How Kampala can become a smart city

October 23, 2014

How does an African city become smart? That seems to be the question of the moment as countries and cities around the continent try to figure out how to catch a little bit of western world’s magic. Kampala is bursting with talented, creative and forward-thinking people. The question lingering in many people’s mind is how can the Ugandan capital harness the energy of media, government, education, businesses, and creative thinkers to create space for innovation? While it’s questionable that a “creative space for innovation” is a worthy objective albeit laden with buzzwords – it’s certainly true that Kampala, along with other Ugandan towns, has the components to be a entrepreneurial centre, the question is how does the city harness the various talents across the different sector. For Kampala, and its southern neighbour Entebbe, those strengths include an educated, multi-cultural workforce with first world legal systems in a similar time zone to the world’s major growth markets.One of the tragedies in Uganda’s marketing over the past two decades has been the failure to mention the ethnic and cultural diversity of the nation. This is huge competitive advantage that is barely being discussed in tech forums in the country.Having great knowledge about the country, me thinks that creating a smart city requires “the same incentive to be given to innovators and creatives as is given to mining and energy companies.” That change requires governments to change laws and businesses, particularly banks, to pick up on those price and policy signals. Education too needs reform although this needs stakeholders consultation.

Kampala City as seen from Kololo Airstrip(CH library -2013)
Kampala City as seen from Kololo Airstrip(CH library -2013)

A welcome change for many Ugandan innovators would be changes in government procurement policies as currently all levels of government prefer to deal with the large multinationals and several studies have concluded that such organisations are often less competent than local providers. And your blogger can confidently say Uganda has some of the most competent business people in sub saharan Africa. Making those changes though will require major reforms to policies and laws. It’s quite possible that an Uganda centre of innovation could be any one of dozens of smaller towns such as Mbarara, Gulu or Masaka. The problem in Uganda is, once again, property prices where housing and office rents are substantially expensive for local start-ups unless you’re prepared to move to seriously blighted parts of the country. Creating a smart Kampala city isn’t about picking winners among industries like its happening in Namanve, suburbs like Kamokya, Mukono, Katwe, Kansanga among others. To really be smart, the city technocrats have to give the opportunities for clever people to succeed. Simply jumping onto today’s technology fad or mindlessly aping Europeans and Americans is to squander Uganda’s advantages and not learn from the mistakes of others.The real worry though is just how little progress is being made in seizing today’s opportunities. It doesn’t bode well for Kampala of tomorrow.

Contador Harrison