HomeRegional NewsAfricaDavid Olatunji, Africa’s champion for smart cities

David Olatunji, Africa’s champion for smart cities

ESI Africa sat down with David Olatunji, President and Founder of the African Smart Cities Innovation Foundation (ASCIF) in Nigeria, on what a smart city in Africa represents and some of the challenges, opportunities, and his hopes for developing innovative spaces.

The article appeared in ESI Africa Issue 2-2021.
Read the mobile-friendly digital magazine or subscribe to receive a free print copy.

Are you of the ilk who believe that smart cities in Africa are a pipedream that won’t ever fully materialise? With no real precedent and most developments being greenfield and following international standards, it is essential to ensure an African context exists for smart African cities. We caught up with Olatunji to set the scene and change your mind on whether Africans can realise exponential smart city development.

In the past, what we now call smart cities would have been called model cities. These model cities have been evolving in nature for years, and urban designers, urban planners and other researchers have responded to this with the current smart cities model.

If we were to do a SWOT analysis of smart cities in Africa, what would you outline?

In terms of strengths, we have so much potential in achieving smart city goals. Globally, the fastest-growing continent in the world is Africa. We have available land and an abundance of natural resources. This puts us slightly ahead of our western counterparts, many of whom have already exhausted the space and land, making it much more difficult for them to modernise and restructure. It is a defining strength for Africa.

Regarding the challenges, the most pressing challenge is policy. The dreams, visions, and plans exist for smart cities in the continent, but too many countries lag in enacting policies to help realise these. The policies in place are not clear enough, and when the policies are not solid or convincing, implementation becomes an issue. When it comes to the opportunities, there are many, and they run parallel to our strengths as a continent. China and America are constantly investing money into this continent; they see the opportunities we as Africans sometimes miss, which is a threat. So it is very important for Africans at all levels to discover the opportunities in this continent. We need to deviate from depending on what international donors give us. We have a whole lot of things to make us comfortable on the continent.

These opportunities you speak of, so many of them look good on paper but are they feasible or even realistic?

It has been a common theme across almost all African countries that we have beautiful blueprints, but implementation is always the problem. However, it is still possible to realise these plans, particularly on the smart cities front. Let us look at what is happening: Rwanda of today cannot be compared to the Rwanda of 10-15 years ago. It has transformed with the implementation of smart mobility, smart energy, smart cities, everything smart. South Africa and Egypt have also seen successful implementation of smart developments. In Nigeria, the government launched a Smart Cities Initiative in 2017. Implementation might be slow in some areas, but there is movement, and it is indeed all possible.

You spoke earlier about the policy being a challenge. Would you mind giving us more detail on this, and where we need to close gaps?

When we talk about policy, you can agree that we cannot rule government out. For technology to be successfully and speedily implemented, laws and policies governing each nation in Africa need to change. Governments need to make enabling laws and policies tailored to this sector to help achieve its smart goals. There is absolutely nothing we can achieve if governments do not implement policies that deal with the three critical pillars of smart cities: technology, innovation, and infrastructure. In Nigeria, when new technologies arrive, the bureaucracy for developers is an arduous and expensive process. The government needs to nurture an enabling environment for smart cities, where Africans can dream up technological innovations for use on the continent. Sadly, policy can act as a deterrence to both innovators and investors, which we need to address quickly.

We cannot ignore the socioeconomic realities of the continent, and some people may argue that smart cities are elitist and are creating a further gap in people being able to access a quality standard of living, any comments?

This has been a reoccurring question and a sentiment shared by many, and some believe that this very sentiment proves that smart cities cannot work in Africa. A project I am currently working on in Nigeria is a good example. It is an income pass project and incorporates both the rich and the poor. People who previously occupied the land, or its periphery, are not excluded but carried along on the journey. Of course, this isn’t always the case. Some projects are disengaged from the communities in which they operate. This scenario is almost always detrimental to the project as people will push back, which causes considerable delays. Smart cities are not cities for a select few. From inception, developers need to prioritise ensuring project benefits, before and after, are inclusive for the entire community.

This brings us to localisation. You have spoken on inclusivity, but how do we ensure the bulk of the money funnelled into these projects starts in the country where the development is taking place?

Local citizens have to be empowered; that should be one of the main priorities of the developers. Many talented Africans across the continent can do so much technologically, and even expatriates can be looped in to fill in the gaps that citizens cannot. Yes. I think it also boils down to the responsibility the government, at all levels, needs to assume. Governments must try as much as possible to engage their youth in training, particularly in the fields of technology and data usage. We are building nations and developing the continent as a whole. Hence, governments need to prioritise localisation through upskilling citizens to be able to do the work required, innovate, and create ideas and technologies that will drive their countries and, ultimately, the continent further.

Let’s talk about funding and what that looks like in the smart cities context. We have seen large amounts earmarked for African infrastructure development. Where is this money coming from, and how is it being used?

Currently, the primary funding for projects is from the private sector. Even so, for the developments to take off, there still needs to be government buy-in. Therefore, private-public partnerships are a necessary vehicle in ensuring the success of smart city developments.

Perhaps the question is whether funds are being used correctly in a continent known for rampant corruption. Let me stress that, in my view, corruption is not unique to Africa and should not be used to hinder investing in a continent with so much potential. Though I come across as a “glass half full” type who only sees Africa’s positive side, I am aware of the challenges but opt not to be overwhelmed and instead focus on the positivity and possible solutions.

In ending, what would be the one thing you would want to impart to our readers?

Smart living and smart lives should be something that we are all trying to emulate. I wholeheartedly believe that this is the direction for us as a continent to go. As many people believe, this development area is not about making money or advancing elitist societies. It really is a way to improve the way of life for all citizens. ESI

Nomvuyo Tena
Nomvuyo Tena is a Content Producer at Clarion Events Africa and is as passionate about the energy transition in Africa as she is about music and Beyonce.