FUTURE LAGOS | Interview: Working in Lagos. Making Lagos work (Part 2)

“Africa just keeps getting skipped during these larger discussions.”

future lagos

On a cool Lagos evening, Olamide Udoma sat with Robert van Kats and Remco Rolvink at a boutique hotel to discuss solutions for a leading African city and how DASUDA is starting to take action. This is part two of the three part interview.

future lagos logo

by Olamide Udoma

Other articles in the series: Working in Lagos. Making Lagos work (Part 1)

Water Cities

Olamide Udoma: You just mentioned your fascination with the rapid expansion of Lagos and how quick the city changes. What else keeps you coming back?

Remco Rolvinc: Another thing about Lagos is its relationship to water. Of course for us being Dutch and our relationship to water, it is normal for us to take an interest in similar cities but also from a professional point of view – the way the city has developed; Lagos, the lagoon, the island, and new islands. This might be the next step in exploring and studying the city – the potential of the water surrounding Lagos.

OU: I definitely agree – I am part of a collective called Imagineering Lagos, and we just worked on a project, Lagos 2060, that was screened at Nesta’s Future Fest. And during our discussions, the city’s relationship with water came up again and again. Some things that came up were how to use the waterways in Lagos and how reclaiming land will affect the city in the future. I think it is something that is integral to the future of Lagos. Lagos is starting to realise the potential of its water but I do not think it has really been analysed in the context of now and the future.

RR: Today I was doing a little sketch in a meeting and we were talking about Lagos Island. If you look at Lagos Island on a map, it is completely cut off all the way along by a highway. So the whole connection with water is cut off, whereas what made it the heart of the city was the connection with the water.

Lagos harbour

From our discussions, we have realised that everyone is looking inward, away from the water. Hardly anyone is looking over their shoulders and saying, “Oh! we have a whole lagoon, what can we do with it?”. So, although it is early, what I do know is that the Lagos case study will be about how to turn the face towards water.  This case study might be very detailed -the relationship of waste water and how the lagoon is being used-or it might be really large-scale. But it is so fascinating that the current identity is not linked with what actually is the core and DNA of the city.

OU: Yes, water does play an integral part to Lagos. 60% of the city sits below sea level, how can it not.


Robert van Kats: We should do a comparison with Lagos and Netherlands, with this kind of data using infographics showing the relationship. Maybe it’s a strange comparison – the Netherlands is a small country, but has more or less the same number of inhabitants in the whole country as Lagos. It will be interesting to see the differences – how much of it is below sea level, what is the percentage of water within the city –  things like that.

RR: People might say it is crazy to think of solutions for Lagos from the Netherlands and other places in the world. In fact, we have discussed this with Rashid, not copying things and then placing them in African cities.

Please, let’s stop it, we need to find local solutions. It didn’t work in China so why do it here. However, what we can take are the principles learnt. Some of the principles of water cities around the world, using markers that Robert pointed out, like the number of people living below sea level, the number of people dealing with flooding and climate resilience can lead to all kinds of solutions.

I pointed it out at a meeting back home where we were comparing Mumbai, Amsterdam, and the typical cities and of course the African continent was skipped again. But the themes are actually the same themes we discuss while in Lagos.

Three weeks ago in Accra while at the urban design conference, Accra Revisited, we came across so many things that are linked. In Africa there are things that are different – cultures are different, cities are different – but there are things that are generic, like urban planning principles. However, Africa just keeps getting skipped during these larger discussions.

What we would like to do with these case studies is bring in principles but also via discussions and dialogues create solutions that are typical for a specific location. These are not typical ‘African solutions’, because that does not exist, but let’s design solutions for Lagos, or for Accra.

OU: Have you heard about the ‘privatisation’ of water in Lagos? I think it is a good thing.

RR: I haven’t heard about it. I think it depends on the situation. We are studying it in other countries and there are some, let’s call them, ‘structural elements’ for infrastructural systems of which it is okay to ‘privatise’. Privatisation might benefit the citizens or it just doesn’t really matter. So if you do ‘privatise’ it, it is fine but there are some that absolutely don’t work. And I think that there are great examples around the world, where public transport systems, especially rail ‘privatisation’ that just have not worked. Other services include electricity. Yes, you can ‘privatise’ electricity resources but not the network, never the network. I think water is actually similar to electricity.

borehole image

In Nigeria, the whole principle of the borehole fascinates me. If every plot has a borehole or if you share with your compound, how many boreholes are there? I was asking around, ‘What is the depth of boreholes in homes?’. Some said 60 meters, others 120 meters. We even spoke to someone who said 300 meters. It is not regulated, and people don’t know what they are doing. In Lagos, a city of 20-30 million people, where is the wastewater going? It goes back into the earth and into layers. We hear that people don’t have to register a borehole with a depth of less than 120 or so meters, so people build at shallow depths like 35 meters and what they are getting is completely polluted water. This is a problem.

RVK: I am curious, why do you think this will be positive. Is it because you think that the current system is not working?

OU: Exactly, there is no one regulating access to potable water. I do not know the nitty gritty of how it will work. Like a lot of things, it sounds great on paper but the implementation could be a different story.

If it happens that it can be regulated, and maybe decentralised. For example, Ikoyi can have 5 boreholes and Ikeja can have maybe 8 boreholes because it is a little larger. This will allow for more structure. We will also know what we are consuming as a city. Right now we don’t know.

