The smart city opportunity for Africa

11 September 2023

Despite slowing global population growth in the coming decades, all regions are expected to urbanise further, as more and more of us settle in cities. Current estimates by the United Nations Economic and Social Council say that by the end of the decade, over 60% of the global population will be concentrated in cities, dramatically challenging the delivery of connectivity and public services.

Dominic Smith, marketing director, Cerillion

Dominic Smith, marketing director, Cerillion

Nowhere is this more evident than in Africa; by 2050, Africa will be home to 25% of the global population, increasingly concentrated in its cities. In fact, Africa is now the fastest urbanising region in the world; by the end of the decade, there will be 17 African cities with over five million residents, and five of them – Cairo, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos, and Luanda – will form megacities of ten million or more. This rapid urban growth has led to the rise of informal settlements with high mobile internet penetration but low access to fixed-line infrastructure.

What’s more, Africa will face the brunt of climate change in the coming decades, bringing droughts, floods, and desertification. This, paired with rapid urbanisation, will put a great deal of strain on local institutions and governments in their current form.

To avoid socio-economic and environmental catastrophe, there must be a ‘re-shaping of current development trajectories in middle-income and rapidly industrializing cities… and future-oriented urban design and land-use planning for African cities,’ and this is where smart cities can really help.

A smart city is one with a high degree of digital awareness and control embedded within the infrastructure to support urban development. Connected services, traffic management, waste reduction – smart cities are changing the face of urban living by giving citizens easy access to network infrastructure and integrated digital services via connected devices.

Finding the African smart city
Birnin Zana, the fictional capital of Wakanda in Marvel’s Black Panther film series, has won praise and sparked discussion in academic, architectural, and urban planning circles for what a smart city in a distinctly African context could look like. Just as African cities challenge Western conceptions of urban spaces, they can equally challenge conceptions of smart cities. In fact, it’s the opinion of Deloitte that Africa is ‘ready to leapfrog the competition’ with smart city technology.

Africa is already the global leader in mobile money, which has become an important component of regional financial services and will be critical to the success of African smart cities. Today, dozens of telcos operate mobile money services, enabling consumers and small businesses with little or no access to traditional financial services to obtain basic banking and pay for services via smartphone or feature phone – services which, in turn, drive a wider informal economy that employs millions across the continent, and sees nearly $3 billion transacted every day.

It’s this different context that has led Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou, architect and anthropologist, to reject Western notions of smart cities for Africa as “too top-down and remote from people’s real needs.” His vision for an African smart city is one that is “horizontal and distributed,” inspired by the regional architectures of traditional societies and enhanced through free access to new technologies.

In existing cities, this can be achieved by digitalising government and municipal services and retrofitting existing infrastructure; think installing smart electricity meters and water meters or upgrading traffic management systems. However, all this digitalisation is only possible with widespread penetration of broadband infrastructure, and today 43% of people in sub-Saharan Africa live over 25km from fibre, and there are only 0.76 broadband subscriptions per 100 people.

The future of living
Increasingly, hyper-scale civil engineering projects are constructing whole new cities with smart capabilities and fibre connectivity by design, with devices and sensors embedded in entire residences and housing blocks, driven by needs of population expansion, climate change, and energy efficiency.

Smart devices and sensors allow real-time monitoring and analysis of data generated by the consumption of city facilities. However, for these services to be truly beneficial to a city’s residents, the technology, architecture, data, and business models must also be open, allowing users to decide what services they need, and how their data is used.

One such example is the Administrative Capital for Urban Development (ACUD), the new smart capital city for Egypt, 60km east of Cairo, which is being developed with connected infrastructure and digital services at its core. Powered by millions of connected devices, ACUD is expected to welcome seven million citizens in the next 10 years and create nearly two million new jobs, while easing congestion in Cairo.

ACUD will serve as the new seat of government for Egypt, flanked by financial and cultural districts, and residential neighbourhoods all connected to an extensive FTTX network. Citizens and retail providers are connected to smart services in real-time, including smart metering, utilities, traffic management, security, and a wide range of connectivity services – all paid for online.

City limits
There’s a legitimate degree of scepticism around smart city projects however, due to the sheer amount of data that needs to be collected and managed. Even something as simple as a parking app, for example, requires live occupancy data, traffic and weather data, and real-time information on public holidays and civic events to determine pricing.

Businessman Roger McNamee called Toronto’s smart city project, in partnership with Google, “the most highly evolved version to date of what Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism.”

Increasing mobile spectrum and the density of IoT devices is not enough to address deep-rooted structural issues. Without egalitarian access, this digitalisation in effect cuts residents without devices off from certain services. By 2025, half the population in sub-Saharan Africa will have a mobile subscription; though a fantastic testament to the successes already achieved, this nonetheless leaves another half of the population potentially unable to use digital services.

In a smart city though, it’s not only the price of devices and connectivity that must be considered; as demand for affordable homes with durable construction and improved sanitation (and the restructuring of existing stock) skyrockets, housing options at all price points must be built to meet the needs of millions of new residents.

Vision City in Kigali has come under fire for courting high-income earners as part of its first development phase, as 40% of Rwandans live on less than $1.25 a day, an income the World Bank defines as ‘extreme poverty’ and the country faces a deficit of up to 350,000 houses over the next decade.

Large scale smart city initiatives must cater to socio-economic needs to effect real change in urban settlements. In Eneni Bambara-Abban’s 2022 Turing Talk, ‘A day in the life of a smart city,’ she outlined four factors that cities must address:

  • Lessening the digital divide through prioritising education in technology and digital skills
  • Progressive government and legal policies
  • Security and data privacy
  • Overhaul of infrastructure to make these projects viable

It’s not just the physical infrastructure which needs substantial investment, but also the back-office business support systems (BSS) which play a crucial role in enabling and future-proofing the smart cities of tomorrow. End-to-end process automation, fast time-to-market, and scalability to support millions of connected devices and sensors are all crucial elements of smart city BSS, but the real complexity comes from the breadth and convergence of services offered.

Smart city BSS must be not only multi-service, but also multi-business model, able to monetise connectivity, utilities, and ICT services for consumers and businesses, including retail and wholesale, all in one convergent platform.

Smart technology and improved broadband connectivity are at the heart of Africa’s twenty-first century development path. Given the right support, smart cities in Africa and the wider developing world will soon take centre stage in the race for global international development.