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A lesson from Barcelona

Sunday February 23 2014

Bitange Ndemo

Bitange Ndemo 

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Barcelona is sunny but cold, yet not too cold at 16°C for some Catalonians to swim in the Mediterranean Sea.  Some 60,000 visitors are trooping into this capital city of an autonomous community of Catalonia in Spain for the annual Global System for Mobile Association (GSMA) conference.  It is the second largest city in the country, with a metropolis population of about 5 million, about the size of Nairobi Metro. 

Barcelona is not just known for its famous football club, Futbol Club Barcelona or Barça (as it is fondly referred to) but it is also known for hosting the 1992 Summer Olympics as well as many world-class conferences and expositions and also many international sport tournaments. 

Barcelona is today one of the world's leading tourist, economic, trade fair/exhibitions and cultural-sports centers, and its influence in commerce, education, entertainment, media, fashion, science, and the arts all contribute to its status as one of the world's major global cities.  Above all, the city is dotted with some of the most beautiful Gothic Churches, which in themselves are tourist attractions of a kind.

On the economic front, the city ranks as the most 4th economically powerful city by GDP in the European Union and 35th in the world with GDP amounting to €177 billion (nine times more than Kenya’s GDP).  In 2009 the city was ranked Europe's third and one of the world’s most successful as a city brand.  Graffiti on walls, bridges and store fronts send a mixed message;  signs of hard times with unemployment soaring.  Like its sister cities in Southern Europe, it has since been in a full recession with declines in both employment and GDP per capita.  Perhaps the closer to Africa a European country gets, the more likely it is to suffer African inertia.

Visitors arrive at the 2014 Mobile World
Visitors arrive at the 2014 Mobile World Congress centre in Barcelona, on February 23, 2014. The Mobile World Congress runs from the 24 to 27 February, where participants and visitors alike can attend conferences, network, discover cutting-edge products and technologies from among the 1,700 exhibitors as well as seek industry opportunities and make deals. AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENE

​Barcelona is a transport hub with one of Europe's principal seaports, an international airport which handles above 35 million passengers per year, an extensive motorway network and a high-speed rail line with a planned link to France and the rest of Europe.  In 2012, 58 million tourists came to Spain spending more than $81 billion.  Of these tourists, 25 per cent came to visit Barcelona specifically either as cruise ship tourists (about 2 million) or just visiting the city.  By comparison, Kenya received about 1.8 million visitors spending slightly more than $1 billion.


Traffic here flows well largely due to mixed use (office and residential facilities) planning.  Majority of the people live in city apartments often at a walking distance to their work place.  The city planning too allows for better transportation system with public transport available at all locations.  The train system works well. If you are careful with pick pockets, you can travel extensively.  People observe rules.


On crime threats, many people including the Spanish people and the US Bureau of Diplomatic security, warn that  foreigners are targets of choice for pickpockets and thieves, who operate in hotel lobbies, restaurants, public transit systems, airports, and other areas frequented by tourists. Most notably, tourists have reported baggage stolen while checking in or out of hotels, checking in at the airport, or while hailing a taxi. Similarly, victims report being approached by individuals holding maps and asking for directions. While the victim is distracted, an accomplice picks the victim’s pockets or purse, removing cash, credit cards, passports, and other valuables.

Other diversion techniques include dropping coins or keys near the victim or “inadvertently” spilling something on the victim and offering to clean it up. Some thieves pose as plainclothes police, flashing what appears to be a badge with credentials. The victim is asked to surrender identification to the “police” while one of the alleged police officers relieves the victim of valuables. Tourists should consider any stop by a non-uniformed officer suspicious, and a uniformed officer should be sought before submitting to any request for identification or questioning. This is usually sufficient to dissuade the perpetrators.

There is much to learn from the Catalans.  Branding of the city is of great importance. With Kenya leading the Globe with marathoners, there is need to build a brand around athletics in Kenya just like Barcelona and Manchester cities have built a brand out of football.  The creative economy as exploited here in Barcelona would be far greater in Kenya than it is elsewhere.  We must wake up to exploit opportunities that lie at our feet.  

Four year ago, we bid to have the next 5 years of GSMA conference held in Kenya starting 2018.  Our hope was the New City Konza that will have enough facilities to host the conference.  We premised our bid on a high speed rail between Konza and Nairobi and building of new hotels.  Sochi had won the right to host winter Olympics and had started to build a new city.  Although branding of Konza had progressed well, many did not have faith in it. Like in Sochi, we can still do it to host mega conferences.  This is what has brought wealth and great numbers of tourists to Barcelona.


Future development must be done on the basis of mixed use.  It is happening by accident in Kilimani.  Since independence Africans have sought to take their children to what were formerly white schools in the western side of the city.  We never bothered to build as good schools in Eastlands.  Today families from eastern side of Nairobi have to drive across town to Westlands for education of their children.  The county government should reverse this through public private partnerships with better brands in education such as Strathmore to build branches in the Eastlands to stem the problem of large movement of people across town creating unnecessary traffic jams.

It is about time to start redeveloping much of Eastlands.  Places like Shauri Moyo, Makongeni and Eastleigh are ripe for high-rise office blocks complementing Upper Hill.  This will then lead to better and affordable high-rise apartments in Mbotela, Kariokor, Maringo and even Jericho.  Redevelopment will create enough space to build a better hospital in Eastlands. Besides Mama Lucy Hospital, there is no other public hospital catering for the majority of Nairobi residents living in Eastlands.  All good hospitals that exists in Nairobi were built for either the white community or the Indian population and concentrated in one area.  Kenyatta National Hospital formerly, King George IV Hospital, was the hospital of the natives but they had to travel long distances to get help.  Fifty years down the road and with African representatives, the majority of people have to travel long distances to get medical help.  There is need to develop good hospitals in all corners of Nairobi.

It may even be better if counties take a regional approach to economic development such that Nairobi, Kajiado, Kiambu and Machakos are part of greater Nairobi redevelopment. Critical infrastructure will then be coordinated to provide the people with maximum benefit.  Since we have failed to halt our indiscriminate procreation, rural-urban migration will continue to exert pressure on resources that are not planned properly.  Visionary leadership on the part of Governors demand that we plan now if we ever want to match other cities like Barcelona.

Dr Ndemo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Business School, Lower Kabete Campus. He is a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter: @bantigito