The Namibian (Windhoek)

Africa: Tech Cities - Africa's Next Big Thing?

BIG, bold and thinking out of the box!

One is dubbed ‘Africa's Silicon Savannah', taking a cue, of course, from the Silicon Valley high-tech industry on the west coast of the USA. And the other is still in the form of a plot of land acquired by the Ghanaian tech-businessman, Roland Agambire, already being referred as ‘Hope City'. I call them Africa's next big idea. By way of generalisation, I should add, when it comes to science and technology, this type of thinking - ambitious, risk-taking and out of the box - is uncharted territory for Africa.

Africa's Silicon Savanna is (about 60km southeast of the Kenyan capital Nairobi) a US$14.5bn mega project to build the Konza Techno City and was officially launched by President Mwai Kibaki at a groundbreaking ceremony on 23 January 2013. The mission of Konza Techno project is to serve as a world-class IT hub with the goal of creating 100,000 jobs by 2030.

On the other end of Africa, construction work on Ghana's ‘Hope city' is reportedly expected to begin next month. Estimated to cost US$10 billion, the ‘Hope City' techno park will include a tech assembly plant for various products, business offices, an IT university, a hospital, housing and recreation spaces, restaurants, theatres and sports centres. This ambitious project is also expected to boost Ghana's technology growth, attract world-class IT industry players, house 25,000 residents, and create jobs for 50,000 people. Apparently, the technology park's architectural structure also incorporates and honours Ghana's culture and customs in its design such as the traditional compound structures.

For a starter, the impact of what is referred today as the ‘Silicon Valley' industry on our lives is everywhere. You may not know it, but Silicon Valley touched your life in one or another way: Perhaps through the app on your mobile phone; the electricity and energy utility; the computer you are using at work; the TV you are watching at home or the car you are driving. And even your Facebook page (or ‘bookface' as it is sometimes referred to in Namibia).

Geographically, Silicon Valley, which springs outward from Stanford University, traverses San Francisco, California, and the peninsula area. Today, Silicon Valley continues to be an economic boom for the world's largest and profitable technology corporations, such as Apple, HP, Intel, Google, Cisco systems, Facebook, Yahoo... (and small start ups too)!

However, Silicon Valley itself is more than just a high-tech hub.Not only has it also become a symbol of the US economy, but it is also a perfect embodiment of American ingenuity in terms of innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, competitiveness and forward-thinking.

Shhhhhh…don't tell SPYL because the idea of Konza and Hope City sounds like capitalism (if not imperialistic)! Disclosure: I too have a bit of trouble with any idea that looks elitist and so far removed from the immediate needs of the ordinary, especially the poor people. Therefore, liberally speaking, the rising tide of Konza and Hope City may not “lift all the boats” in Kenya and Ghana, to borrow from the wise old man, Kofi Anan.

But the opposite is also true. Technology is the new economy, requiring new thinking and new skill-sets! Therefore, it is imperative for Africa to start building necessary tech physical and social infrastructures now to avoid being outlasted by the pace of the technological advances. It is also true that Africa's economic development challenges (such as health care; education; agriculture and food production; access to clean water; sanitation; negative human impact on the environmental; clean energy; economic productivity and efficient resource allocation) provide a fertile ground for a technology and innovation boom. So to speak, there is a limitless opportunity here for Africa to capitalise on the advent provided by technological advances, especially the new technology, to address the continent's economic development problems (and political problems too).

There is no doubt that profit-making is a huge part of the Konza and Hope City ventures, but they also about a social mission in addressing the respective countries' education, unemployment, housing, health and economic needs. But more importantly, they are about reverse innovation because the respective projects place Kenya and Ghana in a position where they would export low-cost technological solutions to the rest of the world. Not to mention is the competitive advantage whereby the Konza and Hope City would attract world companies to do business with Kenya and Ghana.

A word to the wise, however: turning the opportunity provided by technology into Africa's advantage would go hand in hand with the rule of law and strong political institutions to ensure that the benefits accrued are enjoyed by all and not just the few privileges ones.

Ndumba J Kamwanyah is a public policy consultant and an Africa blogger for the Foreign Policy Association.

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