Tag Archives: Africa

Strategies for Sustainable Energy Transitions for Urban Sub-Saharan Africa – SETUSA 2017

The SAMSET project team is pleased to announce the hosting of the Strategies for Sustainable Energy Transitions for Urban Sub-Saharan Africa (SETUSA) Conference, which will be held at the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER) Conference Facility, University of Ghana, Legon, Accra, Ghana from the 19th – 20th June 2017.

SETUSA Banner 2

By 2050, it is envisaged that three out of five people from the estimated 2 billion population across Africa will be living in cities. Sub-Saharan African economies have grown 5.3 percent per annum in the past decade, triggering a dramatic increase in energy needs. Against this backdrop, it is estimated that by 2040 about 75% of the total energy consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa will be in urban areas with its associated implications on sustainable development.

Given these challenges on sustainable development, solutions for sustainable energy transitions in the Sub-Saharan African region are extremely important, and likely to have wide-ranging consequences on the sustainability of the region’s economies. This reality also imposes an urgent obligation on the continent to consider sourcing more of its abundant renewable energy resources to ensure long-term security of energy supply. Particularly, renewable energy resources — solar, wind, organic wastes – and their corresponding technologies offer more promises for sustainable energy futures than the conventional energy sources.

Therefore, there is the need first of all to raise awareness on renewable energy options and energy efficiency opportunities in urban areas, and to promote strategies which will maximise their benefits in providing secure, sustainable and affordable energy to meet the rising energy demand in the region’s fast-growing cities. Secondly, there is also the need for national as well as local government planners and policy makers to understand local urban contexts so that they can grasp the significant opportunities of engaging at a local level, as well as acquire the critical set of capacities and skills necessary to drive and influence the uptake of clean energy and efficient technologies.

The conference aims to bring together social scientists, policy-makers and entrepreneurs in the urban clean energy sphere, to discuss strategies for moving Sub-Saharan African economies to a more sustainable energy transition pathway. We are inviting papers on energy efficient buildings, energy efficiency and demand-side management in urban areas, renewable energy and energy supply in urban areas, electrification and access to modern energy in urban areas, waste to energy in urban areas, spatial planning and energy infrastructure in urban areas, energy and transportation in urban areas.

SETUSA Final Call for Papers (PDF)

Details of the call for papers and other information, can be found on the conference website: www.setusa.isser.edu.gh

More information on the SAMSET project can also be found on our homepage: www.samsetproject.net


Energy and Africities Summit 2015

Mark Borchers from Sustainable Energy Africa writes on  the recent Africities summit, and the role that SAMSET played in advancing sustainable energy themes at the summit.

The Africities Summit is held every 3 years and is possibly the foremost gathering of African local government politicians and officials on the African continent. It is also well attended by national government and other players such as local and international NGOs.

The SAMSET team attended the 2015 Africities Summit in Johannesburg in November, and SAMSET organized a session on Sustainable Energy in urban Sub-Saharan Africa: the Role of Local Government (see the background paper here). It was competently chaired by the Executive Mayor of Polokwane (a South African municipality), Cllr Thembi Nkadimeng, and key recommendations emerging were included in the Summit outputs.

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Panel Discussion, Africities Summit, Johannesburg, November 2015: Source: Mark Borchers

In addition, SAMSET, in partnership with SALGA, GIZ and the City of Johannesburg, organized fieldtrips to sustainable energy installations in the area – rooftop solar PV, landfill gas electricity generation, sewage methane electricity generation, mass solar water heater rollout, and public transport and spatial planning systems (click here for an example).

Overall, however, although our event was relatively well attended, it was interesting to me that energy and climate change did not seem to be a priority in the minds of the majority of attendees. There were a few energy and/or climate change sessions held, and these did not attract much attention compared with many other sessions. Let us not forget that this relatively low level of participation in the energy events is in the context of a great range of parallel sessions of central importance to local governments, such as those around transparent governance, demographics, financial resources, decentralization and relationships with tribal authorities. In addition, the energy related events were not the only ones with unexpectedly low attendance. Nevertheless, it was apparent to me that energy issues were more peripheral to local government than I had envisaged.

