Driving down to Konza City from Nairobi, one is struck by the emptiness. Past the airport, the city dissolves into the expansive savannah of Machakos County and a phalanx of small towns along the highway to the coast. There is Mlolongo, named after the lines of trucks and long-distance trailers coming from Mombasa and proceeding as far inland as Rwanda. And Athi River, a bastion of cement factories. To the left of the highway are new housing developments with swanky English names: Greatwall Gardens, Greenpark, Paradise Park.

On either side of the road, a cacophony of ranches, mile after mile. Most of these are white-owned or formerly white-owned, the hinterland of an enduring colonial presence. Cows graze forlornly in the distance. I miss the turn to Konza, as there is nothing to suggest a city here. Only once I’ve driven past it do I recognize the complex where the Konza Technopolis Development Authority (KoTDA) is located. It is the only building for kilometers around taller than one story.

At the main gate, there are security measures: a look into the car, a mysterious mirror thrust aggressively underneath its chassis, a demand for identification, and the temperature checks and dabs of sanitizer that have become a permanent part of security ritual. Then I drive up to the KoTDA headquarters. All around are workers in hard hats, trucks filled with sand, excavators, and the other normal detritus of construction sites. This is the headquarters of the so-called Silicon Savannah.

By the looks of the Konza Technopolis Development Authority, there’s little to indicate that 13 years have gone by since the launch of what was first trumpeted by the Kenyan government in 2008 as being the future “best-planned” city in Africa. With promises of mass job creation and investors “trooping in,” Konza City’s groundbreaking was meant to be a source of national pride and a marker of progress — a sign that Kenya was on the cutting edge of global tech. 

It was also the start of a continent-wide trend. Over the past decade, more than a half-dozen African countries have attempted to foist themselves into the upper strata of tech and finance through the development of smart cities. There is currently a long list of smart, or techno, cities being built or planned on the continent — including Eko Atlantic City in Nigeria, HOPE City in Ghana, an Ethiopian city styled as the “real Wakanda” after the film Black Panther, Kigali Innovation City in Rwanda, and Senegal’s Akon City — all promising to solve the problems of poverty and economic stagnation in their respective countries through innovative tech. Kenya’s Konza was the first.

Cities such as Konza also tap into an older phenomenon. In the decades after the end of colonial rule in the 1950s and ’60s, African countries began building new cities from scratch as a way of redefining themselves. These cities, which were then appointed as capitals, were to be centrally located and politically and ethnically neutral. Abuja, constructed in the 1980s to replace Lagos as Nigeria’s capital, is the biggest. Dodoma, hitherto a small town with a population of 40,000, replaced Dar es Salaam as Tanzania’s capital in 1974. Gaborone was set up as Botswana’s capital in the 1960s; while Nouakchott, previously a minor village, was selected in 1958 to be the capital of the new state of Mauritania.

These new capitals represented a novel kind of civic utopianism: They gave their respective countries a means through which to imagine and pursue better versions of themselves. The drive to build smart cities is this dream carried to its natural conclusion in the IT-dominated 21st century. Yet these cities have fallen far short of what was promised. Even on the rare occasions when smart cities are actually completed, they never match up to what was sold at the start — the chance for African countries to showcase that they are on par with the Western and Asian nations that dominate the global tech sector. Nor have African governments been able to fully sell these projects to the investors and public they’re ostensibly intended to serve, whether the cities in question are fronted by multinational companies, the countries themselves, or, in the case of Senegal and Uganda, by the Senegalese-American musician Akon.

As early as 2006, there had been talk in certain tech and financial circles in Nairobi about building a smart city in Kenya. For decades, a small cabal within the government’s communications department had ensured that Telkom Kenya, a government corporation, and, before it, Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation, from which Telkom Kenya had been spun off, had exclusive control of key resources in the telecommunications sector. This meant that it was expensive to make phone calls and even more expensive to have an internet connection — and a slow one, at that. But things were starting to change. Mwai Kibaki, then-president of Kenya, had been elected in 2002 on promises of reviving the Kenyan economy, and one of the ways he intended to do that was through privatization. Fast, reliable internet and cheap cellular services were on the horizon, and so were even more ambitious projects.

