Inside Silicon Savannah, a dream coming true

Saturday January 26 2013

Artist’s impression of the Konza Techno City Pavilion. Photo/Courtesy of KOTDA

Kenya, keen to entrench its role as East Africa’s business hub, has moved to jump-start a $10 billion technopolis, potentially transforming global investment flows and opening up lucrative opportunities and commercial benefits for investors in the region.

Kenya’s Silicon Savannah dream is finally coming true, with the 250-300 acres of Phase One allocated to various sectors, architectural designs for the landmark building (Konza Techno City Pavilion) complete and a number of investors waiting to break ground.

At the same time, the newly named Konza Technopolis Development Authority (KOTDA), which will oversee the operations of the “smart city,” says it is working on a suitable model to enable thousands of individuals and small companies to invest in the project and own a slice of Konza.

Sitting on 5,000 acres spread across Makueni and Machakos counties, 60km southeast of the Nairobi, the smart city will be built in four five-year phases under a public-private-partnership financing model.

The government of Kenya revised the project from just an ICT Park to a technology city, widening the scope for investors to include light manufacturing and research services.

Already, 15 firms and institutions have expressed interest in the first phase of the project. Several other investors, who had adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude, are expected to come on board following the unveiling of Konza Techno City by President Mwai Kibaki on January 23.


READ: Global giants line up for slice of Konza city

“Konza will become a game-changer in Kenya’s socio-economic development, spurring massive trade and investment across the entire region. It will turn Kenya into an ICT hub for the East African region in the coming years,” President Kibaki told investors at the groundbreaking ceremony at the site.

The techno city is expected to boost the local business process outsourcing (BPO) sector and propel growth in the provision of Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES) for export to the region and the rest of the world.

Currently, Kenya and the entire region have not fulfilled their potential in BPO and ITES. The development of Konza is part of the government’s ambitious plan to catalyse development in the ICT industry to catch up with top ICT giants such as India, Mauritius and South Africa.

Upon completion, Konza city is expected to create over 200,000 jobs and create an enabling environment for world-class research, education and business to encourage innovation. Phase One will create about 18,000 jobs.

READ: Firms eye big business through Kenya’s ICT plans

According to Dr Catherine Adeya, acting chief executive of KOTDA, the investors have been divided into three categories: Anchor tenants – those who are ready to start construction; middle category – the wait-and-see group that wants to invest but is not so sure about the outcome of the March 4 General Election; and the third category – people who have the expertise, but do not have the financial backing.

“We might want to match-make in some cases, or see how to support some of these groups,” she said.

Lease agreements for the anchor tenants have been drawn up, but are awaiting review and approval by the Attorney-General.

Among the anchor tenants is a large American company interested in setting up a data centre and a car manufacturer that would like to establish a training centre for its Africa operations.

A number of universities will also be setting up their research and technical hubs at Konza.

Dr Adeya said the universities setting up research, development and innovation centres will benefit from the established companies that will have set up in the smart city.

“There will be a lot of exchange and sharing of ideas. Some of the iconic ideas that come out of the universities will now be developed. They’ll move from theory to practice and this will improve teaching and learning,” she said.

“All over the world we’re talking about a knowledge economy. This is tangible,” added the ICT expert, who sees Konza as an opportunity for Kenya to showcase how a city should be built, taking into consideration the health, the environment and providing a peaceful atmosphere to boost creativity and innovation.

The techno city will provide IT start-ups and people in light manufacturing a structured space in which to pursue their ideas within a cluster.

“If other countries in the region and in Africa can learn something from this and set up their own smart cities, then we’ll have a healthier world,” she said.

Construction of Phase One will start as soon as necessary approvals are obtained from the Ministry of Lands. In this phase, the bulk of the land has been apportioned to residential buildings (90 to 100 acres) and universities (40 to 50 acres). Offices and hospitals have been allocated 25 to 30 acres each.

The rest of the space will go to schools, hotels, dedicated retail plots, dedicated plots for flexible buildings and public spaces, mainly parks and roads, to make “a green and walkable city, which is our focus,” says Dr Adeya.

The other phases will entail the construction of physical infrastructure, such as the Konza Techno City highway connecting to Nairobi, commercial office space and hotels, educational institutions, a research and convention centre, a financial district, a film and media centre and recreational facilities.

High speed fibre optic networks will also be laid out in this phase in addition to the construction of an offsite power substation, cabling for generation and street lighting.

The infrastructure for Phase One is estimated to cost $240 million to $300 million off-site and $440 million to $600 million on-site.

The government anticipates that the private sector will fund some of the on-site infrastructure, including the fibre cables, waste water management, electricity and solid waste management, leaving it to meet the cost of road construction, drainage and landscaping.

The off-site infrastructure mainly entails the road network and railway line.

First to be constructed will be the project’s landmark building, the Konza Techno City Pavilion, which will house KOTDA’s offices, an auditorium and recreational grounds for the public.

It will be on two levels. The ground level has a large open space, an auditorium, a conference room, and the KOTDA offices.

The second part of the pavilion is a grand iconic roof canopy, under which the public can view the wildlife on one side and the smart city on the other.

The pavilion is designed to reflect the essence of the project: “We used the latest software and technology to design the undulating roof, adopted from the acacia tree that is found in Konza. This building is a showcase of what Konza Techno City is about: Innovation, technology, world-class standards, openness,” said Todd Sigaty of Shop Architects, the firm that was charged with the master planning and architecture for the first phase of the project.

According to Mr Sigaty, the use of the three-dimensional digital model for the roof makes the building cost effective because the measurements are precise and the price quoted will not change once construction starts.

The pavilion’s construction is expected to last 18 months, but will only begin once all necessary approvals are obtained and the Ministry of Public Works identifies the firms to undertake the project.