What it will cost no words can express;
What is its object no brain can suppose;
Where it will start from no one can guess;
Where it is going nobody knows;
What is the use of it none can conjecture;
What it will carry there's none can define;
And in spite of George Curzon's superior lecture,
It clearly is naught but a lunatic line.
London Magazine Truth, 1896
When the radical Member of Parliament Henry Labouchere penned those words in 1869, few would have ever thought of what the “Lunatic Express” would have given birth to. At the time, the debate raged in the Commons on the viability of the Uganda railway project.
Fivescore and ten later, the InfoCom PS, Bitange Ndemo finds himself in the place of George Curzon, doing everything to defend the Konza Technology City. Konza has generated a buzz in the East African technosphere. Sometime back the Konzaltant was driving along Mombasa Road where the techopolis is set to be situated and it was easy to see why.
A range of views have been expressed about Konza. Some have hailed it, even going so far as to say that Kenya was well on its way to becoming the “Silicon Savannah”. Others have said that the project was not viable.
The Nature of the Konza Technopolis
Konza is a type of Special Economic Zone or SEZ. As of the present, Kenya’s cabinet has already approved a policy governing the setting up of SEZ, under the broader pillars of the Vision 2030. A bill is yet to be tabled in Parliament, that will govern the operations of all Special Economic Zones,
wherever else they may be set up in Kenya. SEZ are usually characterized by a semi-autonomous board empowered to take decisions on planning, licensing and immigration rules. They may be based on different economic sectors, including maritime, agriculture, manufacturing, and ICT. Konza, as envisioned is an example of the latter. In setting them up care is taken to select sites that are on major transportation arteries, accessible to ports and that have good infrastructure. Examples from elsewhere also indicate that the presence of a good hands-on technical institution can make the
difference between success and failure for these ventures.
As with any project of this magnitude, there are bound to be evangelists and nay-sayers at the same time, and in the same building. But so also did the Kenya – Uganda railway.
In an ironic twist of fate, the technopolis will tread parts of the same path that the railway passed. We would therefore be wise to brush up on our history so as to learn what lessons we can imbibe and what pitfalls we can avoid, and also what strength we can draw in this effort.
LESSON #1 – Developing the plan
At the turn of the 20th century, London was ablaze with excitement, over the prospects of finding cheap raw materials and labour for the industries of Manchester, Birmingham and other cities.
The railway was therefore a natural extension of the English desire to get at the source of raw materials, and mobilize men and equipment efficiently and affordably. Anyone who grew up in the time of the “good old EAR&H” will attest to this. You could set your timepiece by the comings and goings of the trains.
The railway reached Nairobi in 1899, exactly thirty years after the lampoon mentioned at the outset. The first lesson therefore being, that present planning has very direct future implications. Without this lesson fully internalized, then all the succeeding lessons would have come to naught.
LESSON #2 – Hiring the Right People
A majority of those who implemented the British empire’s projects were fully-grown men. I use the term fully-grown in a restricted sense. A fully-grown man, is a man with steel, or to borrow a more earthy word, cojones. In this article, I’ll focus on only two men who illustrate what I’m talking about.
At about 66 kilometers from Voi Town, along Mombasa Road lies the town called Mackinon Road, with a population of 8,000. This town is named for Sir William Mackinon, the founder of the East African Association, which later became the Imperial British East Africa Company. Sir William was firstly, an entrepreneur. Later on the Crown transformed his association into the IBEAC, with Queen Victoria granting the company a royal charter in September 1888.
To illuminate the salient point here, it should be noted that the project was given its first breath of life, not by government policy documents, but by hands-on entrepreneurs who were willing to strike out into what were lands unknown to the Western World.
Konza, therefore, in its best iteration will be built by entrepreneurs working, not out of glass-and-steel office complexes, but in smoky, dingy bedrooms in the working-class quarters of Nairobi and other Kenyan cities.
The second person that I’d like to discuss was Lt. Col. J.H. Patterson. Interestingly, nothing important was named after him in Kenya. However, he recorded his memoirs as he became famous for having shot dead the two lions that terrorized the workers on the railway. The colonel arrived in Mombasa in 1898, and started working on the railway. He oversaw the completion of the railway up to what has now grown into the city of Nairobi.
His job was not easy. He had to manage a mutinous staff in addition to tracking and killing two lions that had developed a taste for human flesh. Though some of his work was later destroyed during the First World War, he managed to get the railway to Nairobi. There are glimpses of that bygone era in a place along Mombasa Road known as Maneaters, just before you get to Voi.
