Advancing global urbanism depends upon making Africa’s cities a more dominant part of the global urban narrative. Constructing a more legitimate research agenda for African cities, however, necessitates a repositioning of conventional modes of research. To achieve intellectual and political traction in what are typical African research conditions—where human needs are great, information is poor, conditions of governance are complex and the reality is changeable—we reflect on the experiences of the African Centre for Cities where (alongside conventional use of theory, methods and data) a translational mode of working has been adopted. The notion of translational urban research praxis captures more than the idea of applied research or even co-production, and encompasses integrating the research conception, design, execution, application and reflection—and conceiving of this set of activities as a singular research/practice process that is by its nature deeply political and locationally embedded. In this way we suggest that African urbanism can be both usefully illuminated by global theories and methods, and can simultaneously be constitutive of the reform of the ideas through which cities generally are understood.