The HumanIPO Debate: Does Kenya need Konza Tech City?

In the second installment of the HumanIPO debate series, where reporters and guest writers debate important issues within the African tech sector and invite readers to join in the discussion on Twitter and Facebook, we discuss the positives and negatives of the multi-billion shilling Konza Tech City project.

The 5,000-acre Konza Technology City is the flagship project of the government’s Vision 2030 programme, and is being built to host technology, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) ventures, international schools, a science park and a convention centre complete with shopping malls, hotels, and health facilities.

But does Kenya really need it? HumanIPO’s Gythan Munga and Tom Jackson debate the pros and cons of Kenya’s brave new world.

The Case For: Gythan Munga

In its infancy, Kenya’s technology potential is pulsating. Investors are streaming in from every part of the world to build technology hubs and accelerate hundreds of startups every year. Now, with Konza City, Kenya looks set to challenge as a global leader in high technology and innovations.

For Africa, what is being referred to as the Silicon Savannah, comparable to the Silicon Valley in North America, can only mean upward growth for a developing continent. Konza is well positioned, 60 kilometres from Kenya’s capital Nairobi, 50 kilometres from the international airport and 500 kilometres from Kenya’s prime tourist destination Mombasa.

Other things in the city’s favour are the strong government commitment to the project, financial backing by international organizations, and the availability of a largely English-speaking talented workforce. Konza will build a vibrant ecosystem around Kenya’s IT industry that will use the power of modern infrastructure to harness and attract foreign investment in the way the likes of Singapore have done in the last two decades.

Complete implementation of the project will employ more than 100,000 Kenyans and generate wealth for local businesses and entrepreneurs tapping into a synergized BPO sector. While Kenya has been able to firmly attract local and foreign investment to its technology sector, there are no limits to what this fully-fledged technology park will bring.

Expect Kenya to compete with the likes of Nigeria and South Africa as a go-to destination for setting up regional and continent wide headquarters for many high tech companies, with Konza providing a small and efficient ‘smart city’ for budding entrepreneurs and startups to gain recognition for their innovative work. Networking and building of connections will be easier.

Just like church is where you find religion, Konza City will be where you find business.

The Case Against: Tom Jackson

Kenya is getting a little ahead of itself in spending a massive US$7 billion on a tech city before its ICT capabilities are up to scratch. Even if we set aside the huge cost – which we should not, even for a moment – doubts over local interest in the city and the ability of Kenyans to staff it suggest the outlay may not end up benefitting Kenya at all.

Brave and shiny though it may be, local interest in investment in Konza was low. Though the government launched a media campaign aimed at persuading local companies to invest in the project, early signs are that this has not been a success, confirming fears raised by Ministry of Information and Communications Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo as long ago as October that local investors were reluctant to put funds in.

A recent poll on social media suggested mixed reactions to the scheme. Some feel that Kenya should not be focusing on building a technological city when it had still not fully built a solid skills base. Building Konza before the local pool of tech staff has been trained to international standards is, as Mobile East Africa CEO Karanja Macharia has pointed out, akin to building an expensive football stadium before good enough players have been produced to grace it.

Approximately a quarter of companies who responded to the Julisha Monitoring and Evaluation Survey, conducted by the Kenya ICT Board at the end of last year, said they were not satisfied with the quality of professionals produced by Kenyan universities and colleges and preferred to look elsewhere.

Kenya is certainly on to something good in terms of its tech sector, but given the lack of local interest in investing and the lack of adequately trained Kenyan graduates to staff it, the end result will be an expensive new city providing a home to almost solely international firms, employing mainly international staff. Kenya and Kenyans stand to benefit little.

What do you think? Join the debate using #KonzaDebate. Follow Gythan Munga and Tom Jackson on Twitter. 

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