Nairobi – The ‘Smartest City’ in Africa

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‘Silicon Savannah’ paving the way for technological development across the continent.

In January, the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) announced Nairobi as one of 21 ‘intelligent cities’ predicted to prosper in the broadband economy. This is the second time Nairobi has been selected, although it failed to progress to the final short-list of the ‘top 7’ intelligent cities.

Nairobi, the only African city to make the short-list, is predicted to gain developed status within the next twenty years, a substantial change from the period following independence in which, according to ICF, it was seen as one of the most corrupt cities in Africa and still today many cite its high crime rates and traffic problems.

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The Mail & Guardian Africa report that Kenya’s technology services sector has grown from $11 million in 2002 to over $300 million in 2013. By focusing on telecommunications Kenya is becoming the ‘go-to African market’ with a technologically minded young population and a supportive government.

CNN quote ICF co-founder Robert Bell as saying “We see a strong foundation being put into place [in Nairobi]: sensible, pro-growth government policy, a more diversified economy, and an innovation ecosystem of start-ups, international companies and universities”.

The Kenyan government’s inclusion of ICT development as a major part of its Vision 2030 plan and huge investments in a ‘technocity’ at Konza, just 60km from Nairobi, are growing signs of confidence in this development. Silicon Savannah, as it has been locally named, has caught the eye of many public and private investors including Google, Microsoft, Nokia and IBM.

Growth of the Mobile Phone Economy

Analysts have credited Nairobi’s rapid development to the liberalisation of communications. In 1999 Kenya’s fledgling mobile phone industry was held under a state monopoly and it was only once this monopoly was removed that new companies took advantage of the fruitful market. In contrast to Europe many emerging African economies do not have widespread land-line networks and the installation of digital networks is easier and more cost-effective.

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In 2007 mobile phone operator Safaricom introduced the M-Pesa service that allows users to upload and transfer money using mobile phones. Today M-Pesa handles around $320 million in payments each month, a figure equivalent to a quarter of Kenya’s GDP. According to the Mail & Guardian Africa over half the population in Kenya now use the M-Pesa service and it has been observed that it is easier to pay a taxi fare by mobile phone in Nairobi than it is in New York.

In 2012 Safaricom introduced M-Shwari, a savings and investments service operated by mobile phone, accumulating a customer base of 7 million in two years and providing services to communities on the lowest incomes previously without internet access and banking facilities.

Nurturing Innovation and the Future of Smart Cities

A number of innovation and incubation facilities have been integrated into Nairobi’s urban culture. Following from the success of the iHub, an open space for the technology community that opened in 2010, many other initiatives have attempted to create breeding grounds for new ideas. One example is the 4Afrika Youth Device Program, for which Microsoft and Intel have partnered to provide technology, educational materials, data plans and financing.

ITWeb Africa report that IBM and the Kenyan government are working towards expanding the idea of a ‘smart city’ to include traffic control. Nicholas Nesbitt, General Manager of IBM East Africa told journalists that “IBM has a concept of smart cities. We are bringing that concept, technology and research to Kenya. And we are looking with our IBM research lab and the County government of Nairobi on ways you can use technology, data and analytics to improve the traffic “.

The future looks bright for Nairobi; with the increasing spread of 5G networks it is expected that Kenya’s place on the global economic stage will be further secured. 5G networks will bring performance for mobile internet on a par with fibre optic and compact, easily fitted antennae that will help connect the most rural areas and increase Kenya’s technological capabilities.

However some have urged caution with the ‘smart cities’ narrative; commentary from London School of Economics (LSE) observes that the growing positivity around smart urbanism in Africa should not draw attention away from the challenges of rapid urbanisation and stark urban inequalities. We need to push for greater understanding of the consequences of this data-driven urbanism.

Find out more in the Africa Research Bulletin

Rwanda – High Tech Hub?
Economic, Financial and Technical Series
Volume 50, Issue 10, Pp. 20174C 

Nigeria: Africa’s First Smart City
Economic, Financial and Technical Series
Volume 50, Issue 2, Pp. 19883 – 19884 

Telecommunications: Africa
Economic, Financial and Technical Series
Volume 50, Issue 1, Pp.19850C – 19851C

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