BY Fast Company SA 13 MINUTE READ

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities—and the process of urbanisation continues at a rapid pace. The UN forecasts that, by 2050, two-thirds of the globe will live in metropolitan areas. Cities will have to get smarter about improving neighbourhoods, building better infrastructure, developing their economy and, ultimately, transforming lives—faster. To get a sense of where our continent is headed, Fast Company SA looked at the most exciting initiatives coming out of Africa’s top cities.

“There is no absolute definition of a smart city, no end point, but rather a process, or series of steps, by which cities become more ‘liveable’ and resilient and, hence, able to respond quicker to new challenges. Thus, a smart city should enable every citizen to engage with all the services on offer, public as well as private, in a way best suited to his or her needs.”

This explanation of a smart city by the UK’s Department for Business Innovation and Skills is one of many. Global management consulting firm, A. T. Kearney, describes it as a city with “an engaged network of information sharing, specialised talent, a vibrant economy and policies that enable technology adoption and experimentation”.

It seems the key aspects that determine the progress of a city are smart environmental practices, smart governance, smart living, smart mobility, and smart people. In this article, we look at African cities that are progressively working toward success in these five focus areas. These cities are innovative and inclusive, with an integrated approach to improving the efficiency of city operations and the quality of life of their citizens, and are committed to growing their local economy.

Power to the people: “We have achieved the fastest mobilisation of power in the history of Ghana,” said President Mahama, with about 800MW having been added in the shortest period of time.


Population: 4.145 million

Holding the highest potential for inclusive growth back in 2014, Accra is increasingly making inroads on a global scale. Its potential was highlighted by the MasterCard African Cities Growth Index (ACGI). Dr Yuwa Hedrick-Wong, co-author of the index and chief economist at the MasterCard Centre for Inclusive Growth, explains: “We believe that inclusive urbanisation is a prerequisite for inclusive growth, and so the ACGI is a lens through which African cities can be assessed as future investment destinations.” He adds that, “Inclusive growth occurs when the benefits of an expanding economy are widely shared with the population.”

Labelled as the only African city with high inclusive growth potential, Accra is contributing largely to Ghana’s economic growth and development. The city has implemented legislation, policy and resources to increase and sustain economic activity among its citizens.

Accra was the first city in Ghana to launch Uber. Alon Lits, GM for Uber Sub-Saharan Africa, said at a press conference: “Our platform contributes to a broader evolution in global transportation where riders are empowered to access transport on their terms, in a way that is useful to them and sustainable for our cities. We are excited to add the vibrant, growing economy of Accra to our global network.” Offering free rides for a few days after its launch on June 11 this year, the transport giant has also adapted its payment methods to allow for cash transactions in African cities.

Catering for the creatives in the city, Accra launched the third Impact Hub Africa. Hosting 82 hubs spanning five continents, it aims to promote entrepreneurship to create an innovation workspace that enables Africans to improve and nurture their ideas. Impact Hub assists in running development programmes, provides access to capital, and connects entrepreneurs. The organisation in Ghana focuses on creating sustainable solutions to a number of challenges in the country, including agriculture, education, health, employment and financial inclusion. Holding four spheres of focus, the hub intends to innovate, curate, connect and make an impact in the region. It has successfully partnered with many players on a global scale, in collaboration with the likes of Apps4Africa, Global Entrepreneurship Week, Startup Weekend, Sandbox Network and many others.

A number of new innovative and economy-boosting projects are making headway in the country, including the Ghana Centre for Entrepreneurship, Employment & Innovation, which provides business startup support services, entrepreneur development services, coaching services for small businesses as well as consultancy services.

Earlier this year, the World Bank Group announced the launch of a new Ghana Climate Innovation Centre in the capital, which aims to support the country’s green growth strategy by supporting environmentally friendly companies across the region.

The Ghana office of the Innovations for Poverty Action, one of the largest, is also based in Accra. This programme includes key studies in education, finance, health and agriculture, and is currently leading one that aims to understand how to help farmers cost-effectively produce better crops and increase their earnings.

Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama, in his State of the Nation Address in February this year, highlighted a few of the latest successes of the country. “A year ago, I stood before this august House and promised to fix the power sector deficit that, at the time, had become a significant constraint to economic growth and was a major disruption in the lives of Ghanaians—both at home and at work,” he said. “It has been a year of hard work and negotiations. We have achieved the fastest mobilisation of power in the history of Ghana. About 800 megawatts of power have been added to our generation within the shortest period of time.”

Ghana was commended by the United Nations for meeting the Millennium Development Goal of achieving universal primary education with gender parity, the president added. Also in education: Over a thousand jobs were obtained for local printers in the printing of textbooks; 12 400 high-school students benefited from scholarships; and following the abolishment of the quota system, colleges obtained a 63% increase in admissions.

