Smart cities

Modern solutions for Africa


Due to continuous mass urbanisation across the African content, a rising population and climate change, the pressure is greater than ever on governments to successfully manage cities and the ever-growing needs of their populations. Cue the concept of smart cities.
The International Organization for Standardization’s Smart Cities Strategic Advisory Group defines a smart city as one that “dramatically increases the pace at which it improves its social economic and environmental (sustainability) outcomes, responding to challenges such as climate change, rapid population growth, and political and economic instability by fundamentally improving how it engages society, how it applies collaborative leadership methods, how it works across disciplines and city systems, and how it uses data information and modern technologies in order to provide better services and quality of life to those in and involved with the city (residents, businesses, visitors), now and for the foreseeable future without unfair disadvantage to others or degradation of the natural environment”. Therefore, the extent of a city’s “smartness” is the extent to which it can use its resources to seamlessly achieve the goals that it has set for itself.

Africa is one of the world’s fastest-urbanising regions, with experts predicting that by 2020, it will be the fastest-urbanising region in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the urban population of South Africa has grown from about 19 million to over 35 million people between the years 1990 and 2017. In 2017, South Africa’s urban population made up 65.8% of the total population. Given this rapid growth, the time is now for Africa’s policymakers to integrate smart cities into their urbanisation strategies.

Different cities have different needs, depending on their maturity status and the material pain points being experienced in that city. Broadly, there are three types of cities: legacy cities (typically characterised by a large city with an ageing infrastructure); new cities (found in emerging territories most commonly located in Asia and the Middle East); and transitioning cities.

Transitioning cities are typically found in growth territories where there are large established entities undergoing rapid urbanisation and population expansion. South African cities, such as Cape Town and Johannesburg, are transitioning cities and the key drivers for them are the implementation, provisioning, strategic planning and funding for infrastructure.


Smart cities consist of hard infrastructure (such as buildings and roads); and soft infrastructure (such as governance, leadership and innovation). The hard infrastructure needs to be physically present for, without basic infrastructure for roads and transportation networks, it is impossible to provide alternative transport options to citizens as a means to reduce traffic congestion. Soft infrastructure needs to be strategically present. There are two key components thereto: an unambiguous vision of the role that technology will play across all governmental departments; and a strong political mandate with a will to enhance service delivery.

The key to improving infrastructure is city systems, with interdepartmental collaboration as a base requirement to ensure that there is a consistent and aligned vision of the various municipalities; and to maximise the intelligence collected from their various data resources. It is necessary to foster support for pioneering innovation through all-inclusive risk management structures and mechanisms; to encourage local business growth through the review of procurement procedures in order to support smaller local companies; and to enhance service delivery through data analytics.

Africa at a competitive advantage

Less historical drawbacks

African cities are at an advantage for technological adoption because many of them do not face the costs associated with maintaining and updating legacy infrastructure and systems. For example, countries such as Libya and Ethiopia do not have substantial telecommunication cable installations and, instead of considering whether to upgrade from analogue to ADSL, they can move directly to the pure implementation of the latest 5G/LTE network.

They would also avoid the significant cost of upgrading sections of existing but outdated network components. Local businesses are impacted positively as they haven’t already invested in expensive IT systems that would otherwise be running on outdated servers, and this allows businesses to immediately port their services through cloud infrastructure and reach a global audience with very little overhead cost. This will enable them to position themselves as powerful competitors in geographies, which had previously not been considered.

The African middle class

Africa’s burgeoning middle class has been identified as having the most disposable income, with the power to drive demand in the economy. Coupled with the fact that Africa has a disproportionately young population, with 62% of the population under 25 years of age, Africans will provide a secured consumer base for many decades to come for products such as food and housing, entertainment and connectivity, etc.

ICTS and connectivity

ICTS is increasingly being seen as both an indicator of socio-economic wellbeing and a predictor of participation in the mainstream economy. Studies have shown correlations between African countries with very low Internet access, and low levels of income, health and education.

Further, an increase of even just 10% in mobile phone penetration can result in a gross domestic product (GDP) increase in a middle- or low-income country of 1.2%. Fortunately, Africans are now more connected and active than ever, with mobile subscription penetration increasing rapidly.

Smart agriculture

Over 800 million people are undernourished, with one in three people not getting an adequate diet. According to the FAO, the global population will increase to over 9 billion by the year 2050. With a current global population of about 7.7-billion, in order to adequately feed the population, food production will need to rise by 50% by the year 2050. Besides population growth, other challenges include changes in the climate and drawbacks of intensive farming over land and water resources, making it imperative to devise new methods to tackle challenges in the agricultural sector.

Water management

When it comes to farming, one of the most critical challenges that farmers face is the efficient management of water. Every crop has its own requirement of the right amount of water supply for seedlings to grow into healthy crops, and an excess or shortage of water can hamper both the quality and the quantity of the harvest. Technologies such as Web Map Services (which provide geo-registered map images) and Sensor Observation Services (which query real-time sensor data and sensor data series) enable farmers to better assess the water requirements of a crop.

Technological advances can also help make sense of the water resources available in a particular area and more efficiently make use of water, especially in circumstances where water is limited. An example of this is the use of remote controls to carry out irrigational activities in order to minimise the wastage of water.

Precision farming and pest control

Some companies are developing unmanned aerial vehicles or drones to survey and map land in order to assist farmers in planning their activities in a more precise manner and to mitigate against any contingencies. By setting the drones at a certain altitude to survey a designated field, the drones can collect real-time data about weather conditions, wind speed and other visual or imaging data. With the growing emphasis on organic food and farming, farmers are now looking for measures to replace pesticides. Modern technologies allow farmers to monitor and control pests with the use of sensors, which observe pest behaviour as well as the rise of pest populations, allowing adequate measures to be carried out in order to reduce any major losses.

The future?

Though Africa has great potential to be at the forefront of smart cities globally, it will, to a great extent, depend on cohesion in the government and a unified vision of the goals to be achieved. With challenges in Africa such as political unrest and corruption, to name just a few, the future remains uncertain. 

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