On reflection, this isn’t surprising. Dr Vincent Kitio of UN Habitat Nairobi hosted one such energy event at the 2015 Africities, and told me that a similar event he organized at the previous Africities was the first ever that focused on energy. So energy is a relatively new consideration for local governments. In most African countries energy is considered purely a national function, and the important influence of local government on sustainable energy, such as in transport and spatial planning and building design, and the renewable energy opportunities from waste management, amongst others, has still not been internalized by any sphere of government other than in a scattering of pioneering municipalities across the sub-continent.

Yet, as noted by the Cities Alliance “…as long as cities and local authorities are not put in a position to take initiatives and be at the forefront of actions to make African cities more inclusive, competitive, sustainable, safer and better managed, there is little chance that Africa will overcome the challenges posed by rapid urbanization” (Assessing the Institutional Environment of Local Governments in Africa, 2014, p10).

This need to capacitate and resource local government applies to their role in promoting sustainable energy as well, and is of added urgency given the monumental challenge of meeting SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) 7 in Sub-Saharan Africa. This is the area SAMSET is working in, but, given how far we still have to go, many more players and resources are needed to achieve the huge shifts necessary.

Waste-to-energy paradigm: Opportunities for African cities to transform their energy landscapes

Xavier Lemaire from UCL and Simon Bawakyillenuo & Innocent Agbelie from the University of Ghana ISSER recently collaborated on this post for the UrbanAfrica.net website. The original post can be found at: http://www.urbanafrica.net/urban-voices/waste-to-energy-african-cities-can-transform-their-energy-landscapes/, reproduced in full below.

The critical issue of waste management

Waste management is a critical issue for most African cities as a result of the huge generation of mountains of waste stemming from increases in urban populations over the last few decades, coupled with access to consumer goods by a fast-growing middle class. And waste generation is expected to increase rapidly in the future. City authorities are therefore faced with the challenge of managing urban waste with limited resources at their disposal.

The extent of this challenge is made clear by an Africa Review Report on Waste Management in African cities, which notes that less than half of waste is being collected, the rest being dumped in the urban landscape [1]. Accra alone generates approximately 1000 tonnes of waste per day at an annual generation rate of 3.7×104 Tons/year while the existing collection capacity can only keep up with about 55% of this amount (Fobil (2000). This means that an excess of 1.7×104 Tons/year is left to accumulate in the core areas of the city for several months [2]. In the wake of this finding, Obour (2012) described the city of Accra as almost engulfed in filth [3].

Unsustainable waste management has adverse consequences on the environment including the breeding of mosquito and related diseases, emission of obnoxious odours and methane, and flooding through choked drainage systems [4]. These waste-related problems are not uncommon in most African cities and city authorities are seeking sustainable waste-management solutions. Indeed, unraveling sustainable solutions for efficient waste management is one of the top priorities of the two municipalities in Ghana that are partners to the “Supporting Sub-Saharan Africa’s Municipalities with Sustainable Energy Transitions (SAMSET)” project.

Sustainable waste management practices

The most sustainable waste management practices are waste reduction and waste recycling as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1:  Hierarchy of sustainable waste management

samset blog waste management img 1

Source: Adapted from Rodriguez, 2011.

Effective waste recycling ultimately leads to waste reduction. It is possible to recycle completely a waste product only when the production and marketing processes themselves have integrated the target of 100% recycling as the ultimate goal of the design of the value chain, making it possible to generate money from the recycling activity itself (and allowing the recycling activity not just being an end of chain cost).

In most African cities, little is done and far little is happening currently in the areas of waste reduction and waste recycling as waste management practices. Sadly, waste management practices in Africa can be placed in the first and second rungs from the bottom of the hierarchy of sustainable waste management (Figure 1). It has to be noted that, another waste management practice that is common in African cities is composting, that is, turning the by-products of organic waste into manure for agricultural activities. Most companies that have taken such initiatives have quit in many countries due to low patronage of such compost products. It is, however, flourishing in other countries such as Uganda and parts of South Africa, like Cape Town.

