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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?