Mushrooming African tech cities will only progress at snail's space

Konza Technology City. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Truly, when Shembeteng - that ambitious linguistic start-up that recently caused a considerable stir among our youth - is spoken with just the right gusto and intonation, it sounds more lyrical and serenading than nearly all other languages in Kenya.

That is, before you decode its monotonously simple and predictable cookbook, which basically inserts a bisyllabic construct featuring ‘t_’ and ‘mb’ into every word! 

Suddenly, the great feeling you gained after successfully mustering a couple of its vocabulary turns into mild embarrassment for having indulged in childish behaviour. My own dalliance with the language did not survive beyond the dreary ‘Uhubuturu Kenyambatata’-the supposed new name of the former president. 

Why will the number of fluent speakers of this Simon Makonde of a tongue certainly never increase exponentially as did those of Sheng, its long-standing predecessor that we all sampled during our youth, and which it was supposed to oust? Simple. Shembeteng did not evolve naturally. 

Nor was it built on the premise of a genuine need of communicating effectively, but rather, on hubris, emulation and show-off. Its syntax is utterly static, unlike that of Sheng which was always admirably improvisational and malleable. No wonder Kenya’s politicians, who were occasional connoisseurs of Shembetengat the height of the last elections, dumped it as soon as the votes were counted. 

Get-rich-quick schemes

But ultimately, Shembeteng is perhaps only a metaphor for all those induced human undertakings -corporate or individual- which have not grown naturally and which are consequently bedeviled with uncertainty. In this category lie not only all get-rich-quick schemes which preclude the ethic of grit, but also investment plans hurriedly copied and pasted from a successful neighbour before an exhaustive needs-analysis is carried out. 

Talking of that, I am afraid that many of the futuristic technological ‘smart cities’ imagined for Africa by the McKinsey Global Institute and which include the ‘Wakanda City’ in Ethiopia, Eko Atlantic City in Nigeria, Kigali Innovation City in Rwanda, Hope City in Ghana and Kenya’s own Konza Technology City(whose skyline has barely changed after 15 years of construction and billions of shillings spent) fall within this grim category of entities with a very shaky future. 

To be sure, the robust ICT sector of Africa, and in Kenya particularly, can absolutely compete with the best in the world.

I have often bumped into incredibly talented local software engineers producing world class enterprise resource planning (ERP) software which are already seamlessly running huge institutions. Nor is it in doubt how proliferation of ICT correlates directly with development, the evidence being the dramatic effect which money transfer and contactless payment services have had on the Kenyan economy. Therefore, a technologically themed city is not a bad idea altogether. Indeed, many regional techies would love to take residency in Konza, and gainfully code away for the rest of their lives among the 100,000 employees the 5000-acre part of the ‘Silicon Savannah’ 60km south of Nairobi was supposed to have absorbed by 2020. But for now, they apparently must continue waiting for Godot as none of the big global tech firms have set foot there yet. 

Hands down

It may be another case of the chicken and egg causality dilemma: which should come first, a bankable tech idea or a ‘technology city’ to house it? Hands down, the innovative idea by far commands preeminence. My honest view, shaped by extensive reading of the histories of the tech giants of Silicon Valley in California, USA, is that the most versatile ‘tech city’ is the mind of a single geek with a burning passion, rather than a billion-dollar monolith of concrete and steel. 

Indeed, the stories of renowned nerds who variously drove the micro-computer revolution -all the way from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in the 1970s and 1980s to Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk today- invariably mention working from their parents’ garage during their early years, and even dropping out of Ivy league colleges to concentrate on their pet projects. 

The need for Microsoft’s expansive campus in Redmond, Washington, or Google’s Googleplex in Mountain View, California for instance- both of which, like Konza City, sprawl over large parcels of land- arose from a natural requirement to domicile the expanding portfolios of the respective companies, and definitely not as emblems of conspicuous consumption. 

Meanwhile, the whole concept of Africa’s tech cities reeks of incredible artificiality, and, as one writer has graphically said, increasingly resemble “magnificent stadiums with no players”. 

Were the conceivers of the smart cities over-ambitious? I opine that the entire paradigm technifying Africa via technological metropolises should be recalibrated to climb the tree from the bottom, as it were. It should begin by incubating and empowering upcoming local tech innovators to grow their companies up to the level of needing centralised accommodation. 

That way, in a country like Kenya with no shortage of serious IT aspirants, it will be just a matter of time before Konza City becomes too small for the prospective occupants.