Opportunities and potentials for waste-to-energy in African Cities

Using waste to create energy is a viable option for most African cities. Waste can be incinerated to produce heat or electricity; and methane can be collected from landfills and be used to, again, generate heat or electricity.

There is high level of organic content of waste generated in most African cities. In Ghana, for example, about 66% of the total waste generated is organic, as shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 2: Waste type and composition in Ghana

samset blog waste management img 2

Source: Zoomlion Ghana Limited (2013).

Any organic waste from urban and rural areas as well as industries is a resource due to its ability to degrade and release methane, which can be used for energy generation. The problems caused by solid and liquid wastes can be significantly mitigated through the adoption of environmentally-friendly waste-to-energy technologies that will allow treatment and processing of wastes before their disposal.

Waste-to-energy is a win-win endeavour. As a sustainable waste management system it produces energy that can be sold for economic gains for the producer. It also provides green jobs. While it is thought that such projects are highly technical and often require imported skilled labour and technology from developed countries, local people, especially “waste scavengers,” can be employed and use their skills. It seems unlikely that municipalities themselves or international corporations can deal with waste. Involving local entrepreneurs in the process is fundamental [5] and can be extended to entrepreneurs from informal settlements [6].

Most cities in Africa already use landfill waste disposal systems. City-owned vehicles, such as trucks, can be used for waste-to-energy projects to cut costs. The problem in most African cities, however, is waste sorting. Waste is often not sorted at the collection points hence all kinds of waste end up at the depositing site. Tying economic benefits to sorting of waste at the households level and effective education of the general public on the need for proper waste sorting can help the course of waste-to-energy in most African cities.

Prospects for waste-to-energy in Africa

All landfills generate methane, so there are many opportunities to reduce methane emissions by flaring or collecting methane for energy generation. As mentioned previously, there are two main technological options to transform waste into energy, both of which can be used to create heat or electricity: incineration or collection of methane. Often proposed by Western companies, the incineration technology can be quite costly to build, relies on imported technologies, and requires the collection of huge amount of waste from vast catchment areas. Huge catchments areas imply that there will be high costs related to logistics, while fleets of trucks could contribute to road congestion.

Production of energy from landfill requires certain technical skills, which can only be acquired through training and experience. Methane is a potent heat-trapping gas (more than 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide) and has a short atmospheric life (10 to 14 years) [7]. Therefore, reducing methane emissions from municipal solid waste landfills through a Landfill Gas project is one of the sustainable means to lessen the human impact on global climate change. In addition, a Landfill Gas project, during its operational lifetime, will capture an estimated 60 to 90 percent of the methane created by a landfill, depending on system design and effectiveness. The methane captured is converted to water and carbon dioxide when the gas is burned to produce electricity or heat.

Unfortunately, there is no one best technological fixed solution. Each municipality has to find a specific mix of options, combining the appropriate technologies with existing social agencies to be able to tackle progressively – after a series of trials, successes and errors – this problem. Indeed, there have been many trials and failed waste to energy projects in Africa. That notwithstanding, many opinion groups, private organisations, international organisations and governments in most African countries are still enthusiastic about sustainable waste management practices.

It is therefore imperative for city authorities to make strategic choices about the types of socio-technical solutions that can be implemented realistically, taking into account their financial and social long-term sustainability. This is to avoid repeats of failure of waste-to-energy projects funded by international organisations in Africa. Suffice to mention that waste management is a complex issue that must involve contributions from a variety of stakeholders from local communities to policy-makers including industries and farmers for success to prevail.

Key among the ways African cities can transform their energy landscape through waste-to-energy is political and institutional commitment. It is encouraging to note that in recent times a lot of governments in Africa are gradually embracing the Green Growth development pathway, with some having already mainstreamed Green Economy actions in their national development plans. These steps give signal great prospects for waste-to-energy development in Africa because Green Growth developmental actions entail foster economic, social and environmental development. Thus, in the not too distant future, it is envisaged that a wave of different waste-to-energy projects could spring up across African cities when emphasis is not only placed on the cost component of waste-to-energy, but both the environment and social benefits as well.


