Perspectives Smart Cities

Why horrid old Nairobi is still Africa’s smartest city

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You may not like certain things about Nairobi — traffic jams, matatu chaos, whatnot. But it is the most intelligent city in Africa, according to an international think tank, just three places behind the world’s top seven finalists.

For a second year in a row, Nairobi has been named the most intelligent city in Africa, though it failed to make it to the world’s top seven finalists.

According to Intelligent Community Forum’s latest rankings, “intelligent communities” are those that create an economy that can prosper in the “broadband economy.”

There were many cynical responses on social media, with many pooh-poohing crime-plagued Nairobi again as “Nairobbery” and not imagining how, given how dangerous its streets are, and the maddening traffic, it can be a “smart” city.

However, that same danger is the source of Nairobi’s creativity. Nairobi has certainly fallen behind Lagos and Johannesburg, when it comes to making money from tech innovations, but it is ahead in conjuring up the smart ideas.

It has been widely documented in recent times that Nigerian tech entrepreneurs troop to Nairobi to hatch a clever idea, then take it back home to make cash from it.

You could say Nairobi writes great recipe books, but has no chefs to cook.

Crime makes people afraid and restless, yes, but in the process it also banishes complacence from the streets. But then Nairobi is not the only city with a bad street crime problem.

However, compared with other East African cities, Nairobi has something else they don’t – a vast “estate system”. Most younger people in Nairobi grew up in the sprawling housing estates that ring the city. The estates create a huge bubbling pot of ideas, which was evident early in the arts (theatre, music, fiction, film, website design, and sculpture) and gave the city a big lead in that area.

It is no accident that Kenya has three Caine Prize for African Writing winners, the most of any country in the region, or that Oscar winning Lupita Nyong’o is Kenyan. She cut her teeth in the gritty urban TV drama Shuga about living dangerously under the shadow of HIV/Aids.

But the thing that truly distinguishes Nairobi, in a way most people find to be both disgraceful and disgusting, is it is slums. Not only does it have Africa’s largest slum, Kibera, but it is probably the only capital in Africa that is surrounded on all sides by slums.

Most people hate slums, but they have their supporters who see them as affordable transit points for people looking to make a life in the cities.

Besides, middle class life is possible in our cities because of the cheap labour (gardeners, cooks, nannies, drivers, security guards) from the slums who are paid a pittance. It is uncomfortable for the middle classes to confront that reality, but it won’t make that fact go away.

Nairobi’s curse, is also its blessing.