In 2005, Kibaki appointed Bitange Ndemo to be the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Information, Communications and Technology. Much of Kenya’s reputation as a continental tech giant is because of Ndemo. In his first few years in office, he initiated Kenya Open Data, a portal that makes public government data free and easily accessible, and he oversaw the installation of undersea internet cables to boost internet connectivity in East Africa. He also spearheaded the process of reforming his ministry, in part by breaking Telkom Kenya’s grip on the industry, which allowed private telecommunications companies to set up shop in Kenya. This, ultimately, is what made a smart city possible.

Plans for Konza were announced on June 10, 2008, as part of Vision 2030, a government-led development blueprint with the stated aim of turning Kenya into a “middle-income country providing a high-quality life to all its citizens by the year 2030.” This proposal included the construction of a superhighway from Nairobi to the nearby industrial town of Thika, a new port and oil refinery in the centuries-old Swahili island-town of Lamu, and a transport corridor, which would involve laying a network of roads through Northern Kenya and into South Sudan and Ethiopia. Three international airports would also be built, as would a new railway to replace the century-old British-built line. And there was Konza.

According to initial plans, the city would be completed in four five-year phases. By 2020, promotional materials claimed, this former cattle ranch would have created 100,000 jobs and would be pumping $1 billion a year into the Kenyan economy. Hundreds of multinational tech companies would have outposts in Konza, and a world-class fiber-optic network would run through its commercial center and financial district. There would be 37,000 homes in well-planned residential estates, large-scale shopping malls, and Kenyan and foreign university hubs. A new highway and railway line would link the city to Nairobi, 60 kilometers away, and light manufacturing industries were being courted to set up factories. The city would revolve around data. Roads, buildings, and other parts of the urban environment would be equipped with sensors to gather information about traffic, weather, water, and energy consumption. This data would then be made available to residents and used to improve public services.

From the start, Konza was intended to be globally oriented. Its desired partners were big Western and Asian technology firms. The idea was that the Kenyan government would provide the basic urban infrastructure — roads, electricity, commuter railway lines, water and sewage facilities — and step aside. Private investors would then take over and build the rest. In return, they’d get generous tax exemptions and tax holidays, hitch their fortunes to a regional IT hub, and be exempted from a law stipulating that Kenya-based companies have to have locals make up at least 20 percent of their shareholders. (As an added bonus, expatriates working in the city would not have to pay income or withholding tax.) By Ndemo’s count, around 150 companies took an early interest in the project. Among them were the Kenyan telecommunications company Safaricom, the University of Nairobi, the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, India’s Shapoorji Pallonji Group, Samsung, Research In Motion, Google, Craft Silicon, and the Telemax Technology Corporation.

These were big dreams. Yet, more than twelve years after the launch of the Vision 2030 project, none of this has happened. Legal and logistical problems hampered the project so badly that it took until 2013 for the government to finally pump the first tranche of money into Konza. Progress has been slow since. On the day of my visit, I passed dozens of construction workers in hard hats before entering the Konza complex to meet KoTDA staff, who are responsible for managing the city’s public infrastructure and land and carrying out marketing and promotion. A receptionist, dressed in the greens and whites that are the official colors of KoTDA, took my visitor’s form and instructed me to sit in the waiting room. The office stood in contrast to the hubbub outside, its plushness evoking the semipermanent headquarters of a construction site. The site underwhelmed. Whatever idea I’d had of what a smart city under construction would look like, this was not it. But in a way, this was to be anticipated. Few attempts were made to sell Konza to ordinary Kenyans, and at the end of the day, it needed their support. While the government promised that the project would ultimately generate 200,000 jobs, experts quickly poked holes in the claim. Kenyan economist Kwame Owino argued that the projected cost of creating a single job would be roughly $32,000 — more than 20 times higher than the country’s average annual income. Moreover, the Kenyan government didn’t bother to explain how Konza would avoid the pitfall common to similar projects across the globe: that smart jobs often end up being given to handsomely paid expatriates.

A newcomer to the African urban renewal scene would wonder why and how smart city projects became so ubiquitous. Writing in 2013, the Kenyan journalist Parselelo Kantai observed, “Across the region, ‘Vision’ projects proliferate. Almost every country in East Africa has now generated one, courtesy of the McKinsey Global Institute, to whom African governments have outsourced the task of dreaming about the future.” 

