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Why would you call Konza Technocity a white elephant?

Its been two years since former President Kibaki broke ground and laid the foundation stone for Konza Techno City - back in January 2013. The ceremony was then considered long overdue by industry pundits. The project, estimated to be implemented in about two decades is significant to Kenya’s growth aspirations so much so that it is labelled as a Vision 2030 flagship project. That President Kibaki prioritized Konza City’s ground breaking in the late days of his presidency is telling of how important the project was for his legacy.

Here’s a media clip of the proceedings at the early 2013 ground breaking ceremony. 

Fast forward to December 2014 and there was some traction. The Konza Technocity Authority board has since been set up, and career investment banker Mr. John Ngumi was appointed as its chair. ICT4D specialist Dr. Catherine Adeya - Weya - also got to act as the authority’s CEO for over 2 years. One of the milestones of Dr. Adeya’s legacy has been preparation of a detailed economic strategic plan and implementation master plan for phase one of the project. One more milestone albeit a political one would be a second ground breaking ceremony in December 2014 officiated by the Kenyan Deputy President - see the official speech then. Here’s a media clip capturing some proceedings at the second (infrastructure) launch.

Status Update - :
A detailed update of the project’s status as at November 2013 is found in the slides below.

It is also noteworthy that the ICT ministry and more recently, the authority’s leadership has at different times publicly shared reasons for the slow progress in executing the project. Here’s a clip taken in 2012 with the then Minister citing infrastructural challenges

Here’s another clip taken, where bureaucracy and delays from the National Environment Monitoring agency and Ministry of Lands were to blame.

Is Konza Technocity a White Elephant?

That there has been significant progress at Konza in the last decade is arguable. This month a substantive CEO (Eng. John Tanui) has been appointed. This is a major milestone as it is common knowledge that leaders in acting capacity are oftentimes constrained regarding what bold useful steps they can take. With a substantive CEO the only other hurdle might be the enactment of the proposed bill legalizing the authority’s existence by a statute which would empower the authority to confidently go into binding contractual agreements with investors and vendors.

That the government should further invest in the project is surprisingly more arguable than whether there’s been progress. Its amazing how many Kenyans in social media and blogosphere outrightly condemn the project. For instance, at some point Tech blogger Kachwanya put it bluntly that Konza Techn City would be a moot project in its form as at January 2013. Alliance Technology’s Ngigi Waithaka repeatedly argues that any government resources for Konza should be redirected to other “more promising” innovation promotion projects. As I am a big supporter of the entire Konza Techno City project, I would argue differently. I would suggest though that we first consider the argument of de-congesting Nairobi city, as espoused by Prof. Bitange Ndemo, the former permanent secretary in the information ministry who is easily the most prominent proponent of the Konza project. See the 2012 video clip below.

Urgent Vs important interventions in an economic sector

Many arguments against the project take the form of: “its not the highest priority intervention for the IT sector, so kill it!”. In my opinion, demanding abandonment of the project or starving it of government resources as a matter of priority is akin to arguing that “Since we have built homes in Ongata Rongai (West of Nairobi) and our problem is access to sewer, a major road infrastructure project towards Thika (East of Nairobi) does not benefit, us, so terminate it”. It is also the classical failure to recognise and attend to what is not urgent in the immediate sense but nonetheless important for posterity. The ICT industry in Kenya has many undeveloped interventions, and many of them are of high priority or are very critical for long term success.

Currently a burning intervention gap often cited as top priority is one of skills development. Of course there’s a dire need for the industry to convert raw talent to refined talent for the ICT workforce. With genuine concerted efforts between government, academia other industry players, this appears to be a simpler matter of polishing what exists. That said, Konza Techno City as an intervention is about a framework for attracting investors and hiving off an environment for rapid growth of the sector in years to come. I argue that we cannot interchange execution of long term plans with execution of short term plans in either / or kind of decisions. Pursuit of long term and short term goals has to be concurrent. If short term goals always preempt long term goals, the long term goals must remain a mirage, especially if ineffectiveness of the system’s custodians also results in unaddressed short term goals.

On the matter of skills development being a higher priority, I argue that culture is also important in skills development. Skills development for the context of a thriving ecosystem is richer than skills development without a industry culture for harnessing them. I would argue that creation of an industry cluster such as the Konza Technocity is a key ingredient for creating the right culture: startup, corporate or otherwise for effectively harnessing local and international talent.

Of serendipity and arranged coincidence

As to whether the Konza Technocity should be a real estate development project or not, my answer would be that the city is about talent, innovation and entrepreneurship which thrive in humans. Those humans work, dine and sleep in buildings. People thrive in physical infrastructure. Of course one would say that in the advent of technology and the internet, innovators and entrepreneurs can work and interact virtually. That appears too simplistic an argument about a technology driven economy. Meaningful business interactions are very hard to fully virtualise. As Sam Gichuru of the Nailab once put it, “you cannot find a co-founder on skype”. Even if you first met the would be co-founder on skype or Facebook, there are physical interactions that will precede gathering a level of comfort for goin into the co-founder marriage.

The scenario is more real for investors who would rarely invest in people they have not met, and not just once. Of course if an investor from the Netherlands is coming to meet a prospective investee in Kenya, they would be happier combining the trip to meet many other potential investees - better still if they are found in the same vicinity. And if startups and venture capital are not your cup of coffee, perhaps corporate deals and partnerships interest you. In this case I would suggest that if you can meet all possible partners within the same location, that helps much. This kind of arranged coincidence that a shared physical infrastructure creates is what contributes to the requisite density of certain classes of industry players necessary for a thriving ecosystem.

All that said, with a substantive CEO for the authority, we can now expect good publicity and strong arguments supporting actualization of the Konza Tecnocity dream. We shall also expect to hear more pessimist arguments for further consideration and counter argument.


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