Kenya’s Konza Technology City Was Too Early

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Catherine Tali is an established techpreneur in Nairobi. Her company is well established and handles thousands of clients every month. Her offices are located stark inside the CBD: which makes it very convenient for her, her employees and most importantly, her clients.

Like her, Klaus Mwangi, an upcoming techpreneur, currently still pursuing his computer science degree in JKUAT, is building a startup with his friends. Mwangi and his team got accepted into an Nairobi-based incubator, which is on the other side of town. It is not very convenient to use the space everyday, so they visit it once a week plus business guidance and links to investors keeps them coming back time and again.

In 2009, the government proposed a multi-billion technocity, Konza City, which is expected to be the ultimate ICT hub, a real life embodiment of the term coined for Nairobi at the time, (and at the moment), “The Silicon Savannah.” It was initiated by the purchase of a whooping 5000 acres a few kilometers from Nairobi, along the Mombasa-Nairobi highway. The technocity was proposed in a bid to bring like minded innovators together, to work in an ecosystem, surrounded by all the resources they might possibly need along the way. These resources include high speed internet, cheap labor and tax reprieves amongst several other desirables. This is in accordance with Kenya’s Vision 2030 goal.

According to the government, as elaborately explained in the Konza City website, “Konza Technopolis offers excellent connections within Kenya and the rest of the world through land and air. Konza is located 60 kilometers from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and largest city. The A109 highway connects Konza to Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and Mombasa, the primary port of entry to East Africa and Kenya’s second largest city. Konza’s world class infrastructure, high connectivity, active public realm, and cosmopolitan environment will allow companies to attract top talent and companies to the region.”

The website goes on to delineate some of the amenities that will be offered. These include but are not restricted to, steady and reliable electrical power supply, two roadways providing access to the city, on-site transport – the city is conceived to be walkable, bikeable, and generally transit-friendly, amongst several others. It is set to focus mainly on ecological, environmental and economic sustainability.

According to Catherine Adeya-Weya, chief executive officer KTDA, “Konza will serve as a hub for the east African technology industries, attracting leaders from the region and beyond. Konza is not meant to compete for Nairobi business, but will complement growth. This is similar to many countries globally where there are satellite cities to decongest the capital cities.”

Konza City is no doubt a major move on the government’s part, but is it a move in the right direction? The topic certainly sparks debate to date amongst Kenyans. Business people and technology enthusiasts alike. Construction of the technocity is well underway. However, not all individuals in the Kenyan technology sector are embracing the idea. These can be attributed to a number of reasons.

Other people Konza is too early for Kenya.

Former iHub Director’s Josiah Mugambi, has also been skeptical about it, saying, “I support the idea behind [Konza city], but I’m just not sure that it’s what’s needed right now. Many [in Kenya’s tech community] are skeptical about [Konza city]. Density is important but growing those companies that would eventually fill – or better still, would be able to build – such a city I think is more critical.”

Other skeptics expressed their concern that the government was neglecting far more pressing issues afflicting the country, in favor of the technocity.

“Since Konza is a very long term project, it wouldn’t be able to take in technology graduates for an indefinite period, it would not improve the unemployment rate of Kenya and certainly would not equally distribute wealth. The theory of value thus ceases to exist.

It means that the only beneficiaries in this are the government and the wealthier outsourcing companies,” explains Kahenya Kamunyu, who runs a Kenyan-based web application company, “The Konza City is a white elephant for the majority of Kenyans. It’s a brilliant idea, built at the wrong time. We should be more focused on delivering other amenities that would then raise the ability of the country to execute projects such as Konza City.”

He also adds that the project was poorly researched and failed to involve all the necessary stakeholders, “Konza took a red-tape approach. Someone hatched the idea in an office, consulted within limited confines and somehow managed to get finance. This was probably the first major problem. Not all stakeholders were consulted and this led to a simple result, apathy. Excluding the innovators at the planning stage meant that when they were requested to start getting involved, they did not have anything to do.”

The project has most certainly been on the receiving end of a lot of heat, but not without a little praise for it as well. Ken Mwenda, managing director at eMobilis Mobile Technology Academy, says “You need to start somewhere and [Konza] is that somewhere. There have been many other disjointed government efforts and initiatives but the scale of this project means that one would have to try hard not to notice that Kenya is seriously committed to its tech industry.”

So the question still remains, will it be logical for Catherine to relocate her well established company away from Nairobi, in a fit in to a predefined setup for her? Should she forfeit clients and the comfort of her employees? Should hubs like iHub relocate to the tech city, and inconvenience the people under their wing such as Klaus and his team, who depend on these hubs for their survival and success?