Life expectancy has increased while the infant mortality rate has decreased. The country also saw a 70% fall in oil prices, and a Youth Employment Agency assisting in the employment of 100 000 youths in 2015 and 2016.

“This is Ghana . . . This is the process of transformation. We are changing lives, one individual at a time,” President Mahama concluded.

Entry hub to Africa: A new site being constructed in Dakar is being dubbed “Diamniadio Valley”, as it has already started attracting big multinationals.


Population: 3.52 million

Senegal was the third-fastest growing economy in Africa in 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook report—with projected growth in gross domestic product of 6.6%. The rising economy of its capital city Dakar is witnessing innovation while it maintains its rich cultural roots and identity in transforming into a modern, smart city.

One of five winners in the second cycle of the Guangzhou International Award for Urban Innovation, Dakar was rewarded for finding an alternative financing tool to meet its long-term development goals. Due to the city’s economy being largely dominated by the informal sector, innovative solutions were needed to accommodate street vendors. Headed by the Municipal Council of Dakar, the Dakar Municipal Finance Programme was created to assist in obtaining access to capital markets for the required investments—the first sub-Saharan African city outside of South Africa to do this. The project will see the construction of a central marketplace, with financial and technical support being provided by various organisations such as the World Bank, Cities Alliance, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The move has opened the door for other African cities to explore the benefits of lower transaction costs and lower credit terms while gaining mainstream financial sources for capital projects.

While Senegal aims to become an emerging country by 2035, Dakar will play an integral role in the years to come. Situated a short distance from the heart of the capital, a building site is waiting for the development of a new industrial platform with amenities including hospitals, shops, universities and offices, and space for 3 000 homes for 15 000 inhabitants, according to Getran Group project manager, Delphine Gnancadja. The site, named Diamniadio, is a future urban growth pole and a key element in the Senegal’s development strategy. Dakar’s new international convention centre has already been built here, in less than a year, and is in close proximity to the Blaise Diagne International Airport that is still under construction. The airport will be connected to Dakar by an express rail link and a motorway, the first 25-kilometre stretch of which has been open for two years.

Known for paying loans on time and boasting an honest track record, the city is seen as the entry hub to Africa. According to The Doing Business project, which measures business regulations for local firms, the cost of accessing property in Dakar has reduced significantly.


Population: 4.738 million

In a report released last year by the Intelligent Community Forum, Nairobi was crowned the “most intelligent city in Africa” for the second year in a row. ICF co-founder Robert Bell said: “We see a strong foundation being put into place [in Nairobi]: sensible, pro-growth government policy; a more diversified economy; and an innovation ecosystem of startups, international companies and universities. Nairobi certainly has the opportunity to build an exciting future for its citizens, businesses and institutions.”

Kenya is currently witnessing the single largest private investment in the country’s history: the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project that is currently undergoing construction. Upon completion, the wind farm will house 365 wind turbines, each with a capacity of 850kW. In addition to relieving energy constraints, the project has anticipated approximately 2 500 temporary jobs during construction and another 200 on a permanent basis once the wind farm is in operation.

IBM Research Africa is IBM’s 12th global research lab and the first industrial research facility on the continent. Its two facilities are in Nairobi and Johannesburg, South Africa—developing commercially viable solutions to transform lives and spark new business opportunities in key areas such as water, agriculture, transportation, healthcare, financial inclusion, education, energy, security and e-government.

Nairobi has the most subscribers of mobile money and has nearly 70% mobile phone penetration. The mobile money ecosystem has led to related enterprises and products being set up. This is partly thanks to the Kenyan government’s emphasis on ICT and making it one of the central pillars in the country’s Vision 2030 development plan. This has also been one of the key factors leading to tech multinationals setting up base in Nairobi. Huawei, Intel, Microsoft, SAP, Oracle, Google and Samsung are partnering with universities in Nairobi to equip students with practical skills.


Population: 13.123 million

The vibrant city of Lagos values innovation. Its online portal, Lagos Innovation Hotspots (, maps out clusters of emerging competitive and high-growth businesses in fashion, photography, financial services and technology across the capital, while providing useful information on each. The site is an initiative of Innovate Lagos and the Co-creation Hub. Through these hot spots, innovators are able to reach platforms where they can promote their business and their talents on a huge scale.

The Co-creation Hub allows for a meeting point of like-minded entrepreneurs to share knowledge, encourage learning, collaborate together on various projects, and improve their ideas in a nurturing environment. It also connects young entrepreneurs with a resource base to connect to the technical expertise they may need. Boasting various big names as partners—such as MTN, Microsoft and Google—the Co-creation Hub is just one of the fast-moving innovations in the city.