The answer has to do with global management consultancies, such as McKinsey, and their relationships with the big technology firms of the West. Toward the end of the ’90s and start of the 2000s, McKinsey & Company, the neoliberal consulting behemoth whose economic research arm is the McKinsey Global Institute, began to champion “vision” projects in Asia that had “smart” ambitions at their centers. In India, there was Vision Mumbai, which reimagined the Indian megapolis as “a world-class city,” and “Andhra Pradesh Vision 2020,” which, writes urban anthropologist Constance Smith, “centered on the revisioning of Hyderabad through the construction of ‘Cyberabad,’ a high-tech, IT-dominated satellite city.” Before that, there was Malaysia Vision 2020. In all these instances, multinational tech companies and other large corporations were simply given huge chunks of land in exchange for promises of job creation. But this came with high not-so-hidden costs. In Hyderabad, state spending on social and welfare services was gutted, and local officials redirected all their energy to attracting foreign investment.

Since the early aughts, McKinsey has become one of the most active participants in the global dialogue around smart cities. According to a 2018 report on Asian smart cities undertaken by McKinsey Global Institute, “The drive to make cities smarter is not just about what governments do. It’s also about creating environments where different players can bring innovation to bear on public issues.” In other words, these projects are motivated in part by the desire to bring private sector actors into the process of data-driven governance — to invite them to devise solutions to urban problems, such as those surrounding safety, transit, public health, and pollution, framed in the rhetoric of urban renewal. When I asked Ndemo about the ambitions of Konza City, his choice of language was overarchingly similar to McKinsey’s. Konza, he told me, would use data to spur innovation. “We need to teach Kenyans how to innovate,” he said. “That is the idea of Konza.”

“The drive to make cities smarter is not just about what governments do. It’s also about creating environments where different players can bring innovation to bear on public issues.”

This similarity is not a mere coincidence. Kenya was one of the earliest countries to outsource its dreaming to McKinsey. The entire Vision 2030 strategy was developed by the Kenyan government in conjunction with McKinsey & Company, with Konza being one of many techno-utopian urban renewal projects the firm was involved in. At first, most were undertaken in Asia, then, in the 2000s, the focus shifted to African countries, which were seen as growth markets for big tech and financial corporations. After all, Africa was rising and was therefore ripe for exploitation by Western businesses. As Adam Greenfield writes in Against the smart city, multinationals such as IBM, Cisco, and Siemens AG saw techno-cities as a win-win: a way to sell proprietary technology and to construct markets for their urban and municipal services. In many cases, gullible countries went for it.

In India, Narendra Modi’s ascension to the premiership in 2014 accelerated the government’s collaboration with multinational companies. Less than a year into his rule, the government announced plans to build 100 smart cities in five years. This involved partnering with Bloomberg Philanthropies, which would help India identify which cities could be made smarter. Despite the fact that the project has been massively delayed, companies are already selling technology to the chosen cities, giving some residents the impression that these allegedly customized fixes to municipal problems were developed long before any deals were struck. Speaking about Tiruchirappalli, a city in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Indian architect Vijaykumar Sengottuvelan told The Guardian, “My suspicion is that they have already developed the technology, and are looking for a place where they can sell it en masse.”

In Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh Vision 2020 has had terrible consequences. One of McKinsey’s recommendations had been to replace small-scale investors — which the company claimed “lack[ed] motivation” — with large corporations. To draw them, the consultancy successfully petitioned the government to loosen laws around commercial activities in the region. These laws, according to McKinsey, bottlenecked businesses and prevented interested firms from investing in Andhra Pradesh. The on-the-ground consequence was that, before long, millions of farmers were displaced from their land in favor of large corporations. Many of the displaced farmers moved to Hyderabad, leading to a rapid increase in the number of slums in the city. This also led to a spike in suicides, as thousands of farmers in Andhra Pradesh ended their lives due to the precarity brought about by the economic liberalization of the agrarian sector. To some critics, the plan amounted to nothing more than “a blueprint for mass starvation.” When I asked them about the suicides and displacements in Andhra Pradesh, McKinsey told me, “We do not advocate for or recommend specific courses of action or take decisions. Where we serve public sector clients we do not determine public policy or regulation.”

According to Alexis Teyie, a Kenyan data scientist who worked on smart cities in India for global consultancy companies, one of the problems with these projects is that consulting firms are not involved with actual execution. “Their main deliverables,” she told Rest of World, “are often what they call ‘strategy’ and ‘vision’ — which are documents. So, they conceive of themselves as ‘thought partners’ to implementers, usually local and national governments. Hence, I doubt that McKinsey would consider any of their projects a failure, since they delivered on the visioning and strategy development.”