[1] Sixth Session of the Food Security and Sustainable Development. Africa Review Report on Waste Management – Main report, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 27-30 October 2009.  http://www.uneca.org/publications/africa-review-report-waste-management-main-report

[2] Fobil, J. N. (2002). Proceedings of International Symposium on Environmental Pollution Control and Waste Management 7-10 January 2002, Tunis (EPCOWM’2002), p.193-205.

[3] Obour, S.K. (2012). “Accra Sinks under Filth”. The Mirror, Saturday, September 15, 2012, pp.24.

[4] Dr Simon Bawakyillenuo and Innocent Komla Agbelie, Waste as a Resource for Energy Generation in the Ga East and Awutu Senya  East Municipalities: the Policy Discourse. University of Ghana, SAMSET project, 2014, http://samsetproject.site11.com/outputs/

[5] Un-Habitat, Note on Urbanisation Challenges, Waste Management, and Development, 12-14 February 2014, Mauritius. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/intcoop/acp/2014_mauritius/pdf/un_habitat_presentation_en.pdf

[6] Towards social inclusion and protection of informal waste pickers and recyclers – waste collection project proposal for and professional support provided to small entrepreneurs by the eThewini municipality. ENDA – IWPAR Best practices #9 www.iwpar.org

[7] Landfill Gas Energy Basics. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/methane/lmop/documents/pdfs/pdh_chapter1.pdf

Shifting the Thinking in Electricity Provision

Simon Batchelor from Gamos writes on smart energy grids, encouraging energy consumer engagement in Africa, and the concept of the “smart consumer”.

It is very interesting reading the European Union’s goals around energy, and in particular the ideas around Smart Energy Grids.  They draw a lot from the works of Rochester Institute of Technology, which has produced the following diagram.

Could Energy Consumers in Africa Become Smarter?
Could energy consumers in Africa become smarter?

There is a move within Europe to make people more aware of energy, and for consumers to make more active choices in their energy consumption.  In general terms, researchers talk about how electricity provision has traditionally been a one directional and always on model.  European households sign up to a utility, and expect electricity to be available whenever they want.  In the UK, for instance, they often pay by direct debit (i.e. they don’t really think about the cost – it goes out automatically from their bank), and 63% of them never switch suppliers.  They ‘receive’ electrical energy, and the majority just don’t really think about it.  When it comes to transport, this is a little more on the top of the mind.  Households may spend considerable time choosing whether to travel mainly by car or commute by train, or bicycle.  While the style of the car, and the speed and space it provides are the main criteria when buying a car, most households will at least consider fuel consumption as part of the discussion.

However, when talking to EDF at ICT4S 2014, an electrical utility that provides for 5 million people in UK, and most of France, they are talking more and more about a model where the household is seen as a manager of energy.  Indeed they are trying to shift their thinking from a one direction model to a more complex multi directional model.  The idea is that households can become more aware of their energy consumption, and even adjust their demand to ‘fit’ the supply.   They can also become co-creators of energy in the system.  For instance, households in UK are installing solar panels on their roofs.  Policy instruments such as ‘Feed in Tariffs’ have made it financially attractive for households to install solar.  This makes them co-creators of the electrical supply.  On remote Scottish islands, communities are supplied with a mix of locally generated energy, both large scale wind and micro scale wind and solar, with a grid based backup.  In this setup, if consumers use devices at a particular time of day their demand ‘matches’ the supply, and the system is more efficient (and produces less carbon dioxide).  This is more than energy efficiency as such, i.e. installing energy efficient light bulbs, which is a passive response that saves energy.  What the utilities are now talking about is an active engagement of consumers and helping people graduate through passive energy efficiency to active energy co-creation and management.

Is this shift in thinking at all relevant to Africa???  In Europe much of the discussion about being active co-managers of energy relies on Information Technology – installing smart meters that the consumer can watch and sensors to make ‘smart’ buildings.  On the surface it may seems ridiculous to ask whether energy consumers in Africa can utilise ICT and manage their energy.  Urban dwellers are constantly struggling with load shedding, they do not have ‘always on’ reliable electrical supplies – they are very aware of the supply and their own consumption.  For cooking they have to purchase charcoal, wood or LPG, and are therefore already making active energy choices.  For transport they often have few alternatives, they have to use whatever public/private transport is available and they cannot afford a car (let alone choose a fuel efficient car).

