6) is now legible in the northern limit of the Bantu family of languages identified by the linguists. It also appears on the maps of occupation of lands realised on the basis of images from space. It emerges in the distribution of AFRICAPOLIS agglomerations.

Map 6: The Bantu route: linguistic limit, mosaic agriculture, rain-forest, heavy rural density and agglomerations

Map 6: The Bantu route: linguistic limit, mosaic agriculture, rain-forest, heavy rural density and agglomerations

39The limit of the Bantu languages crosses five states: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (RDC), Uganda and Kenya. In the south of the western part – that is, to the west of those mountainous spaces oriented north-south which bound the Congo Basin, forested spaces dominate and the firmest type of savannah, the deciduous wooded savannah. To the north of this limit is found the front between forests and wooded savannahs – treed, bushy – where the tree gradually yields its place to grass and the itinerant agricultural logic gives way to the agro-pastoral logic… The very strong correspondence between settings dominated by the tree and the linguistic limit is the mark of a territory where a natural environment and a culture are closely associated.

40In 2010, the total population of the first Bantu route attained 22.5 million inhabitants; the total rural population there was estimated at 15.4 million (70 % of the population). With such a percentage, the centuries-old agro-itinerant logic, which accounted for 9/10ths of the population 50 years ago, is still well represented. We estimate the urban population of the ‘north-west Bantu route’ at more than 7 million in 2010. The growth is as rapid as in the Sahelian corridor (cf. supra). There are 68 agglomerations in 2010, as opposed to 19 in 1969. Their number has been multiplied by 3.6. Their average size has passed from 30,400 to 105,000. There is a heavy concentration in the largest agglomerations: Douala and Yaoundé alone contain more than half the urban population.

The western Bantu route

41The conquest of the forested space by the Bantu peoples was not limited to the northern route. A route of north-south penetration to the west of the Congolese basin has played a role in the establishment of settlement. Starting from south-western Cameroon, it passes through Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo and The Democratic Republic of Congo, and has its terminus in the north of Angola. The Great Forest ends; pursuit of the conquest next takes place in the settings of the southern savannahs (Map 7).

Map 7: The western Bantu route: agriculture and rain-forest, high rural density and agglomerations

Map 7: The western Bantu route: agriculture and rain-forest, high rural density and agglomerations

42In 2010, the total population is estimated at nearly 30 million, as opposed to less than 4 million in 1960. It has multiplied by almost 8 times – that is, twice as rapidly as that of the Sahelian corridor. One counts 54 agglomerations in 2010, as opposed to 10 in 1960. Their average size has passed from 80,000 to 240,000 inhabitants, an especially high number. The rate of urbanisation was notably higher than in other African regions in the 1960s, since at 21% it was double and triple those of, respectively, the northern Bantu route and the Sahelian corridor (cf. supra). Today it stands at 43 %. This is due to the very rapid process of concentration of the population in the largest agglomeration in central and eastern Africa. Kinshasa has 7.2 million inhabitants in 2010, as against 1,600 in 1920! The agglomeration by itself contains 57 % of the urban population! For the northern Bantou route, two agglomerations contain half of the urban population; one alone is sufficient for the eastern route.

The other Bantu routes: the eastern route and the southern routes

43From the originating homeland at the confines of Cameroon and Nigeria, the Bantu populations undertook the conquest of the rain-forest of the Congolese basin, heading to the east and the south along the northern and western edges of the basin. Some continued eastward to the country of the Great Lakes (cf. infra); others, circumventing the denser and more humid zones of the Great Forest, took an eastern route in a southerly direction until they reached, in the south, the spaces of the wooded austral savannahs (Map 8). This circumvention, begun in the 2nd millenary B. C., was completed in the first centuries of the Christian era.

Map 8: The eastern and southern Bantu routes: agriculture and rain-forest, high rural density and agglomerations

Map 8: The eastern and southern Bantu routes: agriculture and rain-forest, high rural density and agglomerations

44From that point, from the southeast of what is now Congo (RDC), two other routes continued the movement: the first toward the south across present-day Zambia and beyond southern Africa; the other toward the west across the southern Congolese (RDC) and Angola. The agro-itinerante logic of the forested spaces, attaining once more the environments of more open savannahs and conditions more propitious for herding, returns to agro-pastoral practices.

45The north-eastern route, crossing the Congolese forest from north to south starting from Kisangani, counted only 2.2 million inhabitants in 1960, 243,000 of them urban (10.6 %). It has quadrupled (9.7 million inhabitants), the urban population increasing to 2.7 millions, the rate of urbanisation rising to 28 %. The principal agglomerations, Kananga and Mbuji-Mayi (the city of the diamond), which number almost a million inhabitants (54,395 in 1960), are located on the southern edge of the forest, in contact with the spaces of the savannah.

