Africa’s high-tech boom boosts the continent’s competitiveness

konzaKonza City is one of the largest infrastructure projects planned in Africa. When complete, it will be a major technology hub. (Image: KOTDA)


• Miriam Rahedi
Manager, Branding, Marketing & Communications
Konza Technopolis Development Authority (KOTDA)
+254 20 434 3013
konza@konzacity.go.ke

Sulaiman Philip

In Nigeria it’s the Wennovation Hub; Cape Town has CodeBridge, and Zambia BongoHive. Across Africa, from these centres to the ICT Incubator in Mauritius, the continent is alive with tech entrepreneurs.

In Nairobi coders and entrepreneurs find one another at the iHub. In Ghana, Mobile Webs’s 300 techies have driven the growth in region-specific apps and technology, showing that Africa’s tech industry has grown quickly and organically; now African governments are looking to harness that success to spur diversity and growth in their economies.

Over the next few years two new cities will emerge. Both – one in Ghana and the other in Kenya – are the vision of a new Africa made real.

Ghana will spend $10-billion of private and public money over the next three years to build Hope City. Once completed it will provide employment for 50 000, have housing for 25 000, and facilities geared towards encouraging the growth of Ghana’s blossoming IT sector.

Designed around a complex of six towers, which will be built to resemble Ghana’s traditional compound housing, the tallest will be a 75-storey, 270m-high colossus, the highest building in Africa. Once completed Hope City will be the largest tech assembly plant in the world, able to manufacture a million products a day.

hopecity1
Hope City in Ghana will be home to the tallest building in Africa, once it is completed. (Image: OBR Architects)

Africa’s ‘Silicon Savannahs’

Roland Agambire, CEO of Ghanaian tech company RLG Communications, has been tapped to run the project. He believes that the lack of research and manufacturing infrastructure is holding back Africa’s ability to diversify its economies and tap into the high-tech boom that is coming to the continent. As he told CNN, “The inspiration behind Hope City is to have an iconic ICT park where ICT players from all over the world can converge to design, fabricate and export software and everything arising from this country.”

Over the next 20 years Kenya will spend $14.5-billion to build Africa’s Silicon Savanah 60km from Nairobi. The construction is part of Kenya’s $25-billion infrastructure re-building programme. Money will be spent to improve Kenya’s commuter rail system, increase investment in green energy, and build a world-class sports academy. And it is Konza, with its hoped-for 200 000 jobs, that is the most significant project.

The architects envision a network of roads sweeping out from a CBD through residential neighbourhoods, a science park and two tech hubs. Green space will run along the seasonal rivers, and schools and a university, hotels and places of worship will all grow out of the 20km² open savannah.

Water pipelines are being laid to supply the 100 million litres a day Phase 1 – predicted to be completed by 2017 – will need. Construction on a new rail link connecting Konza to Mombasa and the port of Malaba has also begun.

The Konza Technopolis Development Authority aims to attract software developers, data centres, call centres and light assembly manufacturing industries to the Silicon Savanah. Konza will be a game changer for the ICT sector in Africa, President Mwai Kibaki believes. “We expect to spur massive trade and investment as well as create thousands of employment opportunities for young Kenyans in the ICT sector.”

Diversifying African economies through ICT

A recent Africa Progress Panel report highlighted the importance of diversifying African economies. The authors argued that governments needed to embrace new technology to help diversify and improve their financial systems. They went on to argue that continued foreign investment was dependent on a skilled labour market and acceptance of new technologies.

World Bank economist Hinh Dinh believes that now is the time for projects like Hope City and Konza, large infrastructure projects that show the world that Africa is indeed open for business. “If African countries miss this opportunity, it will take decades to catch up with the rest of the world.”

There have been advances and successes in African IT. The face of mobile banking has been changed by M-Pesa. Rwanda is hoping that its investment in digital technology will speed its transition from an agrarian economy to a service one.

John Ngumi runs the Konza project and believes steadfastly that the project will create between

20 000 and 30 000 jobs by the time the first phase is completed in 2017 and a total of 200 000 by 2030. He believes that Konza will create jobs outside the IT industry as the city evolves to completion.

But not everyone is convinced that this top-down idea to build the African IT industry will work.

Including local communities for sustainability

Alex Mukaru is a Nairobi-based IT entrepreneur who argued, to CNN, that the government has both overlooked the challenges of starting a business and misjudged the ability of the sector to create jobs on a large scale. “Getting everything you need to help you compose your project into a working unit is a challenge. You find that you lack the money or resources to move to the next level.”

His concerns are grounded as Konza and Hope City have run into problems with local communities.

Kenya had to introduce bylaws (recently rescinded) restricting informal settlements to outside a

10km exclusion zone and the Hope City site has had to be moved after the developers squabbled with local leaders, who claimed they had angered the ancestors.

Professor Vanessa Watson of UCT’s African Centre for Cities writes that cities like Hope and Konza threaten the well-being of the urban poor and, as is happening already, help to mobilise against them.

Governments, Watson warns, want to re-imagine African cities as sub-Saharan Dubais or Shanghais without considering the conditions in most African cities. Looking to build legacies politicians disregard the fact that most of the population that will be displaced are extremely poor and living in informal settlements and that those left behind are excluded from the benefits of new developments.

“Draped in the rhetoric of ‘smart cities’ and ‘eco-cities’, these plans promise to modernise African cities and turn them into gateways for international investors and showpieces for ambitious politicians. They disregard conditions of urban populations living in deep poverty and with minimal urban services, and could indeed make the situation worse.”

Social engineering through grand purpose-designed cities are nothing new. Among the most legendary is the Le Corbusier-designed city of Chandigarh in northern India. Intended to replace Lahore – lost to Pakistan after partition in 1947 – as Punjab’s provincial capital, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to set a marker. Chandigarh was going to represent India’s emergence into a brave new world, free of the yoke of Britain’s colonial rule.

The crowning achievement of the Swiss architect’s career, the only city he custom-designed (right down to the manhole covers, door handles and furniture) and built, was meant to be a living experiment, the encapsulation of his theories on urban planning.

Its boulevards were designed to accommodate a growing number of cars and its wide open plazas meant as a gathering place for citizens. Designed to house 300 000 people it is now home to a million. It is considered safe, with job opportunities in abundance and lively cultural and educational sectors.

Chandigarh is a success not because it was custom-designed, but in spite of this. The administration quarter, the reason for the city’s existence, is surrounded by machine gun nests and barbed wire – because of its proximity to the border with Pakistan and the disputed Kashmir region. The Capitol complex is slowly returning to the forest while the rest of the city is thriving.

chandigah
Chandigarh’s administration centre has been allowed to decay. The pools around the Capitol are dry most of the year. (Image: Dave Morris)

The citizens of Chandigarh appropriated their city and made it more blue collar than bureaucratic. Today Konza and Hope City are still jigsaws of trenches encircled by fences. In Konza the water infrastructure is being completed and just the borders of Hope City has been marked out of the bush. It is a long way away before any citizens of these silicon savannahs get to make their cities over in their own image.