This is of course typical of consulting projects, but what this definition of success can obscure is that, in many instances, firms will leave their government partners without actual ownership of the strategy or the steps to move the project forward. This means that, when smart cities do succeed, they tend to be in hyper-connected and wealthy countries like South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, which can simply throw money at the projects until they’re completed. Everywhere else, the McKinseyfication of government and federal services often means that the mere production of paperwork counts as progress. And this, Teyie said, creates an even more perverse dynamic: “In the likely event that the project is a failure, the government can blame the consultants for the failure of the project, or hire more consultants to attempt to push it through. At the same time, it means that McKinsey can say it’s not their failure since they did their work. The question then becomes, Who is responsible for the failure of Konza?”

Even leaving this aside for a moment, the Konza project is sloppy. Planners could have made the city affordable to more than simply the wealthiest Kenyans. Or they could have made an effort to localize the proposed architecture, instead of putting forth an aesthetic that has been described as a lazy mimicry of Dubai’s. They did none of this. Rather, as things stand, Konza is on track to become an exemplar of bubble urbanism, a secure, high-tech enclave away from the choked urban atmosphere of the capital. So, even though the final city is still largely a gleam in the eye of politicians and McKinsey analysts, Konza will not be seen as a future Kenyan city. Rather, it will be a hub for global capital — a city created to suit the interests of influential multinationals. Nevertheless, these concerns may not matter, since nowadays all the buzz is about Rwanda. Construction delays have meant that chatter around Konza has been overtaken by Kigali Innovation City, one of the flagship projects of Rwanda’s own Vision 2020. When asked whether it is true that investors are abandoning Konza City for Kigali, Ndemo told Rest of World, “Yes, there is an element of truth, because we took too long.” He added, “I remember I was approached by Google, and it took so long to confirm, that they went to Rwanda.”

Between 2013 and 2018, updates about the Konza city project were gradually pushed to the back pages of the newspapers before disappearing entirely. While the Thika-Nairobi superhighway was built, and construction commenced on the transit corridor, Konza became the disappeared middle child of Vision 2030. To many Kenyans, Yes, Kenya was building a smart city, whatever that meant, but this was taking place somewhere in the vague future. Unlike most government projects, which can progress in glorious boredom away from the public eye, smart cities require momentum generated by public attention in order to sustain investor support. Therefore, as the project stalled, prospective investors started to cast their gazes elsewhere. While Nairobi was ranked “the most intelligent city in Africa” in 2014 and 2015 and then again in 2019 by the Intelligent Community Forum, few people talked about Konza.

In recent months, however, this has started to change. There has been a media blitz by Kenyan news agencies about the project, prompted by the 2019 completion of the building that holds the KoTDA offices. According to supporters, this is a sign that things are finally progressing. We are told that the city is finally taking shape after years of funding challenges. That the Konza City dream is being saved. That engineers have finished laying 500 kilometers of underground internet cables. Still more breathless coverage claims that investors are now jostling to get involved.

I came to Konza City to see what was actually happening. Perhaps something on the ground would make it clear to me what exactly McKinsey sold to the Kenyan government. When I arrived, the department heads were in a meeting, so I sat in the air-conditioned waiting room and stared at “Silicon Savannah” promotional materials, as if looking at the phrase long enough would convince me that this was, indeed, the epicenter of innovation in Africa.

After waiting in the reception area for the heads of department to finish their meeting, I was told that none of them were available, so I met with Jackson Tenik, who works in the sales department. Despite insisting that he was not officially allowed to speak with me — and offering me a job in the communications department — he agreed to show me around. Looking at the skeleton of the future city, I wondered what he sold, and to whom, since property prices in Konza mean that the projected city will be unaffordable for many who already live nearby. (If this weren’t already clear, city planners underscored the point with the construction of a 10-kilometer buffer zone between Konza and the neighboring towns of Malili and Old Konza, whose demographics do not fit the ideal of “Africa Rising.”) 