But as I listened to these European utilities discuss how to change passive consumers into active co-creators, I began to wonder whether Africa actually has a better starting point.  Consumers are very sensitive to fuel and energy pricing as it is often a large portion of their household expenditure.  They already attempt to manage their energy consumption due to the costs.  They are not like UK ‘Direct Debit’ consumers – rather they ‘feel’ their energy bills when they are connected, and they are constantly seeking alternative fuels when they are off grid.  Is there something African policy makers can do to leapfrog Europe and help citizens engage more directly with energy planning, to avoid creating ‘one directional’ utility provision?

Clean Energy Transitions – Can Africa Leapfrog?

Simon Batchelor from Gamos Ltd offers his thoughts on smart technology in sustainable energy, and the concept of “leapfrogging” in energy transitions.

I recently attended the conference ICT4S which focuses on using smart technology to manage energy sustainably.  ICT4S is a series of research conferences bringing together leading researchers, developers and government and industry representatives interested in using Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) as a tool to reach sustainability goals. The 1st ICT4S Conference was held in Zürich and attracted 250 participants from 40 countries. The theme of ICT4S 2014 held in Stockholm was “ICT and transformational change”. ‘Sustainable development needs transformational changes regarding both technology and patterns of production and consumption. This conference explores  and shapes the role of ICT in this process and assess positive and negative impacts of ICT on sustainability. ICT for sustainability is about utilizing the transformational power of ICT for making our world more sustainable: saving energy and material resources by creating more value from less physical input, increasing quality of life for ever more people without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their needs.’

Obviously this conference discusses the high tech end of the spectrum.  There are many actions that can be taken to move towards cleaner, more sustainable energy production and consumption.  Switching off lights to save energy can be done by changes in behaviour – people ensuring they switch the light off when leaving the building.  But humans are fallible, so many technicians propose connecting lights to sensors that switch them off when there is no movement.   This conference spent a lot of time discussing such high tech alternatives – smart buildings that monitored and managed energy.  Even smart cities that mapped where people were travelling to and organised the public transport accordingly.

So for instance, one of the papers talks about smart management of a building in the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.  Their paper “GreenMind – An Architecture and Realization for Energy Smart Buildings” states in the abstract that existing buildings are responsible for more than 40% of the world’s total primary energy consumption (although that seems a very high proportion?). They go on to say that current management systems fail to reduce unnecessary energy consumption and preserve user comfort at the same time mainly because they are unable to cope with dynamic changes caused by user’s interaction with the environment.  So they created a software architecture for energy smart buildings.  Experimental results carried out in the Bernoulli building, a 12.000 square meter building of the University of Groningen, show that the proposed solutions are able to save up to 56% of electricity used for lighting, at least 20% of electricity used for heating while the savings from controlling workstations as well as other appliances are 33% and 10%, respectively. overall, their solution is expected to save up to 28% of total energy consumption in buildings such as the Bernoulli building.

But what relevance has this to Africa?  Well, I listened to their Eurocentric presentations with an ear for Africa, and I was surprised by what I heard.   In Citizen observatories of water: Social innovation via eParticipation, I heard officials from the Netherlands discuss how difficult it is to get people to report problems.  “Advanced citizen observatories can enable a two-way communication paradigm between citizens and decision makers, potentially resulting in profound changes to existing flood risk management processes”.   That is; they have created community volunteers who are willing to report problems!  This has been a problem in the past for Africa, not because people are unwilling to get involved (as is the case in Europe) but because the distance to report a problem was too far.  A broken handpump may lie idle because the community do not have the bus fare to get to the district to report it.  However this is changing.  There are mobile phones and reporting problems can be just a phone call away.  Africa does not need sophisticated websites to collect data on problems, it needs only a willing ear to listen – ears which can be used in face to face conversation or through a simple phone call.

