Megacities, KLIM

I am in Lagos this week, staying in a business hotel on Victoria Island, the well to do center of Lagos and part of a stretch of land separating the Lagos Lagoon from the Atlantic Ocean.  You can feel the expanse of water here the way you can feel the Gulf in New Orleans. Humidity, heat, a dampness that mildews older buildings, the smell of salt, the closeness of the air. The heat is intense and walking to the local supermarket to buy some milk and tea, I am comforted by the low rumbly growl of diesel generators and the smell of their sooty exhaust that punctuate my walk, hearing one at every sizable building I pass. They are less a backup than a main source of electricity – the public grid seems to falter hourly.

Women selling pineapples from a broken down table under a shade tree, a group having breakfast cooked by a woman busy at a stove, a young man splayed out on a bench, sandals off, napping. Pedestrians coming and going, broken up curbs and sidewalks, a trash choked drainage ditch. Utility pipes protruding here and there. Crisply uniformed and very polite security guards (“Good mahning sah!”, “You’re welcome.”) at every gated building entrance. Late model SUVs making their way gingerly down a wildly torn up street – a public works project that never quite got finished. Or maybe never quite started. Urban off roading for the well to do.

Lagos by the numbers is impressive: more than 21 million people live here with about 600,000 people moving to the city every year (that is one Toronto every 5 years or one Bay Area every 12). The city generates over a quarter of Nigeria’s GDP but comprises less than 12% of its population. The GDP of Lagos State – the region in which Lagos sits – tops $US 157 BN, which would put it in the top third of countries tracked by the World Bank. Lagos hosts a vibrant music, fashion and culture scene – Nollywood employs over 1 MM people and is second only to Bollywood (in Mumbai India) in its volume of film production, making over 50 films a week. It is a major port – my ride to a client site took my by an offshore oil rig moored next to the highway in the middle of town, and stacks of shipping containers – and manufacturing center.

Lagos is one of 33 megacities – cities with more than 10 MM inhabitants – globally; that number is expected to rise to 43 by 2030. Most of these are in emerging markets in Asia, specifically in China and India, which together account for about a third of the earth’s population. There are a few megacities in the developed world – e.g. Tokyo, London, New York, Los Angeles, Seoul – but the fastest growing are in emerging markets: Delhi will overtake Tokyo in size in 10 years. Planners expect the Earth’s rural population to stay constant at about 3 BN people, as it has since 1990, so your offspring’s offspring are likely to live in a city of some size, perhaps even a megacity.

Slums are a key component of many megacities, particularly in the Southern hemisphere. A little over half folks in Lagos may live in slums , which are informal, semi legal but essential engines of the local economy. The word slum, used by folks studying the phenomenon, is itself is a rather harsh and negative term, conjuring up images of slum clearance programs in America in the ’50s and ’60s (e.g. Robert Moses wiping out whole neighborhoods in New York City), campaigns against slums in Victorian London and even Haussman’s massive reorganization Paris in the late 1800s that cut wide swaths through the city’s medieval urban fabric, displacing 1,000s of people.

Slums share a number of characteristics:

  1. A lack of publicly serviced infrastructure (e.g. water, power, sewer)
  2. A lack of clear title to land
  3. Health issues (Slums tend to get built in marginal locations and because of the lack of infrastructure (#1) can be unhealthy.)
  4. Poorer quality construction (Without clear title (#2) occupants get neither a sense of permanence nor financing and so limit their investment in their dwellings.)
  5. Lawlessness, due to a lack of public policing (Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are notoriously gang controlled)

Makoko, a floating slum in Lagos, called by one local paper “The Venice of Africa”(!)

Slums are also essential to a megacity’s economy, providing a low cost pool of labor to businesses in the city and low cost housing for that labor. Their dynamism is unparalleled. A study a number of years ago of a slum in the suburbs of New Delhi indicated that its occupants were literate, better educated than the overall population, income producing, and comprised of households having an above average accumulation of assets. Slums exhibit the tenacity, hope and hardscrabble existence in emerging markets that is the path out of poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

Slums’ lack of legal standing makes them impermanent: officials may clear them out every now and then but they come back – a little like the homeless under freeways in Oakland.  Construction on marginal land and lack of planning or services makes slums prone to fire, flooding (As in the case of Makoko here in Lagos) or demolition, should a profitable use be figured out for their location.