Tenik took me up to the highest floor of the building, which was finished in 2019. From there, Konza spread out before us. In the distance were the vast Athi plains. Closer to us, a faint road grid, still under construction, divided the city into plots. Those plots were the future sites of schools, hospitals, a sports complex, and the South Korea–funded Kenya Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, modeled after the Korean Advanced Institute of Science & Technology. Tenik pointed out the wastewater reclamation facility still under construction and the data center, which was partially built. From this vantage, the city seemed expansive, and I could almost see the mirage that he was selling.

Shortly after my visit to Konza, eager to hear more about the status of the project, I sent emails to the appropriate KoTDA staffers. Nobody responded to me directly, instead guiding me to a public relations firm that promised to get back to me soon. Its first “We’ll be in touch!” email begat another, which begat another, and, in the months since, they’ve avalanched into silence.

According to the most recent timeline KoTDA has provided for Konza, the first phase of the city will be completed by 2030, at which point it will have created 20,000 jobs. The entire project is now slated to be finished by 2050. Konza City’s delays are partly due to the fact that its strongest backers, Ndemo and Kibaki, are no longer in office. But this doesn’t mean that the current administration is opposed to such enormously expensive tech-oriented development projects. Last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta changed federal policy to ensure the quicker construction of Northlands City, a $5 billion mixed-use development project privately owned by his own family. In fact, when, in 2017, Kenyatta’s government approached McKinsey about repackaging Vision 2030 — it has since been renamed “The Big Four Agenda” — Konza was conspicuous in its absence. It had been replaced by Northlands City.

After leaving government in 2013, Ndemo went back to the University of Nairobi, where he now teaches entrepreneurship in the Business School. I caught him briefly before he had to go into a class. I asked him if, all these years later, he still had faith in the idea of Konza. He did. He mentioned the need to develop the future of sectors like manufacturing and agriculture through technology and said, “We should have a Konza in every county.”

It is unlikely that Konza will ever reach the form it was intended to. But then, no smart city in the world has been completed that perfectly accords with its initial claims or early plans. As the Kenyan government’s finances have collapsed, brought down by excessive loans and a culture of malfeasance overseen by President Kenyatta, Konza’s future seems especially dire. For the 2021/22 financial year, it has been allocated $168 million, a figure dwarfed by the amounts allocated to Kenyatta’s newer, less ambitious projects. Despite all this, the dream of a smart city, as crafted and packaged by McKinsey consultants, continues to be used by local administrators to sell a version of Kenyan modernity.

However, even administrators themselves admit that technology isn’t a magic bullet. Writing in the Africa Journal of Management in 2017, Ndemo argued that “the spread of digital technologies alone will not unlock any development opportunities.” Yet much of the talk in Kenyan policy circles around the potential of digital technologies ignores the fact that tech doesn’t fix failing systems. To offer two recent local examples: A sophisticated Huawei-built surveillance system installed in Nairobi to reduce crime had almost the opposite long-term effect. While there was a 46% reduction in crime rates in the first year, the next year it was up by 13%, and crime then ballooned by an additional 50% between 2016 and 2017.

A $63 million electronic vote-tallying system designed to prevent interference in the 2017 Kenyan general elections failed even more spectacularly. After the head of technology for the country’s electoral agency was murdered days before the vote, his login credentials were allegedly used to access the system, and Kenyatta was declared the winner. The election results were thrown out by the country’s Supreme Court a few weeks later, on account of multiple technical discrepancies, but Kenyatta went on to win 98.26% of the vote in a new election whose fairness was contested by multiple electoral commissioners. Despite these and many more examples, rhetoric around technology continues to ignore the fact that it is always an expression of human intention. Similarly, smart cities are not cure-alls for socioeconomic problems but rather ways to distract citizens from bigger, structural ones.

Meanwhile, KoTDA continues its work of keeping Konza alive. They advertise investment opportunities on their website. In collaboration with the local Israeli embassy, they recently organized an “innovation challenge” aimed at addressing the city’s technology needs. They claim to still be in talks with IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, and Huawei. To believers, Konza still exudes hope. And, of course, this is the core attraction of smart cities: Like the new capitals that came before them, they offer the possibility of a utopia, a future that citizens and administrators alike can rally around.

Driving away from the construction site that is Konza City, a row of cement poles wrapped in wire fencing waved me off. At the end of the fencing, on the side closest to Nairobi, was the Kenya Electricity Transmission Company substation, and beyond that, the town of Old Konza. But perhaps this name is unsuitable. As things stand, there may never be a new one.