Africa has a unique chance to leapfrog developed countries and lead the way in building Smart Cities. There is a great potential for the continent becoming the international model for smart urbanization but there is a growing drive to avoid the trap of overexcitement. Konza City in Kenya has been described as one case of an excitable government in action. Many people feel there is need to improve the structures in place and use the $14,5 billion for financing the tech industry in Nairobi instead of building the so-called Konza City. It would be dangerous if leaders decide to go for the showy, sleek showpieces of futuristic development at the expense of addressing the real issues. There is a great need to contextualize the Smart Cities and make them in the image of Africa and not Westernize African urban centers.
The African Development Bank, in Tracking Africa’s Progress in Figures notes that between 1960 and 2011, Africa’s urban population rose from 19% to 39%. The projection the bank gave shows that by 2040, 50% of Africa will be urbanized and by 2030, the urban populations will have increased by 350 million people. It is against this backdrop that Africa has mobilized capital to build such cities as Konza city in Kenya, due for completion by 2019 and HOPE City of Ghana due to be completed by 2030. The future will need Smart Cities, not simply mega cities so as to provide basic services more effectively in a connected and interwoven space. However, there are fundamental issues that need to be addressed before Africa starts out on building these futuristic settlements. An edifice the home-owner cannot afford to live in is pointless to build.
Cynthia Gordon, the Chief Executive Officer of Millicom, Africa Division has always been an advocate of a “bottom-up approach”. At the Mobile World Congress of 2016, she expressed her sentiments on the Smart Cities of Africa proffering the bottom up approach. Her argument is that the high-tech version of a Smart City risks oversimplification. Africa needs basic infrastructure, flexible network sharing opportunities and universal interoperability along with governments, regulators who work in tandem for digital and financial inclusion. The Millicom Executive therefore suggests that digital literacy and smartphone affordability be the starting points. In addition, better education in schools is required to equip residents with the requisite knowledge needed to use the internet based services of a Smart City. In addition, she considers internet penetration and cost as an essential part of the matrix.
The Pew Research Center Report of 2015 shows that all African countries are below the Global median of 67% in adult use of the internet at least occasionally and smartphone uptake. The highest is Africa at 42% which is paltry and sad when compared to the median, let alone South Korea’s 94%. Though Africa may want to lead the Smart City charge, it is trailing in the structural base as connectivity is paramount in a Smart City. The deterrent for most is the cost of the internet. ICT Facts and Figures, The world in 2015 reports that broadband price is 3 times higher in developing countries than the developed. Some steps have been taken but if a smart city is going to be built and people cannot access the internet, it becomes a useless development to them. Africa should move from the ideas of treating the internet as a luxury if the Smart Cities are going to be of any relevance to residents. There is need to create inclusive ICT systems affordable ad reliable for even the urban poor.
Africa’s smart cities have to tackle a different gamut of problems and solve them. Gordon identified some fundamental practicalities that are expected to be covered, “mobile birth registration and ensuring that every child receives a birth certificate; telemedicine, so that every parent is within easy reach of free medical advice for their child and; mobile money, so that every person can send and receive money and be a contributor to their local and national economies”. Going over the top and creating cities with technology meant for Western countries which are significantly ahead of Africa in service delivery would be building a doomed skyscraper with no foundation. If the cities are to be based on connectivity, are the costs low enough for the average African who obviously earns little? Is there an emphasis on provision of services like medical care and birth registrations as Gordon said? If all these are ignored, Africa will build Smart Cities that will wait for Western tourists yet the residents find no benefit in having them. Africa needs African Smart Cities.
Cynthia Gordon’s take on African Smart Cities can be found here.