The construction of Eko Atlantic City—a self-sufficient, sustainable, state-of-the-art urban development on the coast of Lagos—has reached advanced stages. It not only has an independent power and water supply and seamless communications network but also a citywide road network: a first of its kind in Lagos and Nigeria. Divided into eight districts, Eko Atlantic City is planned for mixed-use with commercial, residential, entertainment and leisure activities to make it a 24/7 lively environment. City amenities and services will include an international school and hospital as well as the largest shopping mall in sub-Saharan Africa. The city’s road design and construction are according to world best practice—guaranteeing free-flowing traffic. The eight-lane, 1.5km long Eko Boulevard is the focal point of the business district. “This futuristic city is not just for residential and commercial activities but a tourist attraction,” says Ronald Chagoury, Jr, vice chair of South Energyx Nigeria Limited, the developer and city planner. “We strongly believe the new boulevard will enhance business activities and be the ideal location for company headquarters, luxury and business hotels, residential elements as well as attracting tourists from all over Africa.”

Back in business: Abidjan is rebuilding dozens of construction sites across the city.


Population: 4.8 million

Côte d’Ivoire, after a decade of political instability, is booming. It was ranked second (after Nigeria) on Nielsen’s 2016 Africa Prospects Indicators report that collects and analyses business, retail and consumer information on sub-Saharan Africa for investors.

Determined to build up its economy, the country is looking to its capital city as the solution. President Alassane Ouattara has vowed to develop Côte d’Ivoire into an emerging country by 2020, prioritising national reconciliation and economic recovery. His government is already upgrading long-neglected infrastructure, with new bridges and highways easing traffic congestion, the power grid being stabilised, and large-scale investments being implemented to upgrade the international harbour at Abidjan.

One of the largest French-speaking cities in Africa, Abidjan is well connected with more than 22 million mobile users and close to 6 million Internet users. Its growth is driven by public and private infrastructure investment, as well as coffee and cocoa bean exports.

A growing number of international events and summits are being held in Abidjan. Last year was the first time the Africa CEO Forum took place on the African continent. Very fittingly, in December this year Abidjan will host Smart City Africa: a new annual trade show dedicated to connected cities and sustainable urban management solutions. And the African Development Bank is in the process of moving its headquarters back to Abidjan.


Economic freedom: The Union Buildings in Pretoria house the Presidency. Government-related businesses play an important role in the local economy of Tshwane.


Population: 2.921 million

The City of Tshwane is among the six largest metropolitan municipalities in South Africa, and the second largest in Gauteng as measured by GDP. It has a vibrant and diverse economy, with Pretoria (Tshwane) as the administrative capital of the country and home to the Union Buildings. Government-related business plays an important role in the local economy.

It was voted the most innovative city/government programme to bridge the digital divide at the World Wi-Fi Day Awards held in Liverpool, England in July. The awards celebrate success stories across the world that are connecting the unconnected and contributing to global socio-economic development. The City of Tshwane was recognised as successfully implementing comprehensive Wi-Fi solutions that innovatively overcome the challenges and complexities associated with these large-scale deployments.

The Tshwane free Wi-Fi programme, TshWi-Fi, has brought 1.8 million citizens online in the biggest deployment of municipal free wireless Internet on the African continent. The rollout was made possible through the City’s collaborative partnership with Project Isizwe. Tshwane Executive Mayor Kgosientso Ramokgopa said, “Our free Wi-Fi project has radically undermined the adverse effects of unaffordable Internet access by narrowing the hitherto glaring digital divide. We will continue to be a shining example of what it means to employ the use of technology to lead the way toward a South Africa that is democratic, inclusive, united and prosperous; ours will be the global cyber capital.”

After a year of consultation and analysis, in 2013 the municipality approved its Vision 2055 plan. Over the next four decades, it aims to create a resilient, inclusive and liveable City through the implementation of various programmes such as: free Wi-Fi to all government educational institutions; the A Re Yeng affordable, high-quality bus rapid transit system including services such as free Wi-Fi, air conditioning and security cameras; smart prepaid electricity meters to assist residents in managing their electricity consumption; the e-Tshwane Service through which residents can pay all municipal accounts from anywhere, electronically; as well as a clean city campaign, support for informal traders, empowering the youth economically, promoting safe and secure communities, while striving for a green economy.


Population: 3.812 million

The Mother City has just clinched the No. 10 spot on the 2016 Travel + Leisure Best Cities in the World list, plus top honours as the Best City in Africa and the Middle East. Attracting scores of both international and domestic visitors, Cape Town has been one of the fastest growing cities in South Africa and Africa.

Well-developed transport routes consist of train lines, highways and the MyCiTi bus rapid transit system that enables easy travel to and from work in the city on a daily basis. The City of Cape Town is researching biofuels to determine how alternative energy sources can provide a cleaner and more fuel-efficient MyCiTi bus service. It has also recently advertised a multimillion-rand tender for the procurement of electric buses to lower Cape Town’s carbon emissions.

