The Kenyan government has commenced construction of a city that it envisions will become the “Silicon Valley” of East Africa.
At a cost of about $14.5-billion, the project is called Konza Technology City and is expected to develop into a major information technology hub.
Completion of the facility, on a 5,000-acre property located about 37 miles southeast of the capital city of Nairobi, is expected to take 20 years.
By that time, the government hopes, Konza will have created more than 200,000 IT-related jobs.
The site will also include a university campus, hotels, schools, hospitals, research facilities and other amenities.
"[Konza] is expected to spur massive trade and investment as well as create thousands of employment opportunities for young Kenyans in the ICT [information communications technology] sector," Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki said at a ceremony to begin construction.
Kibaki also asked investors from Kenya and elsewhere to take advantage of Konza's "tremendous opportunities.”
BBC reported that despite the tradition of chronic infighting among Kenyan politicians, the Konza project enjoys virtually universal support from all parties.
The ambitious project underlines the tech revolution that has quietly swept across Kenya in recent years.
No less a luminary than Microsoft mogul Bill Gates praised the advancements that he has seen in the African tech sphere.
Gates recently wrote in a column for Project Syndicate: “I am particularly optimistic about the potential for technological innovation to improve the lives of the poorest people in the world.”
Joonji Mdyogolo, a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa, noted that Kenya has led the way in African tech innovations largely due to the government’s commitment to progress.
Bitange Ndemo, who was appointed secretary to the ministry of information and communications technology in 2005, played a crucial role in expanding Internet access in Kenya.
“Kenya’s mobile tech legacy is becoming synonymous with local people solving real-world problems,”Mdyogolo wrote.
“When the 2007 election violence in Kenya made international headlines, it also gave birth to something positive. Ushahidi, which allows users to crowd-source crisis information, is the open-source platform that allowed citizens to track violence via cellphones, and has been a feature of crisis management since in places like Haiti.”
She also commended the development of M-pesa, a banking payment system that allows ordinary people to quickly pay for school fees or other expenditures via mobile phone.
On the whole, Kenya appears to have outperformed South Africa in terms of building high-fiber optic cable systems and facilitating Internet access to average people.
The Economist reported last year that, reflecting the entrepreneurial nature of the Kenyan people, hundreds of tech startup companies have sprouted in Nairobi over the past few years.
The country even exported $360 million in tech products in 2010, up from just $16 million in 2002.
However, the Economist noted, due to still widespread poverty in Kenya, local tech companies design their products for mobile phones – since few people can afford to buy laptops and computers. Indeed, the rate of cell phone ownership amounts to 74 per 100 Kenyans. Virtually all Internet subscriptions in the country are on the mobile devices.
Gates, however, added some caution with respect to the African technological saga.
“A decade ago, many people believed that the proliferation of mobile devices in Africa would mean a short leap to digital empowerment,” he wrote. “It didn’t. Digital empowerment is a long and ongoing process, and the mere existence of cellular technology does not immediately change how poor people meet their basic needs,” adding that companies must be willing to “make the investments required to build new systems, and customers are able to accept the transition costs of adopting new behaviors.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.