As I sat listening to various presentations, looking for the leapfrog technology; I was surprised.  I realised that what Africa had was a leapfrog society.  Citizens who are willing to talk to each other in community, and to engage with officials IF officials are willing to listen.   The matching of mobile phones and a willing society could result in big data that might really help transitions to clean energy.

It is Time to Pay the Climate Debt: Financing a Low-Carbon Urban Africa

Johnathan Silver from Durham University highlights the flaws and limitations of current carbon financing mechanisms, and the pressure they put on an African continent at the forefront of climate change.

Even though sub-Saharan Africa has contributed little to historic Green House Gas emissions, a burgeoning body of research is pointing out that the continent is on the frontline of climate change dynamics and as a result facing multiple infrastructural pressures across an urbanising region.

It is an issue that is of concern to African leaders with the Vice-President of Tanzania, Mohamed Gharib Bilal expressing reservations at the recent ICLEI Local Climate Solutions conference in Dar es Salaam. In the opening session of the conference, he argued that the global response to climate change must be fair, reflecting common but differentiated responsibilities that would put the emphasis on industrialised countries to finance a low carbon urban future and support the separation of growth from carbon and wider resource intensity in African cities. Yet these commonly held views on the continent and beyond seem to be having little effect on the slow, painful process of financing low carbon infrastructures and a green economy in Africa.

This climate change driven, energy, resource and development crisis is not some imagined future but rather taking place in the here and now. Reflecting on these relationships between climate change, low carbon imperatives and infrastructure geographies from across urban Africa generates a critical question: Where is the financing coming from to transform energy systems that respond to low carbon and developmental objectives and fund the plethora of strategies and plans proposed over the last decade?

The prognosis is not an optimistic one. The failure of historic polluters to offer the necessary finance, technology transfer and solidarity highlighted by the Tanzanian Vice President as crucial to a low carbon, resource efficient urban future is achingly visible. The options out there now for African cities limited, full of contradictions and characterised by the dominance of carbon markets. Speakers at the ICLEI conference sought to help city policy makers navigate the Byzantine nature of market-based carbon financing, used (rare) case studies of success stories for the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and sought to draw some hope from a thoroughly discredited financing system. Yet these voices seem to be a minority as a growing consensus rejects the market rationalities embedded in carbon financing with a coalition of activists, academics and policy makers highlighting what seems like an endless number of problems with financing mechanisms such as the CDM.

These critiques of carbon financing cover a series of issues from the privatisation of the air and the atmospheric commons through to the non-linearity of climate change. The almost perverse notion that polluters are being rewarded under these market conditions, together with widespread examples of fraudulent behavior seems to reflect the wider flawed logic of relying on the market and corporations to address socio-environmental conditions. Work by researchers in cities such as Durban show that cities with carbon market-financed projects are often positioned around mega-sized waste to energy technologies that are having devastating social and ecological consequences for local communities. Price fluctuations, speculative behaviours and the post-2008 crash of the carbon price have illustrated that these mechanisms are even failing on their own (market) logics and terms, reflecting the wider contradictions of global financial markets, derivatives and such like. Beyond these extensive general critiques there are some very real distribution inequalities to the current financing across carbon markets that suggest even if these wider flaws didn’t exist then this form of financing would marginalise African cities in these global flows of infrastructure investment. Taking the CDM as an example we can see that the vast majority of financing has both a regional and a non-urban bias that leaves urban Africa on the margins.

climate-graph-1 durham


So while African cities have been promised the fruits of the carbon markets in reality such projects make a tiny and insignificant part of infrastructure investment through the CDM. There are various discourses emerging from organisations such as the Cities Alliance and the World Bank that seek to ‘get cities prepared to attract carbon finance’ yet previous experience would suggest that such preparations are likely to include energy sector liberalisation, policy reform and cause future difficulties for African cities to address climate change, poverty and other imperatives.

