Nairobi — He has struggled to find jobs since he finished high school a decade ago – but if Alex Muoki has bet right this time, he may turn out to be a winner.
At the age of 30, Muoki operates a motor-bike taxi at Malili, a sleepy shopping crossroads east of Nairobi. Even this informal job makes him more fortunate than many in this capital city, where poverty is prevalent, despite the economic growth rate of over 5 percent that has propelled Kenya to lower middle income status. In a February report on Kenya, the African Development Bank says that over a quarter of people are unemployed and 80 per cent of those are under 34 years of age.
Like many youth from poor homes, Muoki passed his high school exams but lacked the funds to advance his studies, so he has scratched out a living in a succession of three informal sector jobs. Nevertheless, he is hopeful. "I am establishing my base here," he says, "so that I will have a big taxi business once Konza city has been built."
Konza. Artists' sketches of the emerging technopolis on the site of the former Malili Ranch, 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Nairobi's city center, evoke science-fiction cityscapes very different from today's Malili , where Muoki dreams of a different future. And despite the makeshift structures where retailers hawk their wares, a visitor can begin to understand the optimism.
The Kenyan government is developing the city as a 5,000-acre public-private partnership and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) hub, a development Muoki figures will change fortunes for youth in this area. Konza is a flagship initiative of Kenya's Vision 2030, a national development blueprint. Plans call for Konza to be constructed in four five-year phases.
Creating jobs, building skills
Konza is expected to generate 20,000 jobs in the first phase and 200,000 by the time city development is complete in 20 years, according to KOTDA – the Konza Technopolis Development Authority - the agency charged with implementing construction plan at an estimated to cost of US$ 10-15 billion. KOTDA officials say that world-leading technology firms such as Microsoft, IBM, Toshiba, HP, Google and Apple have been in touch with the agency to pitch for business space.
Market analysts forecast Konza City to become an emerging global center, perhaps on the scale of California's Silicon Valley. Kenyans are calling it the 'Silicon Savannah'.
"The government's plan is to put up investments such as hotels, international schools, a world class hospital, a financial district, a high speed mass transport system and integrated infrastructure," says the former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication, Bitange Ndemo. A technology and engineering university is to be built to prepare young workers for the jobs that will be created.
In June, TetraTech of Denver, Colorado (USA), representing a consortium of five Kenyan and six international companies, signed a contract with the government of Kenya to implement Konza's Phase 1 U.S.$25 million master plan. The agreement commits the firms to building in conformity to "world class smart building standards".
Development versus tradition
Not everyone has welcomed the idea of Konza without reservations.
Conservation groups are concerned that building the city of the future here is encroaching on wildlife's natural ecosystem. According to the Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW) the mapped region has large herds of wildebeest, zebras, elands hartebeest, gazelles and jackals.
Konza also neighbors nomadic communities. Near the fence marking Konza boundaries, herders move freely with their livestock, while herds of zebras can be seen grazing at a distance. The potential for human-wildlife conflict makes Konza a great idea in the wrong place, some conservationists argue.
But the Friends of Nairobi National Park say that despite the case against it, the project will create a useful buffer between settled areas and wildlife. And the group outlined other advantages. In addition to the skilled jobs it will create, the group said Konza "offers employment to locals who will then not resort to poaching or crime, uplifts the community and will provide tourists to support wildlife conservation in the area." The group described the development as the "lesser of two evils" and called for "stringent environmental checks to ensure negative environmental impact is minimal".
Building on technology achievements
Government officials say no one should be surprised at the idea of an advanced technology city carved out of the east African plains. Kenyans have pioneered a number of tech-based initiatives, many launched at the iHub, a 16-thousand member innovation technology lab run by young Kenyan entrepreneurs. It offers collaborative workspace, networking events and incubation support to Kenya's vibrant hacker and business development community. On the ground floor of the building housing iHub is m-Farm, a software and agribusiness company that introduced an application allowing Kenyan farmers to find out market prices in cities across the country through texting. It enables producers to avoid selling too low and help find buyers at the most favorable rates.
And then there's Ushahidi, a crowd-sourced application originally developed to monitor post-election violence after Kenya's troubled 2007 elections. It's open-source collaborative model has been adopted for uses ranging from helping survivors of the 2010 Haiti earthquake to find missing family members, communicating critical safety information during eastern U.S. storms in 2010, and warning motorists how to avoid flooded roads after floods in Brisbane, Australia.
This year, in a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities project, Ushahidi launched the Resilience Network Initiative. Already work has begun with civil society groups in Boulder, Colorado in the United States.
Perhaps most representative of Kenyans willingness to embrace technology is M-pesa, a mobile money system. Kenya was an early adopter of the mobile wallet idea, with transactions using the M-Pesa system – 'pesa' being the Swahili word for money, now accounting for some 43 per cent of GDP. Two-thirds of Kenya's adult population, including the rural poor with no bank accounts, use it regularly to transfer cash to each other and to make payments – whether on smart phones in fancy restaurants or on simple mobile phones to pay for motorbike transport.
KODTA CEO, Dr. Catherine Adeya, hopes that potential investors in Konza will be as adept at using their mobile devices as Kenyans are. In June she presented a digital map of the new city's area that she said will make it easy for to select plots for development. 'We have decided to employ the latest technology for this world class project," she said. "Our investors will be able to monitor available parcels of land available for development from anywhere in the world just by using their mobile phones."
A 'moral obligation'
Initial infrastructure development for Konza is in the early stages, but a growing number of Kenyans seem convinced, along with Muoki, that soon the dry stretch of grassland will be towering with skyscrapers.
In downtown Nairobi, at the Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC), a recent event showcased creative, technology-fueled projects and ideas that can be further developed and deployed in the tech city. University students from around east Africa gathered here for the third National Science Technology and Innovation week organized by the government of Kenya.
Within the halls of one of the conference rooms, one exhibit kept both students and judges enthralled. The object of their interest kept moving from one end of the arena to the other, with the occasional stunt inviting cheers.
"We are here today for this year's robot competition," beamed Evans Gachiri, an engineering student from Dedan Kimathi University. "The robotic invention is expected to demonstrate how it can feed livestock by itself."
The 24-year-old said his project is funded by the government through the university, but that is only at the basic level. He worries that he may complete his studies without taking his skills in robotics to the next level. However, the prospect of working in a technopolis city in his home country seemed to persuade the fifth-year student that he will find opportunities to pursue his project.
"I would like to think of a future where everything will be done by machines like robots," said Gachiri. "I hope that Konza city will [promote] automation as the country prepares for a new technology age."
An enterprise like the technopolis cannot just function as an investment, according to the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI). As a government agency charged with spotting and nurturing innovation in the country, its officials argue that grand projects like Konza will succeed only by spotting and nurturing innovators like Gachiri.
Njeri Wamae, the chairperson at NACOSTI says Konza is the next generation's meal ticket but that developing countries, including Kenya, are still struggling with the problem of demystifying science, technology and innovation.
"The future lies in reaching out to Kenyans and ensuring that they internalize science, technology and the need to invent new things," says Wamae. "It is our moral obligation to make sure that we lift people out of extreme poverty."