RVK: In that sense, I agree that it could be ‘privatised’ if that is the level of ‘privatisation’. But, like what you asked before, do we need a dictator or not? With the dictator of that new water company – it can go both ways. He can do a really marvelous job providing high quality water for a fair price that people can afford, or it can become all about money and people who need water can not access it or the quality is terrible. And that is the danger of ‘privatisation’. But the same thing can happen with the government.

OU: I do not know the nitty gritty of the project and how it will work, all I know is it is being done in partnership with the World Bank and I read recently that a number of people protested.

RR: Who was protesting?

OU: Local people who I  guess, are worried about the price going up. I asked myself the same question, who is protesting, because a lot of the people do not use piped water from the mains. I do in my house, which means sometimes we don’t have water for days, even though we have two reservoir tanks. So maybe it is personal to think that ‘privatisation’ is a good idea. Even people who are not wealthy do not use water provided by the state, mainly because they are not connected. It might look nice in writing, but how will it be implemented and who will implement it.


RR:  This is very interesting and a very good topic because it shows the complexity of the city. I guess you have to implement a system, one that already exists and improve on it a little bit. Maybe this will then work better because people already understand the system.

It might be like what you said – in one area you drill four boreholes, you centralise water – but maybe it is managed by co-operation. Maybe if you are a house owner you automatically have a share in this company because each house needs water. It can be as simple as that. It might be interesting to discuss these types of solutions.

OU: I think that is a better way, in terms of even thinking of innovation. Take public space, how do people already use public space and then tweak that a little to make it a little more formal than saying “people are selling on the roadside, get rid of them.” It is not about taxing them or getting them off the roadside, rather how do you create an environment that is a little more acceptable to the regulations but also allows the traders to trade.

RVK: If you look on any street, go to Apapa, go to wherever, the street activities are there but the space is not. So when it comes to public space, what space is actually needed for the people? Do not look at the European standard of what a street should look like.

busy street

RR: No one even uses a street like that anyway.

RVK: Find out what activities are already there and then who is lacking space. Approach the challenge from that point of view and from there start developing your public spaces and start building according to that.

Working with decision makers

OU: And that is where my problem lies with working with government officials, how do you get them to think differently?

RVK:  Hopefully we can get them on-board.

OU: I hope so. It is difficult to change behavior and change people’s way of thinking.

RR: Maybe it is not changing their way of thinking but their thinking will be changed by the change that is being made. For example if there is a ‘privatised’ space and we speak to a developer and tell him, ‘Let’s not develop a compound that is closed off with fences and barbed wire. Let’s open it up to make it public space. Maybe it should have some security mechanisms, but with a public space profile.’ We do the things Robert was mentioning about a street; opening up the first floor for commercial activity. When that is done people will say, wow this is so nice. Why not try that? It can happen very fast.

RVK: Something like what Issa Diabaté has done in Ivory Coast. He made a change and now everybody wants to do the same. You have to somehow show the alternatives. Once you have literally shown what is possible then things can change. If there is no alternative, what are you talking about?


RR: He is a self made architect, within a culture where there was no architecture. He started to refine architecture having been trained worldwide, and then he came home and decided to do it his way. He convinced one developer to build to his specifications and then a next door neighbour saw what was being built and said “oh that is nice, I like it as well” and then you find them building it as well.

The role of education in innovative change

OU: It seems like you are trying to add to the conversation in Lagos. Are you also thinking of including universities or educational institutions within the groups that work on case studies?

RVK: Definitely. I forgot to previously mention education. When you are talking about efficient building, project planning and implementation there is a whole set of stakeholders and parties that should be involved. There should be, either what we share altogether, locally and internationally, but also sharing should happen, indeed, through universities.

RR: In Nairobi, a university has been one of the main partners on the Kaloleni project. They came in to the project not just during the discussion phase but at the beginning when the project was being developed.


RVK: That project started as a collaboration between the government, the university and us. It also depends on how things start and what works in that city.

RR: In Accra a few weeks ago, we had an urban design event and students from Kumasi and Accra attended the workshops. At the start of the conference they were hesitant to join in, so they only listened. But by the third day it was so nice because they opened up and they started sketching. On the last day with only two hours, we decided to work as an office with the students. It was wonderful.

There are all kinds of collaborations but it has to fit the situation. Another thing that is nice to mention, is that we also do this the other way round where we bring Dutch students to Africa. We’ve had two students work in Nairobi for about 6 weeks and we are in contact with a student doing some research in Cape Town.


You can read part three of the interview with DASUDA’s founders, Robert van Kats and Remco Rolvink, next week, where we spoke about the globalisation of architecture and the stories told by Lagos architecture.


Image Credits:

1. Lagos Port – Image by Afritramp, www.afritramp.eu

2. Graph by Lagos Urban Research Group, www.lurgnetwork.wordpress.com

3. Borewhole – Image by Andrew Esiebo

4. Trade unionist and CSOs at a conference – http://www.nigeriancurrent.com/

5. Busy Lagos Street – http://africanstockshots.com/store/images/CFP147W.jpg

6. House designed by Issa Diabaté, www.wallpaper.com

7. Aerial view of Kaloleni, Kenya – www.newtowninstitute.org

About FutureLagos

Olamide Udoma is a researcher, writer and filmmaker holding degrees in BSc Architecture, MA Design and MPhil Infrastructure Management. Olamide has worked in London, South Africa and Nigeria with various organisations focusing on transport management, slum upgrading and housing rights in urbanising African cities. At Our Future Cities NPO, she is the Lagos manager and editor.