The city of the future begins to rise in Kenya's suburbs


NAIROBI LETTER:With the African population set to double by 2040, developers and governments are looking for new ways to house them, writes JODY CLARKE

DIVIDED INTO mixed-use residential and commercial areas, with its eight-storey apartment blocks looking down on three-lane tree-lined boulevards, Tatu City gives off an orderly air not normally associated with Kenyan cities.

But then this is “the first planned city for Africa”, according to Cameron Rush of Planning, the project managers behind the 1,000-hectare development, as he unrolls blueprints for a city that should see its first occupants move in by 2013.

The demand is there for it – 200,000 Kenyans are moving from rural areas to cities every year, where people are already living in congested conditions.

The current housing shortfall stands at 200,000 units a year in Nairobi alone, where 60 per cent of the population live on 6 per cent of the land. Tatu is a vision, albeit an ambitious one, of how the country begins finding solutions to these problems.

“The confines of the city are such that there are no large pieces of land that the city can grow into,” says Arnold Meyer of Renaissance Capital, a division of the Russian investment bank Renaissance partners. It has been buying land in Africa for several years, convinced that the continent offered better prospects in the real estate market than more developed economies.

When a 120-year-old coffee farm north of Nairobi came up for sale, they bought it and soon began looking at ways to develop the portion closer to the Kenyan capital for urban development. The idea for Tatu was born.

Two to three times the size of Nairobi city centre and the size of downtown Johannesburg, Tatu City is designed to house 62,000 people.

Whereas downtown Nairobi functions 12 hours a day, with office workers stuck in long traffic queues in the morning and evening as they look to get home, the idea is that Tatu will operate all-day round.

Renaissance is not building the city itself. Instead, they have acquired the land, got licences and permits in place and put in the infrastructure for it, from laying water pipelines to electricity cables. Local rivers and aquifers will provide 25 million litres of water a day, while a deal has been struck with the Kenyan state electricity provider to supply 150MW of power, 10 per cent of what Kenya uses now.

The company then creates fresh real estate, taking what was agricultural farmland and cutting fresh titles from that. The idea is that for developers, it is plug in and play from there.

With Renaissance putting together plans for other cities in Zambia, Nigeria, DR Congo and Ghana, it wants Tatu to avoid comparisons with white elephant projects often started but never finished by many governments in Africa. The dynamics are in its favour.

In 1980 there were 400 million people in Africa. Last year there were more than a billion, and in the next 30 years, it will hit two billion.

Fifteen cities will grow by a million people in the next 100 months. Nairobi is one of them, as is Cairo, Lubumbashi, Accra, Lusaka and Addis Ababa.

Lagos in Nigeria is forecast to expand by two million, bringing Renaissance to replicate the concept of planned cities across the rest of Africa.

“Wherever we look, capitals and cities are so constrained that they just cannot cater for the growth,” says Meyer.

“Investors are quickly coming to the realisation that cities are going to be the main drivers of growth in Africa. Cities drive innovation, creativity. People like to think that Africa is a disaster case. But in 1880, London was the biggest slum in the world.

“The census at the time indicated an average dwelling housed 35 people. There was no sanitation, all the sewage flowed down the streets. It was a place you did not want to be. But that congestion sparked innovation and had a multiplier effect. The same thing is happening in Africa. Cities are drawing people to them and people are finding solutions because of congestion.”

One criticism of Tatu is that it will suck the life out of downtown Nairobi, leading to a migration of businesses and homes to surrounding suburbia. Renaissance says Tatu will have a rejuvenating effect on the Kenyan capital, not unlike what happened to Johannesburg several years ago. “Sandton was an up-and- coming area and a lot of businesses decided overnight to move. The vacancy factor downtown increased. Entrepreneurs then moved in and converted them to residential, which should have happened long ago. Young people then began moving in because they like the vibe and being within walking distance to social activities.”

And when they can’t get there on foot, the idea is for planned cities such as Tatu to provide an effective integrated public transport system, as well as other public services.

“Tatu will employ an urban management system to make sure all roads, solid waste and sewerage are maintained to a point that are higher than what you see today in other Kenyan municipal authorities,” says Rush. “And that can only translate into better public spaces, a better standard of living and higher quality environment for all.”