Kenyan Smart Cities – Are They Overambitious Plans or Investment Opportunities?

Across the globe, the rate of urbanization has grown tremendously with nearly 66 percent of the world’s population predicted to be urban by 2050.

Across the globe, the rate of urbanization has grown tremendously with nearly 66 per cent of the world’s population predicted to be urban by 2050.

Africa’s urban population has been growing at a very high rate – from about 27 per cent in 1950 to 40 per cent in 2015 and is projected to reach 60 per cent by 2050 according to UN-DESA, 2014.

Most Africans have moved to urban centres to enhance their productivity and living standards and by 2019, 40.71 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s total population lived in urban areas and cities.

With the rapid urban growth in Africa, the continent is positioning itself as a hub for smart cities, with ambitious plans like the Konza Technopolis in Kenya, Vision City in Rwanda, and Hope City in Ghana.

Kenya is among the countries that welcomed the coming into a place of the Paris agreement. The agreement paved way for the establishment of sustainable smart cities aimed at providing the much-needed impetus to address climate change for a safer future.

The country has approved six standards that will guide the development of eco and social-friendly cities that will use information and communications technology. Kenya has also attracted investors from all over the world who intend to make an impact on the African economy.

The country has few smart cities that are coming up including Tatu City, Konza Technopolis, Northlands City, Athi River Smart Green City. Despite such massive projects, many people are concerned whether they are just overambitious dreams or investment opportunities.

Take for instance the Konza Technopolis, there’s little to indicate that 13 years have gone by since its launch. When it began in 2008, the Kenyan government trumpeted it as being the future “best-planned” city in Africa.

It promised mass job creation and investors and it was meant to be a source of national pride and a marker of progress — a sign that Kenya was on the cutting edge of global tech. 

More than a decade later, Konza Technopolis is nothing to write home about. The novel kind of civic utopianism it presented has fallen short of what people expected. Of course, no smart city has ever been completed in a time laid down by contracts, but Konza City is taking way too long.

Initial plans for the project cited that the Technopolis would be completed in 4, 5year phases. The hype claimed that by 2020, last year, Konza City would have 100,000 jobs and would be pumping 1 billion US dollars a year into the Kenyan economy.

The promotional materials also pointed out that hundreds of multinational tech companies would have outposts in Konza, and a world-class fiber-optic network would run through its commercial center and financial district.

“There would be 37,000 homes in well-planned residential estates, large-scale shopping malls, and Kenyan and foreign university hubs,” the papers said not to mention a new highway and railway line linking the city to Nairobi.

Well, it is 2021, and there is nothing to show for it. The site for the city is represented by a complex where the Konza Technopolis Development Authority (KoTDA) is located. Nothing more to suggest a city.  It is the only building for kilometers around taller than one story, and nearby, cows grace idly.

Whatever idea I’d had of what a smart city under construction would look like, this was not it. But in a way, this was to be anticipated. And this is a representation of how smart cities in Kenya are absolute flops.

Of course, we can argue that developing countries can enjoy the same positive impacts of successful smart cities enjoy in developed economies, but the fact remains, many challenges developing sustainable smart cities face.

Case in point, Konza. The government promised that the project would ultimately generate 200,000 jobs, but the “projected cost of creating a single job would be roughly USD 32,000 — more than 20 times higher than the country’s average annual income” noted the Kenyan economist Kwame Owino. The government didn’t bother to elaborate how Konza would avoid the pitfall common to similar projects across the globe: that smart jobs often end up being given to handsomely paid expatriates.

Interestingly, the country continues to partner with other developers to come up with new smart cities despite the pending ones. Kenya’s Athi River Smart City is one of the latest projects that the government has declared of national strategic importance.

While it is possible to overcome the challenges such cities face and unlock the potential in Africa, funds are imperative. This cannot be emphasized enough. Funds are the lifeline for any socio-economic infrastructure to be developed, deployed, and managed. Beyond that, having reliable and secure systems that work diligently to actualize smart city plans is equally fundamental.

These megaprojects are only possible if the government gets its act together and makes the right partnerships. This will involve engaging with the experts, the public and private sectors, and like-minded visionaries. Otherwise, the dream of complete smart cities in Kenya will only remain high rhetoric.