Smart cities in Africa: Nairobi and Cape Town

Cape Town, South Africa. Photo: Andres de Wet

Smart cities leverage on technology and use the large amount of data their citizens generate every second to optimise resources, to connect people and to improve business and trading. A smart city targets energy savings and adopts environmentally-friendly technologies, which helps promoting sustainable development.

Nairobi and Cape Town rank among the most advanced cities on the African continent on the smart city front. Nairobi, capital of Kenya and home to over three million people, won the title of Most Intelligent City in Africa for two years in a row. Going south, Cape Town blossoms as one of the best places to do business in the continent as the South African government continuously implements thoughtful planning and cutting edge technology to attract businesses and improve the lives of its citizens. Both Nairobi and Cape Town look at Singapore as a role model for the city of the future.

What makes a city smart? An example in Singapore

There are infinite possibilities. Street lights can gather and send information on the traffic in real time and send information on whether there is an empty parking spot to drivers looking to park in the area. Sensors installed in the light posts can turn lights on and off, depending on whether there is movement in the surrounding areas. It can also promptly send information to hospitals and to the police about car accidents and robberies. Smart roads can send information on traffic and road accidents to drivers and suggest a better route; and traffic lights can adjust to regulate traffic flows and prevent traffic jams (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 – What makes a city smart?

Another example is on waste collection. Waste containers can inform the waste collection company when they are full. Weather sensors can manage automatic watering systems for green areas and detect leaks. A range of sensors can also provide information on air pollution, noise and river levels that could be used to prevent floods.

However, smart cities are not simply urban areas dotted with sensors and other high-tech gadgets. A smart city starts at the planning stage. The Housing & Development Board (HDB) from Singapore is creating the Punggol Eco-Town in the northeast part of the Singapore island. The area was modelled in 3D before any construction was put in place. With that, architects were able to predict the wind flow in the area and make adaptations on the buildings so that zones further from the shore would still get good air flow, hence minimising the use of air conditioners.

The 3D modelling was also used to generate a shadow analysis of the town, predicting how shadows would change from morning to night. This helped architects and planners to find the best locations for parks, playgrounds and outdoor areas such as dining locations and plazas. Child care centres would be built in areas with low sun light so that children can play outside the whole day. Knowing which areas get most of the sun light is also useful when deciding where to place greeneries and solar panels.

In large urban centres, taking care of the elderly can be helped through the use of smart devices. Also in Singapore, a set of movement sensors installed in the houses of senior people record their daily routine and can send a signal to the caretaker or to a family member in case the sensors identify that the elderly’s normal routine was interrupted. This can be complemented by heart beat and heart pressure sensors that can help early diagnoses and provide a better care for the elderly.

The elderly can also benefit from remote applications that connect them, from their home, to physiotherapy practitioners over video-call apps like Skype. The doctor can, from the other end of the call, show how to execute physiotherapy exercise routines. This would save the elderly the hassle of going to the hospital every time.

Singapore is not only thriving in becoming one of the smartest cities in the world, but it is also exporting expertise. Singapore-based information and communication technologies (ICT) company CrimsonLogic, has turned its attention to Africa for more than two decades. After opening an office in Mauritius in 1994, the company started a steady expansion across the continent. Today CrimsonLogic is also present in Kenya, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Ghana. Mike Yap, senior director for Africa, explains his company’s main goal: “Our solutions streamline processes to bring efficiency to public administration, reduce the cost of compliance/consumption for citizens and businesses, and improve economic competitiveness across countries.”

The progress of spreading smart technology in Africa also depends on coordination with local governments: “African governments need to address and leverage on connectivity in a digital economy. One thing that had it going for Africa is the great mobile connectivity and the relatively cheap cost of using mobile data. Countries such as Kenya are taking the lead with mobile money and payment, and building infrastructure to support the digital economy”, says Francis Huan, head of Corporate Communications at CrimsonLogic.


Nairobi, capital of Kenya, is replicating the steps Singapore followed on becoming a smart city. For two subsequent years, Nairobi was awarded the title of most intelligent city in Africa. The award was created by the Intelligent Community Forum, a think-tank devoted to study how ICT can tackle social and governmental challenges to improve lives in urban areas.

Not only Nairobi, but Kenya as a whole saw its ICT sector grow steadily over the past decade. The number of mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people has jumped from 13.5 to 81.9 between 2005 and 2015, surpassing the regional average of 74.6 mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people (see Figure 2). The figure also shows that sub-Saharan Africa in general demonstrated a significant increase in mobile cellular subscriptions.

Figure 2 – Number of mobile cellular subscriptions per 100 people – Kenya and sub-Sahara Africa average

The network generated by the diffusion of mobile phone usage in Kenya created opportunities for unique businesses to flourish. The country has become the world leader in the use of mobile phones for money transfer. The business filled a gap that was not being successfully explored by local banks. The bank grid has a smaller reach and charges higher fees for simple money transfers. Safaricom did not miss the opportunity and became a game changer in Kenya.

In 2007, it launched M-Pesa, a mobile money system that allows people to transfer money and pay bills. Currently two thirds of Kenya’s population use this service, transacting around US$28bn, or 44% of the country’s GDP, in 2015 , through a network of over 40,000 Safaricom agents. In Kenya, over 58% of the population use mobile phones for money transfer, and Africa largely adopted the use of e-wallets (see Figure 3). The World Bank estimated that in 2014, more than 11.5% of the people living in sub-Saharan Africa had used mobile phones for money transactions.