46Further to the south, the route becomes double. One branch continues toward the south, another toward the west and Kinshasa. 22 million people (4.5 millions en 1960) live there. The proportion of urban-dwellers has passed from 11.9 % à 29.1 %. The largest agglomeration is Lubumbashi, whose population has multiplied by 7, passing from 187,194 to 1,321,000 inhabitants. In this space of open savannahs with very important mining activity, urbanisation is more evenly distributed, with Lubumbashi concentrating about 20 % of urban-dwellers.

47Finally, still further to the south, in Angola, is comprised the trace of the ancient conquest of the zone of austral savannahs, partly towards the Congo, partly in the direction of Zambia. In this region, containing 20 million inhabitants in 2010 by (3.8 in 1960), growth concerns the rural as well as the urban population. The former has quadrupled; the latter has grown by (nearly) 800 %. Two facts are striking: the disappearance of signs of the logic of agro-pastoral settlement (little agricultural occupation on the spatial imagery) and the extreme concentration of the population in the country’s largest agglomeration, Luanda, the second agglomeration of central and eastern Africa (5.2 million in 2010, 224,000 in 1960). This savannah zone of Bantu settlement was the zone most lastingly brutalised by the logic of the trans-Atlantic slave-trade. The oldest Portuguese establishments go back to the 15th-16th centuries, while Brazil was one of the last states to abolish slavery (13 May 1888).

The Ethiopian area

48If there is a place where human presence is particularly ancient (the first hominids), it is certainly Ethiopia. It is considered that it was from the Ethiopian area that homo sapiens set out to conquer the entirety of the planet. Besides a rich Palaeolithic, the development of agriculture on the high plateaux, benefitting from significant rainfall and soil which is often volcanic, appeared early in the Neolithic. This centre participated in the diffusion of the agro-pastoral logic of the Sahelian corridor (cf. supra). It is well identified by the AFRICAPOLIS/GLC2000 data-crossing (Map 9)

Map 9: The Ethiopian area: highlands, agriculture, high rural density and contemporary agglomerations

Map 9: The Ethiopian area: highlands, agriculture, high rural density and contemporary agglomerations

49In the Ethiopian area, the very ancient and long-standing presence of the agro-pastoral settlement logic and the demographic growth accompanying it permitted the early development (the Kingdom of Axoum) of cities and of an adroit mercantile logic, with control of long-distance land and sea routes, possibly associated with the intra-African logic of supplying the trans-Saharan and Oriental slave-trades. Since the colonial logic could not really develop in the highlands, given the historic weight of the state [J. Gallais, 1989], the Ethiopian area is today the least urbanised historic centre on earth.

5012.5 million women and men: that is the estimated population in 1960 of the Ethiopian area (not to be confused with that of Ethiopia, which includes very sparsely populated territories not belonging to the area in the strict sense). It amounts to 55.5 million in 2010 – 95 % rural in 1960, 83 % in 2010, but 46 million, as against 12 million 50 years ago. With a surface of 400,000 to 500,000 km², the average rural density is situated around 100 inhab. /km² – double the average rural density in France. Such a level, with a population in strong growth, possesses a potential for appearance of agglomerations, both by exceeding the threshold of 10,000 inhabitants and by the fusion of villages and small towns. With this double demographic reservoir, the urban population and the rates of urbanisation could increase greatly over one brief generation: 184 agglomerations with an average size of 50,000 inhabitants, as opposed to 10 agglomerations with an average size of 70,000 inhabitants in 1960. This diminution of the average size effectively expresses the densification of the population (urbanisation in situ); given the level of density already attained, the present low urbanisation rate of 16.7 % will hardly last.

51In 2010, only Addis-Ababa, with 3 million inhabitants, was truly important. The latest Africapolis 2018 estimates reveal the emergence of two conurbations, each containing more than 2 million inhabitants, in the Valley of the Great Rift. The city of Sodo is the centre of the larger of these. It covers 18 towns and 300 villages, that is, 2,262,000 inhabitants on 1,930 km². The agglomeration of Hawassa is less extensive (1,302 km²), only slightly less populated (2,183,000 inhabitants), and therefore still denser, with an average of 1,676 inhabitants/km². This is the beginning of a new process of urbanisation – a process which will be found again in the other great area of eastern Africa, the area of the Great Lakes.

The area of the Great Lakes

52In the Centre-East of Africa, the region of the Great Lakes, stricto sensu, is the region of the sources of the Nile. Six states are concerned: Uganda (almost all of it), Kenya (the western part), Tanzania (the north-western part), Congo (RDC) (the eastern frontier), Burundi and Rwanda (wholly), for a surface areas of about 400,000 km². Approximately a third of the surface of the region is covered by water.

