Urban development delays keep Kenya from dreaming too big

Kenya’s government hopes to turn its nation into a middle-income country by 2030. Some pin their hopes on Konza City and Tatu City. But will construction of the multibillion-euro urban development projects even happen? And, for that matter, can two cities build up one country?

[this article was published earlier on RNW]

Lately Kenya has been getting a lot of good news. Last month, President Mwai Kibaki announced the discovery of oil in the remote north-western region of Turkana. Just weeks before, Kibaki was joined by leaders of Ethiopia and South Sudan to officially inaugurate Lamu, a port development foreseeing an oil refinery, a pipeline and railway network connecting South Sudan, roads to Ethiopia and the Central Africa Republic, an international airport and a free trade zone.

Then there are the two vastly ambitious development projects in the far outskirts of Nairobi: Konza City and Tatu City.

Scam City?
Konza City is the Kenyan government’s baby. The state bought this 2,000-hectare area situated on the road to Mombasa, 60 kilometres south of Nairobi. It is expected to feature a technology park, a science park, a university campus, an international business district as well as space for other commercial and residential properties. Plus, there’s been mention of an artificial river.

Some claim the city will provide 80,000 jobs and 32,000 homes over a period of 20 years.

Price tag: 11 billion euros.

Not everyone is impressed. “Konza City is a scam,” states writer Binyavanga Wainana via Facebook. “Konza City’s real job is to create a spectacle of hype for a gullible public that has no meaningful platform. All we see is Dubai-like buildings, and PowerPoint presentations, built on a house of bullshit with no intellectual foundation and built on skills bought from abroad… It would be good if we spent that money creating the world-class universities and polytechnics we need to be competitive… Konza City sells cut-and-pasted buzzwords… We are being sold shit with good graphics.”

Calling all master developers
The plan was to start building Konza at the beginning of 2011. So far, no ground has been broken. Lack of investors and hesitant foreign companies are cited as the largest setbacks. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information seeks a master developer for an initial six-month advisory assignment. The task? Produce an implementation plan to revitalize Konza City.

Mark Kamau, an attendee of digital design school NairoBits who refers to himself in a TED talk as the ‘Slumdog Manager’, has mixed thoughts. “On one hand, I think it’s a bold move which could work and surprise all of us; on the other hand, one could argue that you need to invest in the human resources of the country much more before making such an exciting move,” he says.

“An analogy could be building a world-class stadium while hoping that there will be enough world-class players to play in it, instead of first building up world-class players and then building the stadium as a result of the demand.”

Urban alternative
A more residence-friendly vision is that of Tatu City. Privately owned, the 1,000-hectare development lies about 40 kilometres north of downtown Nairobi. This undertaking was initiated by Renaissance Group, a Russian emerging markets investment bank.

Tatu City is meant to offer an urban alternative to the overcrowding of Nairobi’s core. Expected to grow over a period of eight to ten years, the planned community foresees a mix of land for residential developments,
retail, commercial, social and recreational facilities. A projected 62,000 residents will live there.

Price tag: 2.25 billion euros.

But like Konza, Tatu is delayed. This time by legal problems, churning for about a year now. Yet, there’s hope. Late last month, development plans were approved by the National Environment Management Authority and the council of Ruiru, where the city is to be built. The project can now begin.

Film-maker Kennedy Odiambo believes Tatu City is a great idea. “Personally, I would love to live there. The initiators are now recruiting engineers and consultants on television,” he says. “Before the idea was initiated, a person could buy land for about 270 euros per acre. Today the same land goes for around 9,000 euros. It does seem like a wonderland.”

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