These series of problems, flawed logics and failures characterising carbon financing are not going to address the energy, climate change and development challenges facing urban Africa. So where does this critique of carbon markets and current financing landscapes leave cities in terms of financing low carbon, resource efficient urban futures? As the Vice President of Tanzania made clear in his speech, industrial countries must pay and there must be an equitable and fair way to finance the transformation of infrastructure across urban Africa. This is financing based on the idea of climate debt, of paying for the historical pollution of the atmosphere and offering an alternative to the failed logics of markets in addressing these global inequalities that continue to characterise relationships between the continent and the North.

The need for municipalities across urban Africa to instigate significant investment programs becomes ever more important to address climate change, low carbon imperatives and the multiple development challenges facing these spaces of poverty and inequality. Yet, as the ICLEI conference illustrated again, there seems little in the way of alternatives to the limited, compromised and hopelessly flawed carbon financing mechanisms as countries of the North fail to undertake their historic responsibilities. It is time to pay the climate debt and support African cities to undertake different trajectories from the resource intense urban systems of the North. Many of these cities have yet to construct the required infrastructure systems needed over the next century, providing a limited window of opportunity to build a low carbon, resource efficient and fair urban future. The time for the global North to finance these transformations is now.

This blog is also available on the London School of Economics website and the Situated Urban Political Ecologies platform.

The Rise of Afro-Smart Cities Should be Viewed with Caution

Johnathan Silver from Durham University writes on the potential challenges to African “Smart Cities”, and why the public discourse on the matter may not live up to the hype.

The recent announcement by IBM establishing its twelfth global laboratory in Nairobi has followed a rise in news about Smart cities across urban Africa. These include IBM’s inclusion of Durban and Abuja in its Smarter Cities Challenge, a plethora of summits and conferences, together with planning for a series of new smart urban extensions on the periphery of major conurbations such as Accra and Kinshasa. Together these developments are generating an ever growing clamour concerning the potential of smart urbanism to transform urban Africa through the integration of digital technologies across networked infrastructures, offering resource efficiencies, global competitiveness, safer cities and ultimately much greater control over the built environment and everyday life.

Here is a depiction of the Smart City (Source: http://www2.schneider-electric.com/sites/corporate/en/solutions/sustainable_solutions/smart-cities.page)

Such coverage is often predicated on these techno-futures enabling ways to leapfrog other global regions through next generation infrastructure and technology. The images and narratives of smart futures in cities like Rio, portrayed in endless representations through its control room, and major Northern cities such as London and New York are ubiquitous and firmly entrenched in the imaginary of policymakers and the wider public. Yet the notion of smart in urban Africa has been less visible (at least on a global level) up till now. But as things change, the rise of Afro-Smart cities is going to require much more attention from those interested in rapid urbanisation and associated challenges of poverty and development faced by these diverse cities. For behind the widely circulated images of slum dwellers using mobile technologies to improve daily lives, the dominance of large ICT companies, a splintered urban landscape, land dispossession and the securitisation of urban space reveal a more complicated potential smart urban future.

Hip high tech start-ups, globally-connected young entrepreneurs and newly configured broadband infrastructures form a key ingredient of the Afro-Smart city or “digital revolution” narrative. In cities such as Kigali new techno-cultures are emerging and seeking to bring the Smart city to a much larger proportion of the population through cheap and accessible smart-phones, successful place-based apps and growing public interest in smart technologies being developed by African-based developers and users themselves. This new generation of Smart city innovators is increasingly connected through tech hubs and incubators for new businesses with spaces such as BantaLabs, Saint-Louis, Senegal through to Hive CoLab, Kampala offering spaces for collaboration and addressing both the specific ICT challenges and opportunities being faced across urban Africa.

Adding to this smart wave, rising interest from ICT companies,consultancies such as Deloitte and private equity is generating increased investment and policy focus around Smart cities. Yet the presence of global ICT companies across African cities, including IBM’s relationship with Nairobi poses similar questions to those being asked across urban areas in other parts of the world about who actually benefits from the implementation of smart technologies, growing flows of big data and the affordability of being smart. As Adam Greenfield, in his excellent book ‘ Against the SMART city’ cautions, such futures may well be nothing more than a (techno) utopian fantasy that, once unravelled, reveals little more than the opening of markets and opportunities for profit for large corporations. Nowhere are these powerful narratives of Smart city futures better articulated than in the range of urban development projects being pursued across the continent.