53The Homeland of the Great Lakes, notably the Eastern Rift, not surprisingly appears with the AFRICAPOLIS / GLC 2000 data-crossing (Map 10). The presence of numerous Palaeolithic and Neolithic archaeological sites attests to its ancient occupation. Three convergent routes have contributed since the Neolithic to the establishment of settlement: that of the rift originating in Ethiopia to the north-east, the ‘Nile Flow’ coming from Sudan and the north, the ‘Bantu route’ coming from the west. A final important route comes from the east, that is, from the shores of the Indian Ocean, beginning in the 10th century. The Bantu migration pushed toward the south the gathering logic of the peoples known as ‘khoisan’. The way taken is identifiable by the limit of the Bantu-phone populations – a limit both revealing and deceptive, for numerous populations arrived via the ‘Nile Flow’ in successive waves of migration from the time of the High Middle Ages. And the thousand-year old contact with the Arab populations of the first Bantu speakers established on the coasts is at the origin of Swahili. Three settlement logics have thus been present for a thousand years: the logic of the farmers derived from the Bantu migrations; the logic of the herders derived from the Nile migrations; and the logic of the eastern slave-trade. And the fourth logic – the colonial logic – is, of course, largely present. It is particularly at the origin of an extension of the centre in the direction of the Kenyan coast in the region of Nairobi, which followed one of the routes of the logic of slave-trading.

Map 10: The area of the Great Lakes: highlands, agriculture, high rural density and contemporary agglomerations

Map 10: The area of the Great Lakes: highlands, agriculture, high rural density and contemporary agglomerations

54The area of the Great Lakes, between the two Rifts, was inhabited in 2010 by 116 million people. The population was estimated at 22 million in 1960. The average density today, exclusive of water surface, is on the order of 300 inhabitants per km² – a level comparable to the Benelux or India. The rural population is by far in the majority, with 91.5 million inhabitants in 2010 versus 22 million in 1960. It represented 96 % of the total population at the end of colonisation and still represents 84 % today. The level of urban population is traditionally low: 0.8 million, or 3.3 % of the population, in 1960. The area of the Great Lakes vies with the Ethiopian area for first place as the least urbanised settlement centre on the planet. In 2010, urban-dwellers were estimated at 24 million, or 21 % of the population. That concerns 237 agglomerations (fifteen in 1960). The largest in 2010, as in 1960, was Nairobi, with 4,436,257 inhabitants (300,000 in 1960). A product of colonial logic, which developed with the railway linking the coast (Mombasa) to the Lakes, Nairobi is a sort of place of convergence of three previous logics of settlement: Bantu agricultural, Nile Flow nomadic, and Swahili commercial. In a sense, it has turned to its profit the long-distance routes which, for a long time, were in the control of the Ethiopian area (cf. Ethiopian area).

55The second and third agglomerations are discoveries linked to the e-Geopolis methodology used for AFRICAPOLIS (cf. supra). These are the Western Conurbation and Nyanza Conurbation. They counted, respectively, 3.9 million and 2.3 million inhabitants in 2010. They show how an agro-pastoral settlement logic with strong demographic growth favours the emergence of agglomerations in situ by combining demographic and spatial growth (coalescences) – a situation which, after the latest AFRICAPOLIS 2018 updates, appears more and more widespread in Africa (cf. Ethiopian Grand Rift).

56The Great Lakes area is composed of a population far less homogeneous than that of the other great area, the Ethiopian area. Their internal demographic dynamics are comparable today. They are differentiated by, in one case, the combination of different logics linked to its relative openness, and, in the other case, the absence of such a combination, which is linked to its relatively closed quality. But in both cases, one witnesses the emergence of agglomerations in situ.

Conclusion: the territories of mobility and interdiction

57The methodological elements presented are relatively simple to apply but require long and meticulous study. Unexpectedly, the spatial crossing of the Africapolis distribution of agglomerations with the GLC2000 occupation of the land suggests a relation between these independent sources. To go further, an evaluation of the spatial auto-correlation may be envisaged, but this did not enter into our initial study of urbanisation.

58The approach selected, oriented rather towards the contributions of archaeology, history, anthropology and linguistics, nevertheless enables recognition of the fact that central and eastern Africa is rich with numerous settlement logics, some of them ancient, others contemporary. Combining them makes it possible to identify spaces having similar dynamics: the Sahelian Corridor, the Ubangian Road, the Bantu Routes, the Ethiopian area and the area of the Great Lakes.

59These territories today count 880 agglomerations, or 75 % of the agglomerations of central and eastern Africa. Roughly half, that is, 421, are located in the two great areas which together cover less than a million km². The 459 others are divided among territories far more extensive – on the order of 3 million km². The area of the Great Lakes (0.5 million km²) alone contains more than a quarter of them (234).