The lesson to learn here is courage, bulletproof courage, as grand projects will always test the resolve of those who propose them. The third person we can learn something from is Sir George Whitehouse. He was the Chief Railway Engineer. As the railway made headway into what was originally called Mile 327, a problem arose. The railway gradient became a little too steep for comfort. The average had been 1.3, but in Nairobi it rose to 1.8, and hence additional locomotives were called for.
It therefore by default rather than by design, became a railway depot. Competing interests between the Railway Administration and the Colonial
Administration continued for a while. To avoid the mistakes that had been committed due to land speculation in Mombasa, the Railway Administration
overcompensated by acquiring all the land around the railway depot at Mile 327. The disparities between the two administrations, railway and colonial came to a head resulting in the establishment of the Nairobi Township Committee.
After the Sub-Commissioner for Ukamba Province, John Ainsworth moved his headquarters from Machakos to just near the Museum Hill in modern Nairobi, the tide turned decisively, and the capital city became Nairobi. The contentions between the two, railway and colonial, make for fascinating reading. The lessons to be learned from this are many. First, the original capital had been Machakos. However, when it became clear that Nairobi would suit the needs of the growing colony better, colonial administrators yielded to the new developments.
Initially, Konza will be the place. It would be foolish however, to think that the implemented version will exactly mirror the drawing board. It behooves all administrators to understand that the project may take them in directions as yet unforeseen.
LESSON #3 – End the talk, start the work
An old rhyme that was composed about the white settlers of Kenya by their English, Australian and South African cousins
went as follows:-
Kenya born and Kenya bred,
strong in the arm and nothing in the head
It mostly required brawn to tame the colony, and only but the stoutest of souls made it. They had to deal with lions, hostile communities, and their own fears, including that of being overran by all the Black Africans surrounding them. Today, at least going by some of the accounts on social media,
there is a whole host of nay-sayers.
These are the hostile tribes of the 21st century. I hold no brief for the government. In fact, I think that too many workshops have been held on this subject. Today, we have more conveniences than the British Empire ever had its peak. Imagine what these early pioneers would have accomplished, if they had had Google, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones, paved highways, and a highly educated , young and motivated workforce? And yet, that is what Kenyans have today.
So who’ll begin laying the bricks that will build this future city? Mind you, Dr. Bitange Ndemo, for all his proactiveness, cannot build this project on his own.
LESSON #4 – Learn to manage the wildlife
A project of this magnitude will attract the wrong kind of attention. The Uganda Railway attracted the attention of two male lions that killed hundreds of labourers. The modern day lions include those who would seek to engage in unfair labor practices, including venture capitalists who are
out to exploit rather than build start-ups. They are called ‘vulture venture capitalists’.
A vulture venture capitalist is one who deprives an inventor of control over their own innovations and most of the money they should have made from the invention. A venture capitalist is a great asset for a growing company. However, the profit motive should not extend to taking away the product of the creative genius that resides in the minds of the inventor.
Ideally, much as foreign companies would benefit from liberal labor laws to be found in special economic zones such as Konza, care should be taken that local budding entrepreneurs are nurtured and mentored effectively, while at the same time receiving just compensation for their work,
including any work product that may arise out of their work.
That having been said, the policies should develop solid local talent, and not protect them to the point of creating crybabies who get nicked every time something doesn’t go their way. To this end, we should be thinking about how to develop a Konza Business School that would train all these
entrepreneurs, inventors et al in the soft skills that they’ll need to survive in the silicon savannah. After all ICT is not just about coding.
LESSON #5 – Develop the pioneer spirit and stay the course.
The little competitive advantage that we in Kenya have had over the last 50 years of our independence did not come about by happenstance. It is often forgotten that the economic foundations were laid by over 70 years of colonial rule.
Some of the prominent settlers were dyed-in-the-wool racists, and their writings would need a cast-iron stomach to read. Nonetheless, they had imagination. Albert Einstein once said that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. Imagination, coupled with education and the rich tapestry of cultural traditions to be found in Kenya give us tremendous leverage in the execution of the Konza project. Tied to this, is the ability to stay the course on projects like Konza.
Many of us may have read White Mischief with the intention of being regaled by the scandals of the appropriately named Wanjohi Valley. But in reading the earlier chapters of White Mischief, we get to learn of the difficulties encountered by some of the early settlers in their efforts to tame the land.
It would be a pity to start so grand a project with all the necessary bells and whistles, and then stop. We’ve got to develop and maintain something called staying power. In conclusion it will be interesting to see how the Konza Technology City will shape up. But an opportunity has been given to us, and to misquote Chinua Achebe, “we should intend to use it.”
(Image: Detail from the novel "The Lunatic Express" by Charles Miller