A World class University is all Konza Technocity Needs: The rest will follow

What is the present day silicon valley might not have become what it is without the existence of Stanford University. In 1876 when former California Governor Leland Stanford bought their first 650 acres of land for a country home in San Francisco, he certainly didn’t have silicon valley in mind. Even as the Stanford couple were deciding to setup an institution in memory of their gone-too-soon son in 1884, the option of setting up a private university appeared not to be a first choice.  As the Stanfords made exploratory visits to the then established MIT, Harvad and John Hopkins universities, they probably didn\’t imagine the scale of impact that would arise from setting up “yet another university” – in memory of Leland Junior. Here is an account of Stanford University\’s history and the rise of silicon valley.

Google Map Screen Damp of Silicon Valley in 2015
A Google Maps Screen Dump of Silicon Valley
That happenings in Silicon valley over the years have shaped the global economy is not in doubt. That many cities and regions in the world are trying hard to replicate the silicon valley effect is also a major discourse often contentious. Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of ethernet and founder of 3COM once said, “Silicon Valley is the only place on earth not trying to figure out how to become Silicon Valley.” Many people, industry pundits and scholars alike argue that pursuit of such isomorphism is not the way for nations to build globally competitive innovation ecosystems. This school of thought is agreeable partly as far as the ingredients that nurtured Silicon valley over a century could by now be assembled over a shorter period elsewhere. Even so, looking up to Silicon valley will remain unavoidable for as long as we still have a growing list of world changing enterprises springing out of the Bay Area across the decades.
Back home in Africa and Kenya, Konza Technocity is an idea that may have become tired in the minds of industry pundits. I am convinced that establishing a university within the designated space or within 10km radius of the planned city is all that is required for the city to take off. In fact so far I have seen many industry commentators change from antagonism to surprising support of Konza Technocity when the idea of prioritizing a university kicks in to the debate. By establishing a university at Konza Technocity, I don\’t mean just any university: I mean a university designed and led with obsession for innovation and entrepreneurship. I also mean a university designed with sensitivity to local education dynamics, while at the same time uncompromisingly achieving world class standards of management and research excellence from the onset.
Construction of road infrastructure at Konza Technocity in April 2015

Many opponents of Konza Technocity fault its current focus on real estate and infrastructure development as efforts away from the so called \”industry priority\” for human capacity development. Few weeks back in my article on why Konza Technocity will not be a white elephant, I argued that execution towards long term and mid-term objectives must not be mutually exclusive. In fact the case of fast tracking establishment of a world class university is a near perfect match of seeking medium term objectives concurrently with the long term ones. It may not take over a year for fast tracked infrastructural components of a university to come up in Konza. It could take about three years to start graduating world class talent at the university if its structured as a final two year phase of a four year degree program whose first phase is undertaken in existing universities.

Google Maps Screen Dump of The Egerton University Town

Perhaps the story of Stanford and the Bay Area is too abstract for someone considering the reality of government projects and global industry dynamics affecting Kenya. The storyline can be approached from first principles. For instance we have seen thriving new University towns in Kenya. From Egerton, to Maseno, to Daystar and other universities, we see independently thriving ecosystems. These ecosystems include players in transport, agricultural supply chain, hostels and real estate providers, entertainment and others meeting the needs of students, faculty and support staff. This is because human capital development does not thrive in a vacuum. The universities even need primary and secondary schools for children of faculty and support staff, as well as health care services. Emergent aspects of such an ecosystem would be the interest of large multinationals such as Google, Microsoft and IBM setting up affiliations with the university and ostensibly building their on-the-ground mechanisms for harnessing the university\’s talent. Interest in talent and research outputs from the university will also interest local enterprises keen about global scale and competitiveness. More important though is the prospect of university grown startups incubated or accelerated by the university\’s obsession with innovation and entrepreneurship.