60The eastern centres contain approximately 34 million urban-dwellers, including more than 23 in the Great Lakes. The Sahelian Corridor, the Ubangian Road, and the Bantu Routes also count 34 million. All are territories characterised by mobility, with long-distance logics linked to pastoralism, itinerant agriculture, and merchant exchanges.

61Between them are interspersed territories very little urbanised: the first extends from the Somalian steppes to the Tanzanian savannahs. Nomadic mobility is a sort of homage to the former Khoisan occupants. In these areas poorly adapted to rain-farming, the logic of slave-trading linked to the Swahili trading posts has not encouraged establishment of a sedentary rural population.

62The second is, of course, well known. Concerned here are the flooded rain-forests of the Congolese Basin, the deepest part of the Great Forest. Avoided for a long time, except by the Pygmy peoples closely associated with the ‘Tall Blacks’ – the Bantu to whom they persistently furnished supplementary food, thanks to their hunting practices – the region is still in parts scarcely inhabited.

63The last area is readily visible on the spatial images and less immediately perceptible: it extends from the eastern extremity of the Ubangian Road to the northern confines of the Great Lakes area and the southern ones of the Ethiopian area. Coveted by all – Nilo-Saharans, Afro-Asiatics, slave-traders (Saharan, Oriental, Occidental, Inter-African), colonisations (Britannic, German, French, Belgian) – it belongs to none, as if stricken, according to the formula of the Canadian geographer Gilles Ritchot, by a spatial interdiction of ownership… For that author, this interdiction is the geographic pendant of the prohibition of incest for relational structures in anthropology. It contributes to the forms (structures) and formations (structurations) of settlement.

64The continuation of the study of settlement might pass through the study of relations between territories of settlement and territories of mobility.

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1 The report of the FAO on ‘L’état de la sécurité alimentaire et de la nutrition dans le monde’ (The state of secure food supply and nutrition in the world) states that ‘en 2016, le nombre de personnes dans le monde souffrant de sous-alimentation chronique a augmenté, d’après les estimations, passant de 777 millions en 2015 à 815 millions’ (in 2016, the number of persons in the world suffering from chronic malnutrition has increased, according to estimates, rising from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million). Of these, 225 million are in sub-Saharan Africa en Afrique sub-saharienne [FAO, 2017]. [utiliser les versions anglaises des documents officiels là où ces dernières sont disponibles…?]

2 The FAO’s study of world agriculture ‘suggère que le taux de croissance de la production agricole mondiale peut suivre celui de la demande, à condition que soient mises en place les politiques nationales et internationales voulues pour développer l'agriculture’ (suggests that the rate of growth of world agricultural production may be equal to the growth in demand, on condition that the natural and international policies needed for developing agriculture are put in place) [FAO, 2015, Agriculture mondiale : horizon 2015-2030]

3 B.P: Before Present (1950).

4 Agriculture represented 57 % of the total employment in sub-Saharan Africa in 2017 according to the World Bank (

5 This term ‘nomadité’ (nomadity) seems to us preferable to the term ‘nomadisme’ (nomadism) because the triple forms ‘nomade, nomadisation, nomadité’ conforms, in our view, to numerous others constructed on this model, such as ‘territoire, territorialisation, territorialité’ (territory, territorialisation, territoriality).

6 By local population unit we mean localities included as a basic statistical unit present in the statistical data of the censuses (e.g., ‘commune’ in France).

7 190,000 years out of 200,000 years.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Map 1. The 457 ‘subdivisions’ of the regional base and the e-Geopolis agglomerations
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Titre Maps 2a et b. The agglomerations and rural densities in central and eastern Africa in 1960-1970
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Titre Carte 2c et d. Les agglomérations et les densités rurales en Afrique centrale et orientale en 1980-1990
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Titre Maps 2e and f. The agglomerations and rural densities in cenral and eastern Africa in 2000-2010
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Titre Map 3: Formation of settlement in central and eastern Africa
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Titre Map 4: The Sahelian corridor: steppe, savannah, agriculture, high rural density and agglomerations
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Titre Map 5: The Ubangian road: the savannah in movement
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Titre Map 6: The Bantu route: linguistic limit, mosaic agriculture, rain-forest, heavy rural density and agglomerations
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Titre Map 7: The western Bantu route: agriculture and rain-forest, high rural density and agglomerations
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Titre Map 8: The eastern and southern Bantu routes: agriculture and rain-forest, high rural density and agglomerations
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Titre Map 10: The area of the Great Lakes: highlands, agriculture, high rural density and contemporary agglomerations
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Hervé Gazel, « The Settlement of Central and Eastern Africa: Inherited Logics and Contemporary Urban Development »Espace populations sociétés [En ligne], Hors-série | 2021, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2021, consulté le 24 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Hervé Gazel

Maitre de Conférences en Géographie-Aménagement,
Univ Lyon Jean Moulin, UMR 5600 EVS
18, rue Chevreul 69362 LYON Cedex 07

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