Africa’s proposed Smart Cities fail to show their promise

Analysis in brief: The futuristic planned cities touted by celebrities and financiers are no answer to Africa’s urban challenges, economically or socially. They are no substitute to competent city planning based on community participation.

A future based on promises, artwork and marketing

Africa’s urban migration is accelerating to the point of crisis, and the need for solutions to overcrowding, transportation gridlock, unemployment, sanitation and water and electricity shortcomings are acute. One notorious trait followed by many African governments is a preference for creating megaprojects rather than financing the unglamorous, hard work of fixing what already exists. Politicians – even those who are not corrupt nor attracted to kickbacks built into the price tag of highway and bridge construction – are lured by the attraction of claiming credit for megaprojects. Recently, a new temptation for them has arisen that seeks not to fix African cities but to bypass them altogether. Planned ‘smart cities’ are offered as a utopian answer to all urban problems.

Senegalese singer Akon’s self-named Akon City is the most famous of these promised-but-never-realised dream cities. In November 2023, officials in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, announced a project to build Kasangulu Smart City. Investors from the East African community, led by a Kenyan financial consultancy, are said to be behind the vision of 40 hectares of prime land that will be developed with multi-storey houses, a level-four hospital, a school, a train station, a water theme park, malls, a hotel, a lake and even an artificial beach. Recently, the Dubai-based architectural studio Urb announced its plans for The Parks: a 17-km² sustainable city to be located somewhere in the eastern portion of South Africa. This technology-dependent, self-sufficient city with a population of 150,000 living in 40,000 residential units aims to produce all of its energy, water and food on site. 

These concept cities are just that – concepts – and while they present an almost dreamlike response to existing congested, unsustainable and polluted cities, they exist as architectural renderings of fancy futuristic buildings. They reflect less the answers to African needs than attempting to impress by imitating the work of the art director of the Black Panther and the movie’s futuristic city Wakanda. Whereas Wakanda was built and powered by an alien power metal that does not actually exist in real life, Africa’s urban problems are rooted in very real African realities. The professionals dedicated to these realities – the under-resourced and often neglected workers in the city planning departments – understand their communities’ needs and should be the true recipients of financial investment.

A map of Africa showing population centres from sparsely inhabited white areas to densely-populated red areas show growth trends. The environmental strain on Lake Victoria is evident, with surrounding areas thickly settled. The Nile Rivers shows their attraction from the northern delta to Ethiopia. Populous Nigeria is densely-coloured, as is most of growing West Africa.
Source: Central Intelligence Agency

Cautionary tale: Akon City

There is nothing wrong with the underlying philosophy of a smart city. The use of technology to improve transportation, run environmentally sustainable communities and create jobs for people who live in those communities are attractive. The problem comes when such a place is conceived as an entity separate from existing cities, which presumably are left to their problems while the residents of the utopian communities thrive. Of course, no location can be sustainable when it is an island surrounded by a sea of unsustainable life. Also, these upscale planned communities are inherently elitist, designed for an upper-middle class lifestyle beyond the means of 90% of the African population. The jobs they offer are for the skilled and educated, who would reside in those places, yet where would domestic servants, gardeners, street cleaners and the working class come from, and where would they live?

These questions may be irrelevant in light of the consistent non-delivery of smart city promises. However, it is good that these issues are being raised because a discussion of urban revitalisation is one of society’s most urgent. The seriousness of urban planning considerations must not be lost in the hyperbolic marketing of smart city promises. This is what happened in 2018, when Senegal’s Alioune Thiam, the singer who is known globally as Akon, was given a star’s reception by Senegal’s President and Tourism Ministry when he announced Akon City. Impressive-looking paintings of an ultra-modern city captivated the media. Capitalising on the cyber currency craze, the celebrity said the project would be financed through a new cyber currency, Akon Coin.

Two years passed, and in 2020, he laid the project’s cornerstone in an empty Senegalese field. In 2022, Akon relaunched the project, but the land originally promised by government seemed now destined for use by an international hotel consortium. The Akon Coin concept was criticised as a pyramid scheme; his promise to use African talent to build the place was undercut by new partnerships with European firms; and his own personal worth, while an impressive US$80 million, was nowhere near the construction cost of US$6 billion. The media, which had celebrated the project in 2018, had become sarcastic, dubbing the venture “Con City.” The 2020 cornerstone still sits isolated in an undeveloped field.

Making liveable cities is the hard work of realistic visionaries

When Akon went to Uganda in 2023 to secure land for an East African version of Akon City, Kampala authorities did not take his proposal seriously. Vivid in recent memory was Ethiopia’s similar plans to build a futuristic smart city in Bahir Dar, which advertised itself as ‘a real Wakanda’, again putting promise before the hard work of planning.

The first major smart city, Kenya’s Konza City, was announced in 2008. A completion date has been consistently pushed back and is now estimated for 2030. However, Konza City may find a realistic existence as a technology park. Such parks have become fixtures in nearly all African countries. They represent a vision that is obtainable now. Similarly, the concepts raised as features in a utopian smart cities can be applied to existing cities, from recycling of water resources to green energy and waste management solutions.

Casablanca’s light urban rail system presents a city planner’s idea of an incremental and obtainable solution to one urban challenge, transportation.
Image courtesy: City of Casablanca

The African Planning Society is the professional association that represents the urban planning sector in Africa, whose membership consist of urban planning professionals in 52 African countries. They believe that revitalising cities begins with local city councils and national legislatures. Its members consistently engage legislators, bringing to their attention the problems and also the solutions that are at hand. Educating the public on city planning concepts is also vital. The danger of the smart cities hype is that these fanciful ‘solutions’ may make the public cynical toward the possibility of improving cities. So, the African Planning Society makes it a point of broadcasting actual progress that is making cities liveable: the roll out of urban rail systems in Morocco and Senegal and the innovations in water treatment and green solutions like tree planting and park construction in Rwanda. Such progress is incremental but important for Africans to appreciate as more and more of them make cities their homes.

The critical points:

  • Urban migration is making cities overcrowded, unliveable for the poor and making solutions to city sustainability more urgent
  • Africa’s first planned utopian smart city was announced in Kenya 15 years ago, while five years ago, singer Akon announced his own futuristic city. As these were based on hype and not reality, none have been built
  • Africa has no shortage of learned city planners who know the needs of their communities and the politics involved, who can seek solutions to city challenges