Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.
The Kenyan government wants to build its own tech hub
Hopefully you've been following TheAtlantic.com's ongoing special report, “Start-Up Nation: The Search for the Next Silicon Valley.” The premise is that, despite the success of Silicon Valley, it needn’t be and isn’t the only place where start-up companies can flourish and where technological innovations can arise. This map looks at other innovation hubs in the U.S., based on various rankings of patents, start-ups, entrepreneurs and people with college degrees. Our own Richard Florida writes that “the geography of start-up America is spreading, slowly and gradually, but inexorably” – and many of those hotbeds of innovation are popping up in the South. And beginning October 23, Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal will be road-tripping through the South, with stops in Richmond, Raleigh-Durham, Savannah, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Shreveport, and New Orleans, to see some of these innovation hubs and the companies they’ve spawned firsthand.
Halfway across the world, another "savannah" could one day soon be the subject of a similar journey. At least, the government of Kenya is hoping so, as they perpare to build a city from scratch that will be the continent’s “Silicon Savannah.” Konza Technology City aims to become a new hub for business and innovation, with technology and financial services as the primary drivers. The city will have office space for a variety of industries, with a goal of creating 200,000 jobs. There will also be 35,000 residences built on site. As of right now it’s dirt.
The empty 2,000 hectare site – about 8 square miles – is 37 miles from the capital city of Nairobi, and 31 miles to Jomo Kenyatta international airport. The idea is to phase development in over the next 20 years, which is also part of the country’s Vision 2030, a plan to create a “globally competitive and prosperous Kenya.” The government intends to create a Special Economic Zone to encompass this new city, which is planned for development through a public-private partnership. In total, it’s expected to be a $7 billion project.
Development is no doubt needed in Kenya, where nearly half the population is in poverty and the gross national income per capita is $790, according to the World Bank. But this new city approach seems to run counter to the trend explored in the Start-Up Nation series. Place is without a doubt crucial to the development of new businesses, but the spread of innovation hubs throughout the U.S. seems to indicate that having one single Silicon Valley, or Silicon Savannah, might not be the right view. The Konza Technology City plan may end up working for Kenya, who knows. But it’s also tempting to think that the project’s $7 billion investment might be better used to incentivize the sort of tech businesses the government wants to create, rather than creating a purpose-built city where they may potentially emerge.