East Africa to get its First Dedicated Technology City

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

An ambitious scheme is underway to create a vast technology city on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.

With information technology proliferating across Africa after decades of stagnation and underinvestment, a host of exciting new technologies have had to exist within structures not built for the 21st century.

One attempt to change things is Konza Technology City (konzacity.co.ke), an ambitious project that aims to build the infrastructure to host the companies of the 21st century for Kenya and East Africa. Konza Technology City joins a growing network of technology cities and parks across the global South. If the links between these centres of technological innovation and smart thinking can be strengthened, they have the potential to contribute to exceptional gains in human development.

Konza Technology City will be built on 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) of land 60 kilometres south of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

The lead agency on the US $10 billion project is the Ministry of Information and Communication (http://www.information.go.ke/). The Kenyan government is seeking partners and investors to help with funding the project, whose components include a business process outsourcing (BPO) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_process_outsourcing) zone – where specific business functions are contracted to third party providers. There is also a financial district and a commercial district with office space.

This will be combined with the other side of Konza: hotels, hospitals, a sports stadium and other support services necessary to support a city. The idea is to develop the site over a period of 20 years, with the BPO and IT Educational and Science Park taking up 23 per cent of the site.

Kenya plans to expand its business process outsourcing sector and has been hosting conferences in Europe to gather the best advice. The sector has experienced double-digit growth in the past three years, rising on the increasing capacity brought by new undersea cables like TEAMs, Seacom and EASSy.

The idea is to put in place the building blocks of a 21st century Kenya and to become the leading hub for the whole of East Africa. Kenya has an ambitious plan to become a middle-income country by 2030 (http://www.vision2030.go.ke/).

There is scepticism about large projects in Kenya, with some fearing they will be abandoned before they are finished. But it does seem this project has galvanized a wide community of support. According to IT Web’s (http://www.itweb.co.za/) Ken Macharia, opponents of the project make various arguments. People in the information and communication technologies sector would like to see greater local capacity in place before such massive investment in buildings goes ahead. Others oppose the idea of having a planned city and would like to see things evolve organically. Still others question the government’s capacity to undertake such an ambitious scheme.

According to Macharia, the ‘if you build it, they will come’ argument is winning the day. The scope and ambition of the project has both excited many players within and outside government and focused their efforts.

Macharia even believes the public sector is way ahead of the private sector.

“The government is light years ahead in terms of the vision and drive of developing the ICT sector in the country, while the private sector is trying to catch up,” he said.

Kenya will become the first country in the region to build a technology city. It can look to China for some examples. One is Shenzhen City and its Science and Technology Park (http://www.ship.gov.cn/en/index.asp?bianhao=20). Or Cairo, Egypt’s Smart Village (http://www.smart-villages.com/).

Macharia also says the focus solely on technology is missing the bigger impact Konza can have.

“The city’s concept has financial, educational, commercial and industrial implications, which have not been sold as aggressively as the tech aspect has. Perhaps the better name for the proposed city would be Konza Special Economic Zone, where the key pillars mutually benefit from each other’s presence. Technology, after all, is a means to an end, not the end itself.”

The timing for a place like Konza City is excellent: undersea cables are being placed around and to Africa. The continent was notorious for being the most underserved continent on the planet and is in a furious transition from this information technology wasteland to a potential oasis of prosperity.

The undersea cable projects are promising a bandwidth explosion for the continent of Africa. The WACS cable (http://wacscable.com/index.jsp) is being put in place to link South Africa and Britain, and is due to be completed in 2012. It runs up the West Coast of Africa and will become the first direct connection to the undersea cable network for Namibia, the Congo and Togo.

It will increase South Africa’s bandwidth by an estimated 23 per cent.

Various technology investors, including the search engine giant Google, are also planning to build an undersea cable linking the so-called BRICS countries by 2014 – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The cable will also link them all to the United States. The technology group i3 Africa is leading the project (http://www.i3-mea.com/africa/), which should open up 21 additional African countries to the world’s undersea cable network.

Konza Technology City could make Kenya a significant beneficiary of all this new connectivity and bandwidth.

Resources

1) Center for Innovation Testing and Evaluation: CITE will represent a 20th century American city with a population of approximately 35,000 people and be built on roughly 15 square miles. CITE’s test city will be unpopulated. CITE will be a catalyst for the acceleration of research into applied, market-ready products by providing “end to end” testing and evaluation of emerging technologies and innovations from the world’s public laboratories, universities and the private sector. Website: http://www.cite-city.com/index.php

2) Dubai Internet City: Since its official opening in 2000, Dubai Internet City (DIC) has grown to become the Middle East and North Africa’s largest Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Business Park, hosting both global and regional companies. Website: http://www.dubaiinternetcity.com/

3) Songdo International Business District (IBD) officially opened on August 7, 2009 as a designated Free Economic Zone and the first new sustainable city in the world designed to be an international business district. With its strategic location just 15 minutes driving time from Incheon International Airport and 3 ½ hours flying time to 1/3 of the world’s population and regional markets such as China, Russia and Japan, Songdo IBD will position South Korea as the commercial epicenter of Northeast Asia. Website: http://www.songdo.com/

4) Nasrec Smart City: South Africa’s own ‘smart city’ is in development. Website: http://www.businessday.co.za/articles/Content.aspx?id=168466

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