Although Stanford University kick started Silicon Valley, it is is not the only significant academic institution shaping the history of technological innovation. Many other top universities have continued to fuel the valley\’s momentum including other notable names in the Bay Area such as University of California Berkelay. There would be space for other universities in Kenya and the world over to contribute to Konza Technocity\’s talent pool. Indeed there\’s space for multiple universities to be physically within the Konza area. The case for Konza attracting global talent in tandem with churning out its own local talent is a matter for another article so I hold my thoughts.
One useful improvement from the first Konza masterplan in the second one delivered by the Masterplan Delivery Partners is bringing forward establishment of a university campus from the second of four year phases to the first phase. Granted the Konza Technocity Authority (KOTDA) already has the elaborate master plan, I think it is not too late to tweak parts of the masterplan so as to further further fast track establishment of its first university. I am of the opinion that merely having a university in the first phase of the masterplan is not enough. In fact the university establishment may need to be hived off and expedited ahead of any bureaucracy or slow process for implementing the masterplan.
I see several big unanswered questions about actualizing this route for KOTDA and other stakeholders of Konza Technocity.
  1. Who would own that urgently needed first university in Konza and how will KOTDA\’s procurement dynamics play out?
  2. How do we ensure that the university is run with the desired obsessive focus on innovation and entrepreneurship?
  3. How do we ensure that the university is as a world class institution from the onset – especially considering that University of Nairobi, Kenya\’s best ranked university at number 855 globally in 2014 may not be considered world class as yet.
There are potential answers to these questions. For instance there could be an efficiently administered tender for the world\’s Ivy league schools to establish a campus at Konza, potentially partnering with local public universities who understand the local terrain. An ivy league university with innovation and entrepreneurship focus such as Stanford could also partner with government institutions such as counties surrounding Konza to co-own and run such a university. I would play down the prospect of a purely private sector driven initiative such as a green field new university regardless of their level of capitalisation. This is because procurement dynamics of KOTDA are such that an intra-governmental procurement conversations could advance faster than arms length transactions.

Why would you call Konza Technocity a white elephant?

Its been two years since former President Kibaki broke ground and laid the foundation stone for Konza Techno City – back in January 2013. The ceremony was then considered long overdue by industry pundits. The project, estimated to be implemented in about two decades is significant to Kenya’s growth aspirations so much so that it is labelled as a Vision 2030 flagship project. That President Kibaki prioritized Konza City’s ground breaking in the late days of his presidency is telling of how important the project was for his legacy.

Here’s a media clip of the proceedings at the early 2013 ground breaking ceremony. 

Fast forward to December 2014 and there was some traction. The Konza Technocity Authority board has since been set up, and career investment banker Mr. John Ngumi was appointed as its chair. ICT4D specialist Dr. Catherine Adeya – Weya – also got to act as the authority’s CEO for over 2 years. One of the milestones of Dr. Adeya’s legacy has been preparation of a detailed economic strategic plan and implementation master plan for phase one of the project. One more milestone albeit a political one would be a second ground breaking ceremony in December 2014 officiated by the Kenyan Deputy President – see the official speech then. Here’s a media clip capturing some proceedings at the second (infrastructure) launch.
Status Update – :
A detailed update of the project’s status as at November 2013 is found in the slides below.

