Fast growing Nairobi could borrow a few tricks from Cairo

Thursday January 14 2010

Egyptian citizens walk through a main street in central Cairo. Egypt’s population is growing faster than the economy can support. Photo/REUTERS

Any African planner who thinks of a world class African metropolis had better look at the Egyptian capital, Cairo, the largest African metropolis with an estimated population of 17 million people.

Although the country is the world’s fifteenth most populous nation, the infrastructure in the capital and the connection to the major cities of Alexandria, Ismailia and Port Said to the north, is excellent. Just like the well-done sections of the Nairobi-Mombasa or the Naivasha-Nakuru highways.

The roads are wide and smooth, with plenty of under- and over-passes. Roundabouts – they cause traffic jams – are rare.

The city’s well-lit highways have numerous toll-stations and really, no roadblocks. Roaming patrolmen conduct random checks on speeding drivers. There are also police booths at strategic points on the road, just in case.

There is also a metro-train getting people around the city; not forgetting the numerous black-and-white taxis constantly moving in search of passengers. These too, are cheap given the proximity of Egypt to the oil-rich Arab nations and its own oil reserves.

The traffic chaos in Cairo arises whenever international fetes are held there as was the case recently with the Under-17 World Cup; or when US President Barack Obama was there in June last year.


But a sense of déjà vu will grip any East African upon seeing passengers standing in the congested old buses or microbuses plying the city.

Although streamlining the public transport service is happening in Cairo, a relatively rich country with just 20 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, Kenya has a huge challenge when it comes to sorting out the same.

Nairobi has embarked on a Sh400 million feasibility study for a mass transit system expected to be ready in June 2010. A Sh80 billion commuter train system is expected to start operations in Nairobi by 2015.

A forward looking Kenya has the Nairobi Metro 2030 and the Kenya Vision 2030 to its name. Egypt has neither of these documents but its officials say they are looking at Kenya’s Vision 2030 with a view to developing their own.

The officers, from the Information and Decision Support Centre – the Egyptian Cabinet think tank – told Africa Insight that Kenya’s plans were “excellent”.

The IDSC is the equivalent of a blend in the roles of Kenya’s National Economic and Social Council (Nesc, the team that drives Vision 2030) and the Kenya Institute of Public Policy Research and Analysis.

Unlike Nesc, which reports to the President, Egypt’s IDSC reports to the Egyptian Prime Minister, who then passes the message on to the Cabinet.

In the Nairobi Metro 2030 plan, Kenya aims to build an international education centre and attract foreign universities. The site for this has already been earmarked in Athi River.

Egypt is home to several international educational institutions – the Future University, the American University in Cairo, the Canadian International College and the German University in Cairo already have their bases here. Needless to say the first university in the world was established at the Egyptian town of Alexandria.

The educational institutions are situated in New Cairo, away from the massive pollution in the vast city centre as seen in the smog-filled skies early in the mornings and evenings.

Nairobi also has plans to build industrial and technology parks to attract electronics giants like Samsung, LG and Siemens to set up factories in Kenya.

President Kibaki recently inaugurated the Sh2 billion Sameer Business Park. Also, computer firms like Microsoft and Google are targeted to set up shop in Kenya once the parks are complete.

On the other hand, Egyptians have implemented their bit and wooed over 150 local and international companies to their 600-acre Smart Village Cairo.

Tenants in the business park are Ericson, Cisco, Microsoft, Hitachi, Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), Alcatel-Lucent, Hewlett Packard (HP), Oracle, Vodafone, Etisalat, Intel, Huawei, IBM and a dozen others.

The project is a public-private sector partnership with the investors owning 80 per cent and the Egyptian government 20 per cent through its Ministry of Information and Communication Technology.

According to Nairobi’s masterplan, a BPO (business processes outsourcing) park, a multimedia technology park, a diamond polishing cluster park and a pilot SME metal park are expected to be established by December 2012 at a cost of Sh7 billion.

To Egypt, all this is “work-in-progress”, as apart from the Smart Village, there is the Media Production City (EMPC) – in the Sixth of October City, a few kilometres from Cairo – which houses all radio and TV stations.

The EMPC has a Cinema City, akin to America’s Hollywood, with man-made scenes of Egyptian cities, to prevent those shooting movies and television documentaries from ‘interfering’ with the authenticity of global attractions in the real cities like the Citadel in Alexandria or the Pyramids and the Sphinx of Giza.

The EMPC has modern studios, first-rate workshops and unique outdoor shooting facilities.

Kenya is yet to get such a city, and the Sh1 billion allocated for the Multimedia Technology Park could prove too little for the investment, at least going by the Cairo experience.

While Kenya has its Nairobi River passing through the city, Egypt has the Nile. There are glaring differences with regard to this. Nairobi River is narrow and passes through slums, with some stretches of filth in it. Even the much talked about and on-going Sh16 billion clean-up exercise has targeted only short stretches of the river. The other parts remain an eyesore.

On the other hand, the Nile is a major tourist attraction. Huge international hotels like Novotel, the Carnivore, the Marriot and Grand Hyatt stand on the banks of the river – the longest in the world. There are also expensive boat-rides in which guests are entertained by world-famous belly-dancers. Police boats patrol the river all day and night.

That’s the dream that Kenya’s Environment Minister John Michuki and the first Metropolitan Development Minister Mutula Kilonzo had in 2008. In between, Mr Mutula was moved to the Justice Ministry and the clean-up taken over by the controversial Kazi Kwa Vijana programme – a programme critics say is draining money without any tangible results being seen on the ground.

But Kenya should keep the dream alive. Nairobi is the only city in the world with a national game park in its vicinity. In Cairo, there is only a zoo in Dokki.

Like Egypt, Kenya’s geographical position is regionally strategic. Egypt’s uniqueness comes due to its influence in the Middle East, the Arab World and Africa.

Similarly, Kenya is the next best location to investors as it is the regional hub for trade and investment in eastern and a bit of southern Africa.

The Sh50 billion plan to expand the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport by 2020 fits well into this initiative.

Add to that the proposed setting aside of 200 acres of land for embassies and international organisations by 2015, Nairobi’s goal of achieving a “world class African metropolis” becomes real.

Kenya’s potential to attract international students, via the United States International University, has shown that once the Athi River education hub is complete, then the country will enjoy a substantial slice of the Sh165 trillion global education market.

Investors follow a secure environment. Once the government unrolls the crucial police reforms and the biting poverty and unemployment fall in the anticipated economic growth, Nairobi’s metropolis security will be guaranteed.

The economic recovery stimulus package is also an indicator of the long-overdue government attempts at wealth creation.

Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Group’s Africa Media Network Project.