New infrastructure and city extensions are being planned and constructed across the length and breadth of the continent with promises of Smart city living that target that emerging but most unsteady of terms, the African middle class. These include projects in existing cities such as Johannesburg, which has entered into partnership with BWired to establish new broadband networks across the city. Yet, as commentators such as Nancy Oderdaal have long noticed, the splintered nature of ICT infrastructures across urban Africa shows a clear spatial division between the poor and rich that may be further cemented by shifts towards smart networks.

As well as reconfiguring existing urban space for the smart city, a plethora of new city extensions promising potential residents a technologised, data drive future, away from the seemingly chaotic (and unconnected) streets of other parts of the city are emerging and mirroring those well-known global hubsof Smart city hubris. Such Smart city developments are thus often designed beyond existing cities and their slum areas. Konza Techno City, 60km away from Nairobi in the newly named “Silicon Savannah” andHope City, Ghana both promise high tech jobs, global corporate interest, advanced building design and high speed connectivity.

Konza Techno City, Kenya (Source: www.bbc.co.uk)

Yet problems in delivering these urban development projects are myriad and likely to entrench inequalities across already divided and contested cities. For example, La Cite du Fleuve, in DR Congo, brilliantly deconstructed by Filip De Boek, is creating a series of overlapping sources of tension in Kinshasa including struggles around land ownership and issues of dispossession that begin to lay bare the rhetoric of these urban developments. Such urban extensions may well offer smart living for urban dwellers but echoing the gated communities of the past few decades also have to be understood as new frontiers for capital accumulation and a clear demonstration of business sectors and parts of society withdrawing from the wider city and society into enclaves or archipelagos of high technology. Scholars are documenting such processes across the global South, most prominently Ayona Datta in India. This emerging knowledge suggests that the stark urban inequalities present in cities is unlikely to be addressed in these Smart city developments. Instead, dynamics of land dispossession, that are beginning to mirror the wider and ongoing land grabbing across the continent threaten, as Vanessa Watson has eloquently written, to turn these urban dreams into nightmares.

The final area of caution around smart urbanism across Africa needs to be centred around the securitisation of urban space through new technologies, infrastructures and data flows. The control of internet usage and social media is common across many cities including Addis Adaba and of course Cairo, where bloggers critical of the government or organisers of social mobilisations are being imprisoned on despairingly long terms. Being aware of how new smart technologies and infrastructures may also be deployed to curtail human rights and civic participation across urban Africa is critical to how we understand the rise of Afro-Smart cities. We only have to look back at the recent past in South Africa to see how IBM-designed, proto-smart technologies were used by the apartheid regime to control urban populations, restrict access to the cities and securitise a racialised, segregated urban space.

Further current examples are not too hard to find. For instance the development of the Skunk: Riot Drone by the South African company Desert Wolf , to deploy against miners in the country’s restive Platinum Belt and armed with surveillance systems and weapons (including pepper spray), provides a frankly terrifying vision of where Smart technologies may take us. After the Marikana massacre in 2012 by the South African police force and a highly-charged five-month strike by thousands of miners those urging caution in thinking that such technologies could not be used may need to think again. And with the first orders for 25 of these drones, it does not take much of an imaginative leap to see them being deployed across the simmering townships of the country as tensions and inequality continue to mount. Such developments provide a menacing retort to boosterish, utopian narratives of smart being used by large tech companies, consultants and increasingly government actors and policymakers.

Afro-Smart cities are becoming increasingly central in narratives about urban futures on the continent. Policies, reports and public discourse tend to paint a remorselessly upbeat vision of smart technologies that big data and advanced ICT infrastructure, connectivity and new urban (tech) space can help to transform landscapes of poverty and contribute to the oft-discussed “rise of Africa”. Some caution and perspective is certainly needed around Afro-Smart cities that interrogates these narratives and better understands the socio-spatial implications of these new forms of data-driven urbanism.

Johnathan would like to acknowledge the support of Alan Wiig in reading an earlier draft of this text.
This blog is also available on the London School of Economics website.