Seen as the biggest startup hub on the continent, Cape Town hosts endless opportunities for growth. New innovations and startups are the norm, with the city filled to the brim with creatives and entrepreneurs who aspire to break boundaries by creating solutions to multiple problems, often using sustainable and environmentally friendly methods.

The Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative is developing Cape Town and the region as a global technology cluster and a vibrant hub for innovation—significantly contributing to economic growth. In the same vein, the Silicon Cape Initiative is a community of tech entrepreneurs, developers, creatives, angel investors and venture capitalists aiming to improve the environment in the Western Cape to create more and better startups as well as increase access to capital.

The city’s new multi-use innovation hub at the V&A Waterfront opened late last year. Workshop17 enables solutions to South African and African opportunities—supporting startups and experienced companies, for-profit and non-profit entities, as well as big and small initiatives in their efforts to create a better future. The tenants—including mLab, Silicon Cape and codeX—share a collaborative working environment as they strive to develop their businesses, products and ideas in the long term.

According to a 2015 study by the Southern African Venture Capital & Private Equity Association, the Western Cape now has the most venture capital activity in South Africa, having recently surpassed Gauteng. This is due to the number of entrepreneurs, angel investors and independent fund managers in the province.

Harbour master: The Port of Durban is the largest and busiest shipping terminal in sub-Saharan Africa.


Population: 3.421 million

Home to one of Africa’s busiest ports, Durban is a hub of activity. Apart from developing the new Dig-Out Port, Transnet National Ports Authority is commencing with two more projects to expand container capacity.

Durban is a place of great adventure for tourists, with many exciting wonders of nature to explore, such as uShaka Marine World, the Botanic Gardens and Umgeni River Bird Park.

Now it is also being transformed into a “film city”. According to news sources, the spot along the beachfront—previously known as the SA Army’s Natal Command site—is being developed into a film studio with a difference. The project, estimated at around R7.5 billion, expects to bring a Hollywood-style Walk of Fame with local and international celebrities’ stars on a special street; Markets of the World, with traditional Indian, African and Chinese cuisine plus a variety of exhibitions and demonstrations; a South African film industry museum; a luxury hotel and serviced apartments; and a vast park for picnicking, music concerts and a big screen to broadcast large sporting events. Plus, it will offer interactive tours inside the studio.

Growth on the horizon: According to The Megacity State report by Allianz, Joburg will become a megacity by 2030.


Population: 8.432 million

Labelled one of the three up-and-coming African mega-cities, Johannesburg will be the first one that is not near a large river or on the coast. This year it was ranked at No. 60 on AT Kearney’s Global Cities Index that assesses the global engagement of 125 of the world’s largest and most influential cities today, and those that will make an impact in the future. (Cape Town ranked at No. 70.)

In June, multinational General Electric opened its first innovation centre in Africa, in northern Johannesburg. Valued at R500 million, the GE Africa Innovation Centre is its tenth innovation hub in the world. Boasting a ‘green’ status, it was built to show the commitment of GE to the African continent and to help Africans find solutions to continental problems such as infrastructure and healthcare. Providing the new headquarters for GE Healthcare, the centre will bring in the group’s technologies from the US to assist hospitals in all areas. The centre will also focus on energy and transport.

City of Joburg Executive Mayor Mpho Parks Tau, in his 2016 State of the City Address, highlighted a number of initiatives by the City to develop “the best possible Joburg” by 2040. The City is: installing high-capacity fibre networks to bridge the digital divide; expanding the Rea Vaya bus system (the first bus rapid transit system in Africa); taking deliberate action against climate change; reducing food insecurity, as well as street crime in the CBD through smart policing; rolling out the most ambitious youth empowerment programme in the country, partnered with over 250 companies; improving almost 30 000 informal homes in the largest informal settlement upgrade programme in South Africa; enabling small business in general and the township economy in particular; and pushing access to basic services, including electricity, to unprecedented levels.


Population: 3.178 million

Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality, the local government of the former East Rand region of Gauteng, has made the move to digital: A free online platform called e-Siyakhokha enables residents to receive municipal statements, pay their accounts online (through a number of options including debit/credit cards and Standard Bank’s MyBills) and ask for assistance 24/7.

Ekurhuleni was recently named second runner-up in the metro category of the Greenest Municipality Competition. The recognition was an endorsement of the metro’s various initiatives on water and energy solutions, waste management, as well as social and health services.

According to the Gauteng City-Region Observatory’s Quality of Life survey for 2015, the majority of Ekurhuleni residents are satisfied with the delivery of services such as sanitation, energy, water, health services and roads.

Population statistics: World Atlas, last updated March 2016; Tshwane and Ekurhuleni, Statistics South Africa, last updated 2011