Sometimes it is the simple things that can make growth in new markets difficult. In Nairobi, Kenya, it’s getting from one place to another.

Traffic can be a nightmare. 

In Kenya’s capital, it’s pretty much impossible to predict how long it will take to get from Point A to Point B. On Friday nights, traveling from the airport to the other side of town can easily take two hours. And it’s only 20 kilometers -- a little over 12 miles.

Conditions are worse for the Kenyans who ride in matatus, the privately owned mini-buses with 14 seats, but that often have 20 people packed into them. Speeding poses yet another transportation problem. The matatu drivers have little regard for traffic laws; their speeding and erratic lane changes are the norm, often leading to collisions and traffic jams.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Nairobi was ranked the fourth most pain-inflicting city last year, as part of IBM’s annual Commuter Pain Survey. The survey covered 10 issues including commuting time, time stuck in traffic, the price of gas, and stress levels. In addition to promoting general ill-being, it turns out that congestion is expensive. The 2011 survey found it costs Nairobi more than half a million dollars a day in lost productivity, fuel consumption and pollution, according to the Kenyan government.

This is something an emerging market -- and its citizens -- can’t afford. The capital’s population now tops 3 million and is headed toward 5 million in 2020. It’s a safe bet that more cars will clog the roads. If solutions aren’t found, the pain may only worsen.

Because of this, IBM spent the last year studying these challenges. Improved transportation is absolutely vital for the city to fulfill its promise as a growth engine, not just for Kenya, but for all of East Africa. In addition, earlier this summer, six of our executives worked with local authorities and business leaders in Nairobi to make a series of recommendations for a new transportation strategy.

Our work was intended to be complementary to both Kenya’s economic development master plan, as well as the headway made by other national agencies considering the country’s highways of the future. Our team’s analysis was informed by transportation improvements made in Singapore, Stockholm, London and other cities, and they used IBM’s Transportation Maturity Model to assess a Nairobi’s potential for improvement.

Their conclusion? A carefully coordinated combination of initiatives would enable Nairobi to develop a truly integrated, multi-modal transportation system. The group’s work provides a roadmap for how African cities -- and cities in emerging markets worldwide -- can solve seemingly intractable transportation problems that impede economic growth.  

Decide Who Is In Charge

One of the biggest challenges facing Kenya is its major decentralization initiative. All types of authority decisions, like the workings of many other sectors, will soon be shifting from the central government to the 47 counties.

This isn’t uncommon -- considering many transportation problems and the solutions are regional in nature -- but the makeup of local politics in Kenya makes transforming infrastructure difficult to come up with these regional solutions. Because of this, each regional transportation authority should have representation from a wide variety of government agencies with overlapping mandates.

This can be done. In North Carolina, for example, government leaders in the county encompassing Charlotte banded together (with the help of IBM) to organize capital planning for infrastructure improvements. This allowed them to agree on priorities and synchronize their efforts. To be effective, government leaders need to have a clear charter and measurable performance goals.

Share the Data

Multi-modal transportation systems -- those combining cars, buses, trains, etc. -- have to be coordinated, and the best way to do that is through the use of information technology. The emergence of roadway sensors, video surveillance, electronic billing, and payment systems provides new tools for transportation management. The information gleaned from the tools becomes useless, however, if it isn’t disseminated and shared.

The emergence of cloud computing is a huge boon in this area. Under the cloud model, software applications are typically housed in remote data centers rather than within a single organization’s premises. The cloud approach enables multiple government agencies to more easily exchange data with one another and to spread out the cost of computers and storage devices. It’s economical and it promotes integration, which is vital when it comes to managing multi-modal transportation systems.

This summer, iHub Kenya, a high-tech incubator in Nairobi, announced it would install a supercomputer that can be shared for research and learning. In East Africa, there’s the potential for a number of national and municipal governments to share cloud computing applications and computing resources.

Another outstanding example is the approach taken by Rio de Janeiro. With the goal of preventing weather-related disasters and handling the influx of visitors for the upcoming World Cup and Olympics, city leaders set up an operations center to integrate information and activities of more than 20 city and state agencies. And contrary to what you might think, initiatives like this don’t have to be expensive, especially if government agencies and public-private partnerships share resources.

Citizens Are Your Partners

No major change in a transportation system will work without the buy-in and cooperation from the people who actually use it. The people of Nairobi know this well. Three years ago, an effort to use smartcards in public transportation failed because people weren’t familiar with the technology and there was no effort to train them to use it.

It’s critical that city leaders involve citizens from the start of their initiatives to the end -- getting their help in sizing up problems, seeking their input on potential solutions, and teaching them about how to get the most out of new systems.

In Dubuque, Iowa, an initiative to remake itself as one of the world’s model sustainable cities was launched. It was effective because the town’s officials engaged citizens in public meetings and on the web. The city was able to get their input in creating an overall vision for the city, including a long-range transportation plan.

Kenya has already shown leadership in this area by creating an open government data portal -- the first in Africa -- where citizens can learn about government programs and provide feedback.

Look Outside Your Backyard for Ideas

Many of these examples aren’t based in Kenya -- or even Africa, for that matter. Cities all over the globe have been trying out new digital tools for transportation management for years. Rather than reinventing the wheel, city leaders have the opportunity to study what has been done elsewhere and cherry pick the approaches that seem most likely to work for them.

This is what Ho Chi Minh City is doing by using software developed for Singapore to monitor traffic. It is important to be creative, yet cautious, when borrowing ideas and materials, however.

I was born in Nairobi, but I have lived more than half of my life in the United States. I returned to Kenya recently to be near my aging parents, and so my daughter could get to know them and Kenya better. Now that I’m here, I see the problems up close. But I also see the potential. Millions of Kenyans can have similar opportunities to those I’ve enjoyed -- without leaving home. There’s a lot of hope in this country.

Throughout Africa and the rest of the developing world, boom cities face many of the same challenges that Nairobians do. It’s not enough to build new transportation infrastructure and expect that to solve our problems. We have to be strategic in the way we size up our challenges, and coordinated in the way we address them.

Anthony Mwai is the general manager of IBM East Africa.