The Silicon Savannah: Kenya’s New Megacity

Published by Brandonc1991 on

The story begins with SEACOM, a cable operator using a series of submerged and terrestrial fiber optic cables to provide high speed internet access to Africa’s east and west coasts. Prior to its installation, many African countries such as Kenya lacked the infrastructure to support the speedy internet system it enjoys today. However, despite this technological leap, unemployment remained an issue at large. Kenya experienced an unemployment rate as high as 40% at one period. Many of the unemployed have been educated young people. In many countries large numbers of unemployed youths have lead to unrest, bringing to mind the saying “idle hands are the devil’s tools”. Strangely enough a new phenomenon emerged, the idle hands of the unemployed when combined with high speed internet access, made for a spike in entrepreneurship. Startups began to spring forward with a zeal reflecting the rising generation’s desire for progress. Now que the company 88 MpH, a company granting funding ranging from 12-25,000 dollars to Kenyan companies devoted towards helping the country’s mobile industry. Funding and devotion towards technological progress has grown so much in recent years that work has begun on the creation of Kenya’s 5,000 acre technological city of Konza.

Concept design of Konza

 

Konza is said to be where the silicon savannah begins. The city is hoped to create 20,000 IT jobs by 2015 and 200,000 by 2030 as part of its Vision 2030 initiative, and has served as a middle ground for politics as all parties have committed to funding its development. Kenyan public and private investors will be enlisting the help of SHoP Architects, the company known for designing New York city’s Barclay’s Center. The project will be launched from the ground up in a site 50 miles from the capital of Nairobi. The future city as a technological beacon in Africa that officials hope will place Kenya along side countries like Singapore in regards to innovation, and like the rise of China and Singapore, Konza will focus on becoming a special economic zone granting foreign companies lower tax rates. However, there is some criticism on the creation of Konza, Dayo Olopade author of the book “The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa” says the exodus of the wealthy to Konza will resemble the “white flight” from America’s inner cities and throw salt in the wounds of socioeconomic progress that are already damaging African progress.

 

However the term special economic zone doesn’t quite fit Konza. Unlike the special economic zone of Shenzhen China, Konza’s primary focus will be on focused on Business Processing and Information Technology Enabled Services (BPO/ITES).  There are six key sectors that will drive Konza’s growth. Business process outsourcing (BPO), software development, data centers, disaster recovery centers, call centers and light assembly manufacturing industries. However, investors in the Kenyan megacity will be exempt from income tax for the first 10 years of operation in Konza. Investors will also be exempt from any taxes on goods and services imported for the construction of the city. This is part of the Konza Technopolis Development Authority Bill.

Olopade has a strong point in that the creation of this technopolis can drive investment away from areas in need of proper schooling and infrastructure. Simply making the assumption that creating a megacity for the wealthy and educated won’t lead to a brighter future for all Kenyans. It brings to mind the notion of trickle down economics of the Reagan era which believed more money in the hands of the upper echelons would unlock their entrepreneurial zeal and prompt investments that will benefit the country as a whole.  Konza will most likely be a city where the rich get richer. But thats not all it will be.

 

Kenya like in many other countries in Africa, has a young population. 60.8% of the Kenyan population is between 0-24 while the country’s average age is 19. It is a country where the youth are exploring entrepreneurial means to side step the inefficiencies of the government. Konza is the playground for these young minds to unleash their creativity, it is Kenya’s young that understand modern technology, and it will largely be the young that give Konza life. In a country where many of the educated youth are unemployed, Konza will be a beacon of hope for many. Davis Karambi, one of the many young entrepreneurs in Kenya, is quoted in Olopade’s book.

“If politics is trying to optimize what you have in the system in terms of public resources, then that’s the kind of politics I would like to do. And I am already a politician in that sense.”

This statement reflects the impact of the new Africa. A new wave of educated, globally aware individuals who are committed to social progress. This is the new and improved trickle down effect. Instead of having faith that the wealthy will throw their surplus of money at existing problems when they frequently do the opposite, the educated youth are now paying it forward through a passion for innovation and a desire for change brought about by dysfunctional governments. Kenya is a nation that has already had two publicly beneficial innovations in technology, M-Pesa a mobile banking system making payments and transfers of currency easier for its population, and Ushahidi an organization based around crowd sourcing and a type of citizen journalism to promote safe and fair elections via mobile devices.

The extent of use of the Ushahidi app around the world.

 

Konza is one of many modern examples of man made metropolises built from scratch. According to a U.N press release, the world’s population is expected to rise by 2.5 billion in 45 years with nearly all growth occurring in less developed areas. As the population of the developed world grows, the reason for the continued growth and the prevention of a declining population comes from immigration from the developing world. The booming populations and the mass migrations of people have resulted in cities becoming hard pressed to provide resources to its people. The crowding of cities has resulted in governments looking for alternative means to accommodate for the boom. In addition to Kenya, Russia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates are among those who have invested huge slews of money to create “instant” megacities that will serve as technological business hubs. The construction of a giant metropolis doesn’t always promise success. China is known for having built multiple megacities that sit unoccupied. New cities are built at a rate of 12-24 a year, yet the apartments purchased by wealthy middle class investors can’t find tenants who are able to meet the rent. This is a problem that has actually lead to a growing housing bubble in China that threatens to burst.

Zhengzhou New District residential Towers remain empty

 

By being a country still facing a problem with high unemployment, Kenya must play a delicate balancing act in building Konza. It has the potential to be a place where young minds can influence change through innovation, yet at the same time it can’t fall prey to strongman politics. Transparency International’s Corruption Index 2014 ranked Kenya at 27/100, meaning Kenya’s level of corruption is still very high even for a country that’s one of the most progressive in Africa. However there should be optimism in Konza as young Kenyans are less fearful of speaking out against the government, focusing on change, and embracing a new technological era.

 


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