Kenya’s “Silicon Savannah”: City in the Slum

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State of the art glass skyscrapers, paved roads that go on for miles, pure air and water flowing in the greenest environment yet. Adjacent to this potentially lie dumpsites and open sewers blocked by trash. Which would be louder? The clicking of laptops or the buzzing of flies? The energy-saving lighting, contrasted with the pitch darkness, should enhance every aspect of the city’s finely designed buildings, as well as every edge of the metallic shanties.

With 5,000 acres of land from Malili Ranch, at the border of Machakos and Makueni counties, being set aside for Kenya’s most ambitious infrastructure project to date, the construction of Africa’s “Silicon Savannah” is set to begin. Konza Techno City is a planned, sustainable, world-class global technology hub aimed at attracting international businesses and residents. As one of the flagship projects for Kenya’s Vision 2030, the development is intended to deliver the country to a new frontier in industrialization and economic performance. One question, though: Will it work?

Konza City's Office District as imagined by its architects.

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Konza City's Office District as imagined by its architects.

Geoffrey Nwaka, a professor of humanities at Nigeria’s Abia State University and a speaker at the World Resources Forum 2013, isn’t so sure. He argues that certain peculiarities unique to the African situation must be considered.

For one thing, he says, African cities cannot and should not be compared with their European counterparts. The former lack the luxury of time and the prior development of institutions enjoyed by the latter.

The elephant in the room, colonialism, means that modern African cities were never designed for Africans. Little attention is paid to the tall, formidable ruins of previously well-planned cities, such as Great Zimbabwe. “With colonialism, the character of African cities changed,” Nwaka says. Instead of being home to the majority of the people, Africans were pushed out, and cities became privileged homes for the few. Konza Techno City and its like symbolize a return to catering to the people.

To successfully build sustainable cities in Africa, Nwaka advocates two things. First, a complete overhaul of urban planning legislation is required. He says most of the laws used in urban planning in his home country, Nigeria, were adapted from colonial legislation such as the 1946 Town and Country Ordinance, which is still in force. This is echoed throughout Africa. “We have not sufficiently reviewed the legislation which we inherited from the colonialists,” Nwaka says. Based on his Ph.D. research, he argues that there was no expectation that African cities would develop into what they are today.

Nwaka goes on to add that Africans must cut back on overregulation. He says it’s not about approving chaos but being more realistic. “Not anarchy. We don’t want people to build on pipelines!” he says.

His advice for planners is to step away from the glossy, picturesque-city model. “Model cities are not empty things,” he says.

The encroachment of poverty  in Abuja, Nigeria, after careful planning goes to show that the poor cannot be left out. “We need to ensure campaigns against urban poverty do not become a campaign against the urban poor,” Nwaka urges. He cites the flourishing of informal settlements in urban cities, a result of forgetting to include the poor in the planning. “This is the thing: You plan and then the people are just pouring in and can’t get into the city. So they build. It’s like a bushfire.”

However, Kenya’s information, communication and technology cabinet secretary, Fred Matiang’i, has announced bylaws in three counties near Konza Techno City to prevent informal settlements within the project’s 10-kilometer radius.

Matiang’i says “the bylaws are aimed at preventing the proliferation of informal settlements near the 5,000-acre park and set standards which should be adhered to by investors outside the Konza City.”

Based on Nwaka’s research, banning informal settlements might be an unrealistic move for a country home to the largest slum in East and Central Africa. How can sustainability be achieved by denying the majority a livelihood? Nwaka advocates incremental development with regard to resource constraints, rather than outlawing the poor. This way, Africans do not fall into the trap of economic growth without development.

Otherwise, he says, it’s “move over, multiplex; hello, shanty!” Plans or no plans, “people are genuinely trying to live,” he emphasizes.

Listen to our interview with Professor Geoffrey Nwaka at the World Resources Forum in Davos, Switzerland:

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