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Bitange Ndemo

Architect of Kenya’s Silicon Savannah hits out at delays at Konza Techno City

Progress on Kenya’s Konza Techno City, dubbed “Silicon Savannah”, has been too slow while insufficient budget has been allocated to complete the initiative, says Bitange Ndemo, the man who conceived Konza eight years ago.

While construction started in November on the first building – an eight-storey unit to host techno city operations and house early investors and innovators — Ndemo, (pictured above) associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s Business School, is critical of delays.

“It’s not very difficult to do it (set up a techno city) but from my own assessment they have taken too long,” says Ndemo, who is also a former ICT permanent secretary.

Konza Technopolis Development Authority (KoTDA) CEO Eng John Tanui told Ventureburn that his agency is holding talks with a number of local and foreign universities in a bid to bring these to the new city.

But Ndemo says his university has yet to be given the green light to set up in the new city despite having approached the agency to do so.

Ndemo says the various incentives that the government has introduced for the new city have taken too long to get approved.

These include tax incentives for investors to locate to Konza Techno City through the Special Economic Zone Act which came into effect at the end of 2015, and a provision under the 2015 Finance Bill which allows developers to write off machinery and building costs associated with the new city.

Ndemo is also critical of the disbanding of an inter-ministerial committee to co-ordinate development at Konza, saying the absence of a central co-ordination vehicle has contributed to delays.

‘It’s not difficult to set up a techno city but they have taken too long’

Konza City is projected to cost $14.5-billion. In all the government is expected to contribute about 10% of the cost to build the new city, with the remainder expected to come from private-sector investors.

In all 948 million shillings ($9.1m) has been allocated to Konza by the government in the year to June 30. An allocation of R1.1-billion shillings ($10.6m) has been set aside for the following year.

But Ndemo believes the annual allocation from the government should be at least five times this.

Independent researcher and former lead at m:lab in Nairobi John Kieti is also concerned and says implementation has been “painfully slow”.

“The KoTDA (Konza Technopolis Development Authority) report card keeps highlighting achievements of four years ago.

“More reports of progress are required to keep hopes high among the optimists especially considering that for the last five years or more, the Kenya government development budget has consistently allocated roughly $10 million every year for progress with the city,” he says.

‘Work is advancing’

But Tanui, says work on the city, dubbed “Silicon Savannah” is advancing.

Tanui told Ventureburn that his critics have had “different expectations” when it came to the progress of work on the new city.

He says while some expected the first buildings to go up quickly, the design and planning for the 5,000-acre city needed to be completed before construction started. The new building, he says, will also host some of the country’s most promising innovators.

He says the agency is involved in final talks with investors seeking to set up offices, residential premises and schools in the new city. A new request for quote, he says, will be issued next month. He expects spaces will be allocated to about three to 10 developers in a few months time.

A specific window would also be run for those looking to provide recreational activities.

Critics have had “different expectations” on progress — agency head

The planned city is located over 50km from Nairobi and critics in the local tech sector had initially suggested this would make the city less than viable.

However Tanui says this had been partly addressed by the completion earlier this year of Kenya’s new fast train between Mombasa and the capital and the widening and renovation of a number of roads linking Konza with surrounding towns, as well as with the capital.

‘University will transform Kenya’

While the agency signed an agreement in November with the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) to build a university for postgraduate students, Tanui says a request for quote had gone out recently seeking building developers and those who can develop curriculum for the new university.

He says the university will help Kenya to transform towards a technology economy, with students expected to work on clear projects that solve a national or general challenge.

He expects the selection of a construction consortium to be finalised by August. Construction of the new university is likely be completed by the end of 2019, with the first intake of students to begin in 2020, he says, adding that the aim is to have a student and academic population of about 1,000.

In addition the aim is to have four universities based in the city to serve undergraduate students.

Will it work?

Yet a question mark still hangs over whether Konza City can single-handedly boost Kenya’s growing tech scene.

Tanui expects the techno city will take between 10 and 20 years to complete, meaning it might only reach full capacity after 2030. When completed services businesses and tech startups based there are expected to contribute 2% of Kenya’s gross domestic product (GDP).

The construction stage is expected to generate about 16,000 direct jobs, with 200,000 jobs created upon completion of the techno city, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta said in a speech on 1 May.

But Nailabs director Sam Gichuru believes it’s just another city, mainly necessary to relieve growing congestion in Nairobi. “It’s not a Silicon City or a tech city” he adds.

However Ndemo says where Konza could prove successful is if the techno city is able to take advantage of global dynamics such as rising wages in China, by attracting light electronics manufacturers and assemblers to the city.

“Konza was not meant to be just an African, or Kenyan thing,” he points out.

He says Korea likely concluded an agreement with the Konza agency to set up a university in the city, because Korean companies such as Samsung will soon require more affordable locations to manufacture goods.

Yet despite the challenges Konza has been attracting growing attention. Ndemo says Nigerian authorities recently approached him to talk about setting up a similar city in the West African country.

But Kieti says ecosystem stakeholders should not look at Konza as a quick-fix solution to unlocking the country’s ICT potential.

“Konza City is a long-term intervention. The way I see it, tech ecosystems will emerge and grow in other major cities or towns of Kenya – not only Nairobi and Konza City — will become the regional convergence point, emerging out of better planning and a richer mix of human capital, social capital and infrastructural investments.”

Featured image of Bitange Ndemo: KenyaICTboard via Flickr (CC 2.0, resize)