I find myself drinking cups of tea in Ghana and Nigeria made with milk that is powdered, evaporated or UHT – fresh milk isn’t a thing here (Hard to run cattle in a tropical country.)

The taste of tea made with powdered milk brings back memories of camping trips in Alberta and British Columbia when our parents would bring along a tin of KLIM.  Chilly mornings with a complete breakfast cooked on a Coleman stove, sleeping in a heavy canvas tent – it must have been backbreaking to set up – that smelled of camphor.  Smoke from the fire stinging your eyes, marshmallows to roast if you were good.  Endless squabbles in the backseat with siblings, drives on two lane highways stuck behind logging trucks or cars pulling trailers that felt endless, to places that never seemed to appear.  When a sunday school teacher tried to explain the idea of eternity to me I got it right away and secretly hoped that heaven, if I got there, wouldn’t be one of those interminable country roads we plied through the endless forests of British Columbia on summer vacations.

KLIM was powdered whole milk that was favored because it was an economic alternative to fresh milk and would keep without refrigeration for a while (I expect that the butterfat in it would as some point go bad if you didn’t use it up.) and it tasted better than powdered skim milk. Because of the fat content It was difficult to mix in water and when used with tea, gave the hot drink a flavor that wasn’t bad – better than Coffee Mate – but not that close to the real thing. The branding people must have been taxed to come up with the name – milk spelled backwards! I wonder if they offered this name at a discount; maybe that only applied to palindromes.

Scenes From Lagos


  1. Hugh, You have such an observant eye and sharp mind! The photos you take often capture the essence of scenes that seem to pop out of my memory–not specific memories, but as though I saw a similar thing in the past. Thank you for sharing them. Your discussion of the informal economy–the “slums”–reminded me of a book by Hernando de Soto. I just looked it up and the one I remember reading is The Mystery of Capital. Did you ever read it? If that is the book I’m thinking of, there was an interesting discussion of land titles in it–comparing the development of the west in the US and how land titles were key in making capitalism flourish there, with the lack of land titles in countries such as his native Peru. –Justine

    • Thanks Justine. I thought about de Soto’s book when writing this (I read it many years ago) and his mapping of how long it took to get approvals to start a business in a place like Peru. I think we generally take for granted how well and fluid our credit system is, because it works (Most of the time) and we don’t notice it. Interestingly, folks tell me that title to land in Ghana is generally pretty complicated because there are overlapping claims (The occupier, tribes, government.) so real estate development deals often get tied up in court.

  2. This is fantastic Hugh. It brings back some memories of visiting Harare for work 20 years ago. Not a mega city but the description of the slums is similar to what I recall seeing.
    I think a book about your work this year is in the making!
    Happy trails

  3. Anna-Mary G Morgan says

    I can smell that big canvas, reddish brown tent and taste the KLIM- I disliked it so much I ate oatmeal without it.
    And I remember the big real blue Pontiac and it’s enormous trunk
    packed for a 2 week vacation; every cubic inch had something pressed into it.
    And the logging trucks from which it always seemed a mammoth Douglas fir log might roll off at any curve or twist in the road.

  4. Daniel D. Vastola says

    Your post and photos were illuminating and emotional. I’ve been at a tax fraud conference all day and your observations were the best part of my day. Thanks for including the photo of the man carrying the sewing machine.

    • Hugh Morgan says

      Yeah. I spoke to him – he had been basically enslaved for years by some American guy who made quilts in his nice home in NorCal. The guy said he worked with a bunch of Vietnamese (The Nigerian dude, not the American).

  5. carol woods says

    once again, late to read this but I’ve heard so much about Lagos and have never been to a developing world mega city. thank you. again.

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