It is certainly not wrong to think in futuristic terms that attempt to paint a utopian picture of life in African urban areas. What is wrong however is being oblivious to the immediate contexts surrounding African societies not only in urban areas but in rural areas as well. Africa has abounded with narratives of smart cities but without fixing the fundamentals of existence, it remains completely meaningless.
This should be gleaned from the context of radically urbanizing Africa, taking notes and blueprints from much of the developed world. A particular example is Akon’s sustainable smart city called Akon City, to be located in Senegal. It will use a cryptocurrency called Akoin and will cost a mammoth $6 billion to be brought to life. The futuristic metropolis (a total of 2,000 acres in size) will include a luxury resort, condos, offices, a hospital, a stadium, and an artificial intelligence data center. The details of Akon City are sketchy, including its investor and how it will be constructed.
Another smart city, developed along science fiction lines, is Eko Atlantic City in Lagos, Nigeria. Work has already begun – a grand project that will require 140 million tons of sand as it is being constructed on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean. And of course, the environmental concerns are being disregarded since the building is already underway.
Other cities going the smart city route include Cape Town and Nairobi. Other projects include Hope and King City in Ghana, Vision City in Kigali, Rwanda, Kenya’s new tech hub Konza technology city, and Waterfall City in South Africa.
The International Telecommunication Union defines a smart city as an “innovative city that uses ICTs [information and communication technologies] and other means to improve quality of life, the efficiency of urban operation and services and competitiveness.” All these mentioned cities are high sounding, but the nuances of Africa’s complexities when it comes to equitable distribution of wealth are lost.
The rate of rapid urbanization in Africa will continue to reign supreme. Such urbanization is being fetishized without paying proper attention to the current problems bedeviling nearly every city in Africa. Such plans for these futuristic smart cities can only make sense if put in the broader picture of giving every African citizen the right to basic services.
Already, African urban centers are under enormous pressure to deal with the ever-growing tide of urbanization. Public services are a nightmare in African cities. There is a lack of adequate access to clean water and sanitation. Public health is in disarray as the majority cannot access such services. Education is still drawn in the context of inequality where the poor bear the brunt of governments failing to provide such for everyone.
Mobile internet penetration rates in African countries are terribly low. This is aggravated by abysmal public transport services, making life in urban centers a survival of the fittest. The poor are left out in the narratives of smart cities, noble as they may sound.
It becomes useless to advocate for these futuristic plans when basic services in urban and rural areas are only for an elite few. This has been due to decades of neoliberal capitalism which selfishly advocates for privatization, austerity, deregulation, de-industrialization. And all of this is at the behest of global private capital and its gatekeepers such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. The inequality caused by this is inhumane, an affront to humanity and at its core worships consumerism over the welfare of human beings.
To develop a smart city such as Akon City is in all honesty meaningless. Inequality is rising more than ever. Without transforming rural areas first, all these plans are empty and will continue to assault the dignity of the majority of Africans. Such money should be reinvested in making life comfortable for everyone not only for the elite bourgeoisie. The current context of smart cities does not include poor people at all.
The fantasy of smart city concepts should not remain unfettered. These concepts should be challenged for the cruelty they inspire. Fundamentals of existence should be fixed first before any talk of smart cities. And neither should smart cities be viewed as alternatives to the problems of urbanization unless they promise basic services to everyone.
Some will argue it is a better form of capitalism but in reality, it just worsens the inequalities Africa suffers from as a result of colonial injustices and post-independence neoliberal policies. The urge to fit in the capitalist order of globalization should not make us blind to the realities that exist on the ground.