Konza Technology City: Does Kenya really need it?

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Konza Technology City, better known simply as, “Konza City”, is a multi-billion dollar totem of Kenya’s vision of a “Silicon Savannah”, a hat tip to the legendary Silicon Valley in the US.

It’s an ambitious 20 year, 2 000 hectare, US$14.5-billion new town project endorsed by the Kenyan government which aims to make Kenya a middle-income country by 2030. The city will be built 64 kilometers South of Nairobi, in Konza, Machakos county and will feature a technology park, science park, university campus, international business district as well as space for other commercial and residential properties.

Konza City and the technology park in particular, is being aggressively advertised to attract international investors. On the official website the park is labeled “BPO” (Business Process Outsourcing), signalling Konza City’s plan to play host to companies that would like to outsource aspects of their business — a plan that has proven to be very lucrative for India. International brands such as Apple, RIM, Microsoft, Toshiba and HP appear in renderings of the proposed tech city.

Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Information hopes that Konza City will be attractive to international companies who would like to have a presence in Kenya, but cannot find suitable properties in downtown Nairobi.

Konza City was scheduled to break ground in 2011, but due to low funding from the government and little interest from private investors, breaking ground was delayed to April of this year. The Ministry of Information is currently seeking a master developer partner, for an initial six-month advisory assignment to produce an implementation plan that will drive the five year, first phase of the four phase project. It’s very likely that another year will pass before the first buildings go up.

The delays indicate that Konza City has failed, for the time being, to capture the hearts and minds of a country with an otherwise blossoming technology industry. According to the Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK), between September 2010 and 2011 mobile phone subscriptions increased by 20.2% to 26.5-million. 69.5% of mobile subscribers — 18.4 million people — use MPesa, a service born in Kenya and one of the world’s first mobile money transfer services. Internet subscriptions have risen 64.58% year over year to 14.3-million.

There’s a lot of debate around the topic of whether or not the project will succeed, but it seems simple to me. Can Kenya organically grow to become the tech leader it strives to be, without Konza City?

The origins of Silicon Valley can be traced back to 1890. It actually bears semblance to modern day hackerspaces such as Kenya’s iHub where likeminded people experimented and innovated without large scale government endorsement.

Stanford University played a major role in Silicon Valley’s rise. Spurred on by international competition, the university sought to produce graduates and conduct research that could bolster an indigenous, self sustaining industry that could compete with Eastern countries. The “do-it-yourself” attitude and Stanford’s entrepreneurial endorsement is deeply ingrained in Silicon Valley’s history. The university encouraged graduates to create new companies and through industrial innovations credited to the area, the world witnessed the rise of revered companies such as HP, Xerox and of course, Apple.

There were no multi-billion dollar grants, master developer partners or wooing of international investors. In Silicon Valley’s case, the solution was rooted in education. Stanford University would do its part to shape education and conduct research that aligned with the the country’s interests.

If Dr. Ndemo strives to emulate Silicon Valley’s success, he might be overlooking the importance of education, entrepreneurship and the DIY attitude that started it all. How do Kenyan entrepreneurs feel about Konza City?

I feel like Kenya could expand and improve existing infrastructure as needed. In an interview Dr. Ndemo said shortly after a blackout hit Nairobi: “It doesn’t take much to understand this project if you have lived here [Nairobi] longer, because working in the city center here is such a mess.” What does that say about Konza City’s long term management?

So what about Shenzhen City in China? Shenzhen is booming and its Science and Technology Park in the Nanshan District plays host to foreign high-tech companies.

China is in a very different political situation. When you compare Konza City with Shenzhen City, you’re actually pitting democracy against China’s version of socialism that has been streamlined for economic efficiency. Foreign companies choose China because the country adds value to their supply chains by being able to deliver products faster, cheaper and with a higher quality than anywhere else in the world. If Kenya can create a stable democratic environment that’s attractive to foreign countries, not just by offering land — which is problematic anyway — but by providing economic policies that are conducive to business growth, foreign companies will invest in Kenya naturally — even forcefully.

Konza City is a beautiful vision, but I believe Kenya can thrive and become the technology leader it envisions, without the multi-billion dollar project. Kenya’s most valuable asset is its people, there’s no denying their brilliance, could the money be better invested?

