• A rapidly budding reality

    Given a chance to contribute to the current collection of similes in the English language, I would not hesitate to add the simile “as sure-footed as Africa’s strides towards smart cities”. In the bid to fortify its compatibility with modernity and technology, Africa is embracing the idea of building Smart Cities. Broadly speaking, a city can be defined as smart when investments in human and social capital, traditional transport and modern ICT communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources. Smart Cities in Africa are now a budding reality vying for a position in the budgetary allocations of the respective governments.

    As part of its Smart Kigali Initiative, Rwanda has recently leapt forward by availing high speed internet closer to the people using public transport. Fourth Generation Long-Term Evolution (4G LTE) now works on 487 buses from three different firms – Kigali Bus Services, Royal Express and Rwanda Federation of Transport Cooperatives (RFTC). Vianney Mugabo, the Acting Mayor of the City of Kigali, said that free Wi-Fi provided genuine benefits to people on the move, in terms of business continuity, entertainment and staying connected. “It may be responding to that important email, not missing your favorite team play, or just catching up with one’s family and friends and a passenger will be able to accomplish a lot and not get bored on the bus”, he added. I believe such a development will steer the people of Rwanda out of oblivion!

    A more ambitious feat was to plan stretch of smart cities to be built from scratch! The feat was likened to constructing New York in Africa. In Gauteng, South Africa, five multi-billion rand cities were planned and construction works started. A combined price of R265 billion was budgeted for the feat.

    Modderfontein city, the biggest of the five projects (1,600 hectares), also knowns as the Manhattan of Africa, was set to leave the minds of the architects, settle on paper and finally be constructed on ground. It was valued at R84 billion and developed by a Chinese firm Shanghai Zendai. The other four include: Waterfall Estate (R71 billion, 900 hectares), Steyn City (R57 billion, 810 hectares), Hazeldean (R44 billion, 950 hectares), Menlyn Maine (R10 billion, 32 hectares). These cities have different target populations and are still under construction. They will have all the necessary state of the art facilities to qualify to be smart.

    Also to note, cities such as Lagos, Addis Ababa, Nairobi among others, have equally taken similar strides on this quest for improved livelihoods in urban areas. The smart city concept in Africa, is a point of view that has come to life.

    A sure way to stay sure-footed

    These are all very good ideas but it is worth remembering the developmental state of much of the continent. Two thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa has no access to electricity at home, a lower rate than anywhere else in the developing world. This insufficiency of power renders the internet, which happens to be the backbone of smart cities, useless! So, Africa ought to guide the ambition of investing in smart cities, so as to stay sure-footed on the journey. It ought to bridge this gap of electricity first, instead of naively moving in a bandwagon with the western countries to invest in smart cities.

    Economic growth and activity is more prominent in cities and so it is natural that investment should be greater here than elsewhere. However, the concept of the smart city risks dramatically increasing the economic and educational chasm that already separates African cities from surrounding rural areas. Such an occurrence is not sustainable thereby turning the smart city concept on its head. A smart economy may be one that does not require intellectual and economic activity to be concentrated in small areas (cities in this case).

    Encouraging economic development over a wider area by bringing the whole continent online may enable African states to leapfrog urbanization and all of the problems that come with it. With such an extensive coverage, smart solutions can then play a sustainable and effective role.

    For example, prepayment electricity meters are already being used in some parts of the continent, including in Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria and Angola. These enable power companies to ensure payment for the electricity they supply, helping to fund electrification and generation projects. However, smart meters can take this a step further. They are now being introduced in many Western countries and allow customers to see exactly how much electricity each appliance uses and how the price of electricity changes during the course of a day. They also allow utilities to track illegal connections, improve load distribution and encourage off-peak use. Such meters are likely to be the first step towards the smart African city of the future.

    Image Credit: IT News Africa