Snaking queues of traffic, guided by a solitary traffic warden positioned by a junction, have become a staple feature of urban life in many cities in sub-Saharan Africa. Scenes of impatient car drivers competing for road space with trucks and lorries in the sweltering afternoon heat of the after-work rush hour are a familiar sight from Lagos in Nigeria to Johannesburg in South Africa.

Although sub-Saharan Africa’s economic growth in the past decade has been accompanied by a rapid population expansion, the region’s infrastructure has been unable keep up with its citizen’s demands. While people continue to flock to sub-Saharan Africa’s cities to take advantage of the region’s economic expansion – more than one-third of Africa's 1 billion inhabitants currently live in urban areas according to UN-Habitat, the UN's agency for human settlements – the region’s cities have experienced considerable pressures from rising demands for basic facilities.

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A different kind of smart

While the concept of ‘smart cities’ has become synonymous with developed countries, Kamal Bhattacharya, the director of IBM's research lab in Africa, says that 'smart city' thinking goes beyond locations such as Los Angeles, which has pioneered intelligent self-driving vehicles, or Songdo in South Korea which hosts towering energy-certified residential complexes.

For Mr Bhattacharya, technology-based solutions that leverage existing infrastructure in innovative ways to solve the daily challenges of city life should also be viewed as part of a country’s efforts to make its cities more ‘smart’. Thus when viewed through this lens, sub-Saharan Africa is home to a host of vibrant smart cities.

“A smart city is any urban area that mines information to deliver city services more efficiently, with technology at its core,” says Mr Bhattacharya. “Through the use of big data and analytics, cities can collect massive amounts of insights in real time to improve decision making. Through cloud computing, cities that could not otherwise afford advanced systems can tap the infrastructure and computing resources that they need to optimise their systems.”

Getting smarter

In Accra, the capital city of Ghana, the country’s city planners have developed a novel approach to examining how mobile phone signals can be used to ease the city’s traffic jam problems. According to IBM, the country’s authorities began investigating how people’s movement within the city can be monitored through examining mobile phone signals during peak traffic times, in order to better understand transportation decisions.

Additionally Stellenbosch, a city located in south-west South Africa, is home to the Stellenbosch Innovation District (SID), which was created in 2012 as a joint project between Stellenbosch University and Stellenbosch Technopark, which is the city’s leading business park. Although the SID’s Helio400 prototype, which was created to develop an alternative renewable energy solution to local electricity needs, is still at the initial design phase, if successful it could become the city’s leading solar-powered electricity generator. According to the SID’s website, the prototype could have the power to generate electricity on a commercially viable scale by 2015.

IBM's big commitment

However, IBM's first commercial technology research facility in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, has been the most extensive effort by a foreign firm to develop a research facility that exclusively focuses on using technology to plug the continent’s infrastructure gaps. Called ‘IBM Research Africa’, this facility was created to solve some of the continent’s challenges through focusing its research on five clusters.

“The mission of the lab is to address Africa’s grand challenges through commercially viable innovations,” says Mr Bhattacharya. “When we developed our strategy, we spoke to representatives from governments, industry and universities across all of sub-Saharan Africa, and some of the questions that cropped up from them were: ‘are you also going to work on energy access, sanitation or food security?’ So we formulated a strategy that resonated with this.”

The lab’s first research cluster, named ‘economic inclusion’, has developed a core focus on how new jobs can be generated through technology, while the second cluster focuses on the provision of utilities such as energy, electricity, water and sanitation. The third cluster is structured around how IT can be used to facilitate children’s access to education, and the fourth cluster focuses on how technology can be used support community health workers and to improve healthcare delivery. The fifth cluster focuses on improving human mobility, particularly on roads.

“We have deployed very sophisticated algorithms which give much better guidance on issues surrounding things such as mobility,” says Mr Bhattacharya. “For example, we deal with the question of ‘how do I get to the city’s central business district, taking into account the current state of the roads and traffic’. We want to develop devices that can also analytically calculate this, due to the lack of CCTV camera infrastructures.”

Modernisation challenges

Yet questions have been raised as to whether describing such incremental developments as evidence of new smart cities in sub-Saharan Africa is accurate, when most parts of the region continue to lack basic infrastructure. The African Development Bank estimates that less than 40% of Africa’s population has access to electricity, and only one-third of the rural population has access to roads. Thus critics have claimed that although selected cities in the region have witnessed some infrastructural improvements, large infrastructure gaps on a country-wide scale means sub-Saharan Africa’s cities continue to operate in fragmented silos, and their development remains decoupled from other cities elsewhere in their respective countries.

Moreover, while IBM’s research lab in Kenya will be significant in increasing information on how sub-Saharan Africa can develop dynamic smart cities, the region as a whole still struggles to attract enough FDI to develop more smart cities on a larger scale.

Data from greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets shows that FDI into sub-Saharan Africa remains centred on extractive, rather than value-adding, activities. Between 2003 and 2013, the coal, oil and natural gas sector attracted the lion’s share of FDI into the region, worth $322bn, while core sectors associated with developing smart cities trailed in attracting foreign investment, as the building and construction sector brought in just $21bn in FDI, while the software and IT services sector fared worse, attracting just $6bn.

Targeted approach

Yet Ken Poonoosamy, the managing director of investment promotion agency Mauritius Board of Investment, concedes that although governments across sub-Saharan Africa lack the deep pockets to invest in country-wide modernisation projects, a targeted approach to investing in the hard infrastructure of selected cities, in order to draw investors into value-added activities, can be an alternative way of sharing the costs of developing smart cities with foreign firms.

Pointing to the growth of Ebene City in the western part of Mauritius, Mr Poonoosamy says that under the country’s ‘Smart Mauritius’ initiative, the government developed hard infrastructure including roads and buildings to create a business-friendly environment, while it actively courted businesses operating in high-value-added sectors such as business and financial services, to locate in the city. This move enabled the city to transform from a predominantly agricultural region to a business hub, and it helped the government to decentralise economic and population growth away from capital city Port Louis to other areas of the country, in order to ease overpopulation in Port Louis.

“Ten years ago, Ebene City was a sugar cane field,” says Mr Poonoosamy. “Now it has been transformed into a thriving business centre where it hosts a number of corporates, including several new banks. Infrastructure was always key for us. To support its growth we built a new brand new airport terminal [at the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport] which has a state of the art terminal and we have invested heavily in creating links among our countries’ roads, to improve the flow of traffic. We also have two fibre optic cables which provide enhanced bandwidth capacity in our cities. I continue to have great confidence that Mauritius and by extension Africa has the capacity to build up its infrastructure in this way, to become a competitive globalised economy.”