Realising the potential of smart cities in Africa

With rapid urbanisation threatening to exacerbate the socioeconomic and environmental problems facing metropolitan areas throughout Africa, can digital tech provide some of the solutions?


Many cities in Africa are edging towards a crossroads. Unprecedented demographic changes are fundamentally reshaping urban spaces across the continent and straining the already overburdened infrastructure of large conurbations. 

Smart cities that can embrace the benefits of digital innovation and pass these on to their citizens have long been viewed as a powerful tool to improve urban life. But will they live up to this promise or could they further ingrain socioeconomic inequities?

There’s no question that smart cities will play a role in the future of urbanisation in Africa. But it’s up to local and national government leaders to decide how their concepts are used. 

Robert Versteeg, a consultant with Smart City Consultants, believes that the technology should fit around the ambitions of cities, not the other way around. 

“If they merely want a gimmick, I think its role will be limited,” he says. “You need to run projects where you have a good understanding of how smart cities can help at the strategic, tactical and operational levels. The effectiveness of a smart city can be calculated by looking at the value added for the public.”

Costly missteps 

Pursuing innovation for innovation’s sake has proved an expensive error for some developers, which have seen their dreams of an advanced smart city fall flat. Take Modderfontein New City, for instance. Announced in 2014 by Chinese development group Zendai, this R84bn (£5.8bn) project within the Johannesburg metropolitan area was hailed as the New York of Africa when construction began in 2015. 

The smart city would have offered cutting-edge technology and jobs for 200,000 people. But Zendai refused to include 5,000 units of social housing wanted by Johannesburg’s local authorities. Instead, it pushed for a fully luxury development, significantly drawing out the planning process. With little fanfare, Zendai cut its losses and sold the unfinished development on to another company, which has since begun working to a far less ambitious plan.

Breaking ground on a series of smart cities will not be a panacea that solves all urban problems, of course. But the use of technology can help to tackle specific issues resulting from the growing pains of African cities. 

The government of Rwanda is taking one of the most advanced approaches to the challenge. Its comprehensive smart city master plan illustrates how innovative tech can improve the lives of city dwellers. Innovations that are already being rolled out in the capital, Kigali, include smart streetlights, air-quality sensors and buses offering Wi-Fi connectivity and cashless payment facilities.

Smart cities that cater to a defined industry may also be able to reduce the brain drain of highly skilled African professionals. Technology professionals have long moved to Europe and North America to advance their careers, but it’s hoped that Kenya’s Konza Technopolis will draw in hi-tech talent from across Africa. Nicknamed Silicon Savannah, this smart city is set to incubate the cutting-edge startups that promise to create the next generation of homegrown innovations. 

Finding the right funding structure can be make or break for a smart city. Because the amount of public money available is generally limited, financing models that combine international development organisations with institutional investors are growing in popularity. 

Public-private partnerships are often used to deliver projects, as expertise from the businesses involved can unlock cost efficiencies and access the wider tech startup ecosystem. Development finance institutions can help to mitigate the relatively high risks involved in these types of projects and also attract private investment from both regional and international organisations. 

International partnerships

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has forecast that the total population of Africa’s cities will grow by 950 million over the next 30 years. If managed effectively, urban development can generate economic growth, reducing poverty and improving living standards. Yet, for nations that are unable to overcome the far-reaching problems caused by rapid urbanisation, the risk is that long-standing inequities will be exacerbated.

To realise the potential of smart cities, governments and tech startups are forming partnerships with international organisations to develop tech skills that are essential for building smart cities. For instance, the Rwandan government and a range of partners have established the Smart Cities Innovation Programme. This is a six-month accelerator running from June to December 2021 that supports African startups working in fintech, cleantech, smart housing and mobility.

A development enterprise called the German Agency for International Cooperation is implementing the programme. It’s bringing together African entrepreneurs and multinational companies to develop local solutions to local problems. 

Olaf Seidel is the agency’s programme director for digital solutions for sustainable development. He says: “Through our work, 30 African startups are receiving support from companies, such as Volkswagen and Siemens, and public stakeholders, such as Rwanda’s green fund and the local ministry of ICT and innovation, to scale up their products.” 

Some of these startups are working on smart innovations including a digital walking stick for visually impaired people and battery-charging hubs for small electric vehicles. 

“Through this approach, we promote local innovations and allow African startups to learn from international expertise and the experiences of other countries,” Seidel says. “These are key ingredients for growing Africa’s smart cities.”

Global lessons

Although each smart city project is unique and will require a bespoke plan, much can still be learnt from successful developments around the globe. Countries with highly mature tech ecosystems – Japan, for instance – offer models that can be adapted.

Pilar Conesa, CEO of Anteverti, a consultancy specialising in smart cities, considers these urban spaces to be a response to the big challenges of the 21st century – namely: the climate emergency and socioeconomic inequality. Taking a collaborative approach to developing smart cities helps to bypass common pitfalls, she says.

“Japan’s government recently realised that, beyond focusing its digitalisation strategy on technology as a means to generate economic growth, it also needs to use the potential of technology as a means to help reduce the gaps between urban and rural environments,” says Conesa, who also curates the Smart City Expo World Congress.

Several high-profile smart cities, including Eko Atlantic City in Nigeria, have attracted criticism for catering to a wealthy segment of society and leaving behind low-income communities local to it. But, by placing quality of life and inclusivity at the centre of smart city projects, technology can be recast as an enabler of equitable social development, she adds. 

“Japan’s experience shows that there is no truly sustainable development without promoting territorial cohesion and understanding socioeconomic challenges from a comprehensive perspective,” Conesa says. “That is a fully exportable lesson for the future of African cities.”