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  • Jahnekoh

    Failed really? i don’t think so, Konza city is still a flagship project for Kenyan citizenry. 2030 seems a short distance ahead and so is the fighting spirit of Kenyans. We have never given up and that is what makes Kenya a preferred investment destination though this has been crippled by the recent 2007/08 post election violence. In order to preach such claims as above mentioned you need to be in touch with the graduates poised to take leading roles a few years before 2030 that’s when you’ll know Kenya isn’t any other country, it’s one filled with progressive and mostly self employed youths. Google around and you’ll realize a big portion of patents in the recent years are owned by Kenyans.

  • http://twitter.com/martincarstens martin’

    “…a few years before 2030 that’s when you’ll know Kenya isn’t any other country…” I’ve never doubted Kenya. The country seems to be thriving without a multi-billion dollar technology city. Does Kenya need it?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kihuria-Kyalo/100003459177991 Kihuria Kyalo

    You ask ”  Can Kenya organically grow to become the tech leader it strives to be, without Konza City?”
    For that I answer no. This is because as @8ad03dd4bdd03e1c41e2dc73be6a3356:disqus  has put clearly Kenya is filled with graduates who have the knowledge but not the opportunity to develop their potential in the current state that Nairobi is in, that is in terms of infrastructure and technology.

    Well its not all about foreign investment as you try to put across, because foreign investment  will be a booster to the Kenyan economy, but most importantly is the turning of many a Kenyan graduates dream into reality.

    Failed? really? the signs right now put it that way but that’s short-term minded thinking since the City is to be built with the Vision 2030 plan in mind.

    Therefore I think its an ambitious way to go for the Kenyan Government and Yes Kenya does really need the Konza Technological City  

  • http://www.facebook.com/mulela Michael Mulela

    “In magnis voluisse sat est..”
    In big things it’s enough to just have the will…

  • Critical

    ????

    … as long kenyan politician show the rest of the world how to grab money and how to protect criminals >>> it will be hard for other to invest!
    china ?? yes they will do – china the land of copies!

    china and kenya is very close – both know how to cheat other people

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002200126829 Nyatha Githinji

    I always find it very disheartening when people compare Silicon Valley and Silicon Savannah a.k.a Konza city. The worlds that these two live in are very different. What works in Silicon Valley will/may not work in Silicon Savannah. The environment, the people and the ecosystems are totally different.

    One advantage that Kenya has over others is the massive availability of well educated human resource. This couple with similar ambitious government incentives will definitely propel Kenya into a world tech-power.

  • http://twitter.com/thisisfreddi Fred Flintstone

    I don’t understand why foreign journalists like you bother to write stuff they clearly have no perspective on and absolutely biased! Beats me. We emulate the success of Silicon Valley but not the model. Ours is more geared towards business process outsourcing rather than actual software development….please research before you post such!don’t come to Kenya for a weekend and act like you know the story.

  • Kago3

    We Kenyans are filled with hope and forward looking and resilient to the core….. it doesn’t matter how much you try to demoralise us, when we anchor our wings of fire and soar, it is hard to beat us…. all we say is if we want it, we will get it…… We are going to put our silicon savannah and we shall make it work…. coz we know we can.

  • http://softengi.com/software-development software outsourcing

    Excellent post! thanks a lot for the sharing, that greatly helped me to resolve the problem.

  • George Wamae

    yes we can-i can understand the silicon valley stated way back in 1890 but we are living in different times and have different aspirations. Let us write the Konza story 50-100 years from now as a case study of how! So yes we can and we are doing it!!

  • http://twitter.com/Stu_Thom4s Stuart Thomas

    I think you guys have drastically misunderstood what Martin is trying to get across here. He notes that Kenya *does” have great innovators who could, given the right opportunities, change the world. iHub, Ushahidi, and MPesa all had the world begging for Kenya to take the technology further. There can be a Silicon Savannah but it needs to be a space where innovation is encouraged, not one which involves bringing in closed off Western and Asian tech giants who will continue doing what they’re doing no matter what. 

  • Jadedally

    Question: Did any of you actually read the article before commenting? Anyone? I mean really read it? show of hands.

    Just as I thought.

  • pc tech magazine Kenya

    We already have tech hubs in the city;what we need is working technology,not everyday apps for direction and violence reporting..if Konza will be a solution,it might not be the youth of today…they cant even pay for the high cost of internet in the city leave alone rent in the technology city.

  • KenyanGeek

    good article worth a thought. but we have the spirit we have the manpower Konza or no Konza Kenyas ICT sector is going places and will be a force to reckon with in the near future

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