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Africa yet to see the big housing picture as satellite cities target middle-class

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An artistic impression of Konza City. Critics warn that such satellite cities come with a range of flaws that might damage overall urban development in the long run. Photo/FILE

An artistic impression of Konza City. Critics warn that such satellite cities come with a range of flaws that might damage overall urban development in the long run. Photo/FILE  

By Flavie Halais

Posted  Tuesday, February 25   2014 at  10:15

In Summary

  • Satellite cities, critics warn, come with a whole range of flaws that might damage overall urban development in the long run.
  • Satellite cities also pose a direct threat to the main cities; by attracting the upper class and formal businesses, they deprive large urban centres of a much-needed tax base and divert state resources allocated to infrastructure building.
  • Satellite cities reveal a clear trend in Africa for governments to rely heavily on private-led, isolated infrastructure projects, going against what UN-Habitat currently advocates for in terms of urban growth—dense population.

Just over a year after former President Mwai Kibaki officially kick-started the construction of Konza City, the site for the flagship IT hub located about 80km from Nairobi lies empty, save for the occasional herd of grass-grazing impalas. Residents of Konza town, on the edge of the site, are losing hope.

They say the land-buying frenzy that was sparked off by speculation surrounding the project is dying off, and visitors are now few.

On Mombasa Road, at the junction that leads to Konza, several businesspeople who set up last year, targeting prospective land buyers, didn’t return after Christmas, and more are thinking of leaving.

Konza was announced as “Africa’s Silicon Savannah”, in reference to the American Silicon Valley, an Sh800 billion project meant to create more than 100,000 jobs by 2030, housing for 185,000 people, complete with all necessary services from entertainment to hospitals, to restaurants, and position Kenya as East Africa’s IT hub.
But the Konza Technopolis Development Authority (KTDA), in charge of the city’s development, has yet to release a design publicly, and the project now seems to have stalled.

Among the issues holding back construction is a disagreement between KTDA and Tetra Tech Inc, the US company that won the contract to oversee the construction of the new city. But to most residents, they think the government has shifted its energy towards the standard gauge railway project.

It is not only Konza technopolis that seems like a pipe dream. Nairobi’s other satellite project has been slowed down by a series of financial setbacks.

Stephen Jennings, then CEO of Renaissance Group, which owns Tatu City in Kiambu County, stepped down last year after the company disclosed a $272 million (Sh23 billion) debt and announced the sale of land holdings in Ghana and Zimbabwe as well as other business lines to stay afloat.

Tatu was announced as Kenya’s largest privately-led urban development plan, and is supposed to house 64,000 people once completed. It is now unclear whether Renaissance will be able to follow its initial plans.

Such setbacks might serve as a warning for similar projects on the continent— and there are quite a few. Over the last couple of years, plans for ultra-modern, and often luxurious satellite cities have been announced in several countries, from Nigeria’s Eko Atlantic to the DRC’s La Cité du Fleuve, to Ghana’s Hope City among others.

While some are strictly residential, others are open to commercial activity or, like Konza and Hope, geared toward the IT sector. But the stalled or never-ending projects might not be the only thing worrying developers and governments. Satellite cities, critics warn, come with a whole range of flaws that might damage overall urban development in the long run.

“It’s been tried many times in various parts of the world and it’s generally a disaster,” says Vanessa Watson, a professor of city planning at the University of Cape Town.
According to Ms Watson, successful satellite cities require a heavy, continuous investment to be truly independent from the main city, which few projects have been able to achieve in the past.

“The satellites won’t be self-sufficient. There’s no way they can provide the whole range of facilities that people need probably for the next 20, 30 or 40 years,” she says. “The traffic problems are going to escalate.”

Observers also fear these projects are geared mostly toward the upper-class and the real estate will be out of reach to most.

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