It seems a long time since the day in 2013 when then-Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki launched a US$14.5 billion project to build Konza Techno City, a large tech hub.
Then, the launch of the Konza project on the outskirts of Nairobi was just the latest in a stream of apparent successes for Silicon Savannah, fresh from much-heralded developments such as M-Pesa, the iHub and Ushahidi.
Four years on, things are less optimistic. Funding for Kenyan tech startups is in freefall, there have been few notable success stories to rival those of the past, and Konza seems further away than ever before.
A project that was hyped to create 200,000 jobs has not enjoyed the same level of enthusiasm from the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta as it got from his predecessor. Construction finally got underway in November, but progress has been slow.
Investors have been wary of putting up money until they have assurances from the government on reliable low-cost energy and water supplies, as well as plans to limit traffic and prevent slums from being built near Konza.
There have also been various legal controversies over land use. Confusion was farcical from the beginning as to which county had jurisdiction, with protests and politicization further delaying a project which is now five years behind schedule.
Speculators started buying up land in the area, with the Ministry of Land forced to issue a moratorium on land development within a 10-kilometer radius of Konza Techno City.
The Konza Technopolis Development Authority is adamant the project is on course, and that Konza will transform Kenya’s economy and create new jobs. Work has already begun on a first-of-its-kind research center, and a final design for a university will be complete soon.
Supporters say Konza will have a huge impact on the country’s tech scene, attracting more major global firms to Nairobi while providing the skills and resources needed for the country’s tech startup scene to develop.
Dr. Bitange Ndemo is widely acknowledged as one of the major influences on the growth of Kenya as a regional tech hub. He was heavily involved in the conception of Konza and served as permanent secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Communications under Kibaki.
The tech city could add a lot of value to the country’s economic growth and create jobs, but it has taken too long to get started, Ndemo said.
“I know the Korean government has committed to developing a branch of their advanced institute for science and technology (in Konza Techno City). The Germans too want to set up an applied sciences university, but there is too much bureaucracy,” he said.
Indeed, red tape has delayed the development of Konza and threatens to derail the project completely if investors keep getting scared away.
“Someone must put their neck out and take some risk,” he said. “A number of Konza investors left and set up in Ethiopia.”
However, he said he feels there is enough interest for the project to succeed, but efforts must be made to speed development.
“Actually, there is no need to persuade anyone. The interest is just sufficient. And once they get going, more will show up,” said Ndemo.
Kenyan authorities should look for examples to other developing countries that revolutionized their economies through projects like Konza, he said.
“Look at what India is doing to dominate light electronic manufacturing that is migrating out of China. They abandoned ‘Incredible India’ for ‘Made in India’ and they are staring at a US$1 trillion dollar industry,” he said.
“This was a chance for Africa, but the leadership in Africa has failed to take advantage of the demographic dividend. The government is supposed to develop the infrastructure.”
Ndemo said he personally raised funds for water, electricity and roads, but the authorities are now using a dam intended for Konza for irrigation, effectively diverting attention from the original idea.
Tom Jackson is the co-founder of tech news and research platform Disrupt Africa and a journalist covering innovation on the continent from the Cape to Cairo.