Figure 3 – Percentage of population using smartphones for money transfer

Safaricom had a very different plan for M-Pesa at its early stages. The company created the platform as a means to allow microfinance-loan repayments to be made by phone. The electronic way of moving money would save on costs related to handling cash, allowing for lower interest rates. The company soon realised that M-Pesa’s scope could be broadened to become a general money-transfer scheme.

A client that wants to use M-Pesa to transfer money would register his account and go to one of the thousands of corner shops that are registered with Safaricom and make a cash deposit. For withdrawing the money, the client just needs to go to another Safaricom-affiliated agent, who checks his account’s available funds and hands over the cash, after making adjustments on the new account balance. The money can also be transferred to other M-Pesa users, while the system allows companies to pay their employees and to receive customers’ payments.

M-Pesa inspired many entrepreneurs to focus on the tech industry and proactively launch start-ups. In 2010, Nairobi invested further into fostering innovation by creating the iHub, a tech incubation centre where developers and entrepreneurs can connect and work side by side. By 2015, iHub spawned 150 start-ups and had created more than 1,300 jobs.

On the wake of development, Konza City, located 60km from Nairobi’s centre, is being built to become the African version of the Silicon Valley, or Silicon Savanah, as it is also called.

Konza City will look like a small town. Its 50 km2 will house up to 260,000 inhabitants and will have the infrastructure of a complete city: a university campus, schools, hospitals and a space dedicated for tech companies. The $14.5bn project is almost entirely privately funded and is expected to be completed by the early 2020s. More than 20,000 direct and indirect jobs are expected to be created during the construction phase. Konza City is intended to be a world-class technology hub, home to leading companies in education, life sciences, telecoms and information technology.

The city will not only be the new home for blooming tech companies in Kenya, but it will also be a smart city itself. It will gather data from smart devices and sensors embedded in the urban environment, such as roadways, buildings, and other assets. Roadway sensors will be able to monitor pedestrian and automobile traffic, and adjust traffic light timings accordingly to optimise traffic flows. Konza City will be connected to Nairobi through a high-speed train. People working and living in Konza will have access to a range of real-time data-driven material, such as traffic maps, emergency warnings, and detailed information describing energy and water consumption.

Cape Town

Cape Town is South Africa’s second-largest city by population and the capital of the Western Cape. The metropolis’ economy revolves around tourism, manufacturing, finance, IT, and transport and logistics. The city’s government has established a four-pillar project towards reaching the smart city status: digital infrastructure, digital inclusion, e-government and digital economy.

On the forefront of innovative technology is the Cape Town Emergency Dispatch Centre, the nerve system of the city. The Centre uses resource planning software SAP to create one integrated public safety solution that facilitates operations and data sharing. The data is used for fire and rescue, traffic, metro police, law enforcement, disaster risk management, and its investigative unit.

The city also implemented a remote utilities meter reading, which eliminated manual data-capture errors. By electronically capturing consumption data, the government can better plan how to invest new resources in the city. The metering system has helped to reduce water usage and energy consumption by 10%. The city also installed solar heaters in 10% of private homes.

All the data Cape Town registers from its citizens is publicly available through the open data portal website. This enhances transparency and promotes the use of the city’s data for broader social and economic benefits. The city currently offers 86 datasets for download. Local universities, research institutions, innovation centres, start-ups and government agencies constitute the main users of the free database.

An example of this is the IBM Fire Management Portal. IBM took fire incident data from the Cape Town open data platform and overlaid it with historical weather maps from IBM’s own weather portal. The system can predict fire incidents of high and extreme risk incredibly well. The output from the algorithm helps officials prepare for emergency responses.

In the past two years, Cape Town spent close to $15m in the ICT sector. The Western Cape Government added $1m to fund broadband infrastructure, and $2m to the Digital Inclusion Project, which promotes access to services over the internet and training adults in basic computer skills.

By the end of 2016, Cape Town had installed 72 public wifi hotspots. By 2018, the city aims to reach one hotspot in each of the province’s 384 municipal wards. These advances in Cape Town are supported by the large investments in growing the fibre optic infrastructure for high-speed broadband. By February this year, the fibre optic network of Cape Town reached a length of 848km.

Cape Town also embarked fully on e-government initiatives. Currently Cape Town’s citizens can pay all utility bills using the internet, apply for municipal services, licenses and permits, report a crime or emergency, request municipal service or maintenance, among other things. It provides a wide set of services that can be completed from the comfort of one’s home or office.

Cape Town is home to a range of interesting smartphone apps connecting citizens and the city. Launched in 2014, WhereIsMyTransport (WIMT) is a platform that integrates information about fares, frequency and routes from informal transportation modes to regular ones like BRT, bus, and rail. The data is publicly available to anyone who wants to build an app or website.

In April 2016, Taxify was established as stiff competition for Uber in Cape Town. It provides a similar platform, connecting drivers to passengers. However, it gained market share from Uber by offering a better support service, not only for the passengers, but also for the drivers, and by increasing the compensation earned by the drivers in comparison to Uber’s.


All successful smart cities benefit from the monetisation of municipal services. It can range from installing paid parking meters, to collecting public macro-data such as car parking spaces, congestion, bins, energy and water use, satellite imagery, population density, and crime statistics. The data is then converted into useable information, accessible through subscriptions.

The success of smart cities also depends on governments implementing the right policies. Singapore benefits from a close cooperation between government and the business world. The city-state has reached a pinnacle of development and integration that serves as a model for what Nairobi and Cape Town can soon become.

The author, Otavio Veras, is a Research Associate of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation. Otavio can be reached at [email protected].