“Africa’s Silicon Savannah”…What will Kenya get from Konza?

I was on BBC earlier today and came across this article on Konza Technology City, a tech center that will be built in Kenya outside Nairobi.  In a bit of excitement I posted a comment on Facebook that this could be a boon to investment…then I re-read the article.  I think that, indeed, it could be a good opportunity for a little Keynesian economy spurring.  The World Bank and OECD have pointed out the positive effects of robust ICT infrastructure on economic development and domestic investment outlooks.  But I’ll walk back a little bit on my Facebook post to add a few concerns that come to mind.

My first concern is that it’s being built as what seems to be a stand-alone entity 60km outside of Nairobi.  I know, I know…if you start building in established communities you start getting property price differentials that lead to people being displaced due to the cost of housing going up.  But the flip side is that if this is built out in the countryside where no one can reach it and the bonds that are put up to finance the construction don’t perform, the tax payers either get stuck with the bad investment, or worse, hit by a run on the currency.  In a perfect world I’d rather see this project be decentralized and developed in the fabric of Nairobi; in fairness I’m not the city planner or civil engineer who has to handle the real complexity of integrating new construction into a city like Nairobi, but I think it’s work considering.

My second question is who benefits?  Tech growth should support local entrepreneurship and add value to the community beyond just product development.  For example,  I think the iHub has been successful precisely because it is accessible to local programmers and enterprises, encourages community development, and supports research and entrepreneurship.  Building a very large industrial space 60km outside of Nairobi negates the community aspect, unless there will be housing out in the complex, and isolates it from the city.  If there isn’t some sort of reliable public transit to get out there, I find it unlikely that it will provide the volume of jobs for locals that are being cited in the article.

These concerns shouldn’t be construed to mean that Konza Technology City is a bad idea, or will lead to inequitable outcomes.  But it’s worth thinking about how it’s being developed, and who it will benefit, as we also recognize how exciting it is to see the flourishing tech scene in Nairobi expand and scale up in a way that could be profoundly valuable for all Kenyans and the broader east Africa region.

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