It is also noteworthy that the ICT ministry and more recently, the authority’s leadership has at different times publicly shared reasons for the slow progress in executing the project. Here’s a clip taken in 2012 with the then Minister citing infrastructural challenges
Here’s another clip taken, where bureaucracy and delays from the National Environment Monitoring agency and Ministry of Lands were to blame.
Is Konza Technocity a White Elephant?
That there has been significant progress at Konza in the last decade is arguable. This month a substantive CEO (Eng. John Tanui) has been appointed. This is a major milestone as it is common knowledge that leaders in acting capacity are oftentimes constrained regarding what bold useful steps they can take. With a substantive CEO the only other hurdle might be the enactment of the proposed bill legalizing the authority’s existence by a statute which would empower the authority to confidently go into binding contractual agreements with investors and vendors.
That the government should further invest in the project is surprisingly more arguable than whether there’s been progress. Its amazing how many Kenyans in social media and blogosphere outrightly condemn the project. For instance, at some point Tech blogger Kachwanya put it bluntly that Konza Techn City would be a moot project in its form as at January 2013. Alliance Technology’s Ngigi Waithaka repeatedly argues that any government resources for Konza should be redirected to other “more promising” innovation promotion projects. As I am a big supporter of the entire Konza Techno City project, I would argue differently. I would suggest though that we first consider the argument of de-congesting Nairobi city, as espoused by Prof. Bitange Ndemo, the former permanent secretary in the information ministry who is easily the most prominent proponent of the Konza project. See the 2012 video clip below.
Urgent Vs important interventions in an economic sector
Many arguments against the project take the form of: “its not the highest priority intervention for the IT sector, so kill it!”. In my opinion, demanding abandonment of the project or starving it of government resources as a matter of priority is akin to arguing that “Since we have built homes in Ongata Rongai (West of Nairobi) and our problem is access to sewer, a major road infrastructure project towards Thika (East of Nairobi) does not benefit, us, so terminate it”. It is also the classical failure to recognise and attend to what is not urgent in the immediate sense but nonetheless important for posterity. The ICT industry in Kenya has many undeveloped interventions, and many of them are of high priority or are very critical for long term success.
Currently a burning intervention gap often cited as top priority is one of skills development. Of course there’s a dire need for the industry to convert raw talent to refined talent for the ICT workforce. With genuine concerted efforts between government, academia other industry players, this appears to be a simpler matter of polishing what exists. That said, Konza Techno City as an intervention is about a framework for attracting investors and hiving off an environment for rapid growth of the sector in years to come. I argue that we cannot interchange execution of long term plans with execution of short term plans in either / or kind of decisions. Pursuit of long term and short term goals has to be concurrent. If short term goals always preempt long term goals, the long term goals must remain a mirage, especially if ineffectiveness of the system’s custodians also results in unaddressed short term goals.
On the matter of skills development being a higher priority, I argue that culture is also important in skills development. Skills development for the context of a thriving ecosystem is richer than skills development without a industry culture for harnessing them. I would argue that creation of an industry cluster such as the Konza Technocity is a key ingredient for creating the right culture: startup, corporate or otherwise for effectively harnessing local and international talent.
Of serendipity and arranged coincidence
As to whether the Konza Technocity should be a real estate development project or not, my answer would be that the city is about talent, innovation and entrepreneurship which thrive in humans. Those humans work, dine and sleep in buildings. People thrive in physical infrastructure. Of course one would say that in the advent of technology and the internet, innovators and entrepreneurs can work and interact virtually. That appears too simplistic an argument about a technology driven economy. Meaningful business interactions are very hard to fully virtualise. As Sam Gichuru of the Nailab once put it, “you cannot find a co-founder on skype”. Even if you first met the would be co-founder on skype or Facebook, there are physical interactions that will precede gathering a level of comfort for goin into the co-founder marriage.
The scenario is more real for investors who would rarely invest in people they have not met, and not just once. Of course if an investor from the Netherlands is coming to meet a prospective investee in Kenya, they would be happier combining the trip to meet many other potential investees – better still if they are found in the same vicinity. And if startups and venture capital are not your cup of coffee, perhaps corporate deals and partnerships interest you. In this case I would suggest that if you can meet all possible partners within the same location, that helps much. This kind of arranged coincidence that a shared physical infrastructure creates is what contributes to the requisite density of certain classes of industry players necessary for a thriving ecosystem.
All that said, with a substantive CEO for the authority, we can now expect good publicity and strong arguments supporting actualization of the Konza Tecnocity dream. We shall also expect to hear more pessimist arguments for further consideration and counter argument.