Nairobi on course to become Africa’s second top city
Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, could soon overtake Cairo to become Africa’s second leading city after Johannesburg.
It may well be on course to joining an elite category of fast-growing and highly competitive global urban economic hotspots, according to the influential Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
The United Kingdom-based EIU predicts a rosy future for Nairobi in a study dubbed “Hot Spots: Benchmarking Global City Competitiveness”.
It says the city will be one of the fastest growing urban economies in the world in the coming decade and a magnet for investment. This is aided by a number of factors, most notably a skilled workforce and a relatively low cost of living.
The government’s own policy blueprint, Metro 2030, echoes this projection and aims to catalyse and manage the takeoff.
However, the ambition to transform Nairobi into a “world class African metropolis” in the next two decades could be imperiled, warn experts, unless sustainability is put at the heart of the strategy.
Accounting for nearly 60 per cent of Kenya’s GDP and nearly a half of the total labour force, it is the key engine for growth and prosperity.
But to remain competitive and consolidate the recent gains, the city needs a radical urban regeneration strategy to modernise and enhance the quality of its physical infrastructure, especially transport and telecommunication, deemed one of the poorest in the world.
In fact, the EIU rated Nairobi among the bottom 10 of 120 cities surveyed.
Recent major road construction and rehabilitation projects in the city as well as the switch to the new high-speed undersea fibre-optic cable, go a long way in addressing some of the major infrastructure challenges that have stymied investment and growth.
The other challenges awaiting Governor Evans Kidero and his county government are no less important.
The key priorities must be to address the rising insecurity; reduce the bloated county workforce; improve city governance and service delivery; actively discourage ethnic ghetto-isation, especially in volatile and impoverished districts; tackle graft and work with the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) to craft innovative solutions to the emergent real threat of environmental degradation and pollution.
The overall goal must be to make Nairobi a better governed and a more egalitarian, greener and sustainable city so as to enhance its inhabitants’ quality of life.
This would require an ambitious but practical strategy that balances growth and sustainability.
There is a rich historical irony in the story of Nairobi’s humble origins and rapid transformation into a huge African metropolis and leading financial, diplomatic and information hub.
It grew as a tiny colonial outpost in 1899 – a temporary stopover for the Imperial British East Africa Railway Company. It was just one among an unremarkable constellation of tiny hamlets that grew around the great railroad.
If historians are right, it owed its birth to an accident of history rather than conscious design or grand imperial whimsy.
The uncanny gravity and instinct that impelled a group of colonial scouts a century ago to pitch tent on the edge of an “African swamp” was to prove prescient a century later and laid the foundation for Nairobi’s rise into one of Africa’s greatest cities.
Geography and climate made it conducive for habitation and commerce and underpinned its emergence as a political and administrative centre.
In an age when rail journeys were slow and tiring, it marked an ideal halfway spot to break the monotony and drudgery of the long passage to Uganda, for rest and recuperation and to stock up on supplies.
More important, the high altitude (1,795 meters above sea level) and mild climate made it un-ideal for the more acute and fatal strains of malaria.
Nairobi’s population is projected to hit the 8 million mark by the end of this decade, according to estimates by the Governor in a recent policy speech.
The physical expansion in the last two decades has been one of the most extensive of any city in sub-Saharan Africa. Many suggest it has reached its limits and is incapable of further spreading out.
This rapid horizontal contraction has created a vast and chaotic urban sprawl that has put severe strains on an already creaky county infrastructure and resulted in serious environmental degradation.
It also poses huge governance and service delivery challenges for the county government.
Part of this enlargement is “grey growth” – unauthorized and unregulated, as the Governor himself noted.
“Informal settlements” – a bureaucratic euphemism for slums – have burgeoned, especially in the eastern districts of the capital. Predatory developers continue to encroach on public utility land in shady property deals to construct shoddy and substandard residential and business buildings.
In a fiscal strategy paper unveiled in February, the Kidero administration acknowledged the problem and promised to draw up an Integrated Urban Development Master Plan to address them.
The plan is still in its infancy and short on details, but, nonetheless, it is a positive first step.
Curiously, one of the objective of the plan is the “regularization of unauthorized development”. This is confusing and perhaps sends the wrong signal to those bent on grabbing land.