African cities, particularly sub-Saharan ones, have the fastest global urban growth rate. But with challenges around overcrowding, congestion, infrastructure, power and poor governance, these cities are maxed out in what they can provide to the average African living in urban environments.
Some experts think charter cities offer a solution. They are granted a special jurisdiction to create a new governance system and allow city officials to adopt best practices in commercial regulation.
Typically, charter cities are public-private partnerships between city developers and host countries. There are a few examples of successful charter cities globally—Singapore, Shenzhen and Dubai among them—but most have underperformed or failed, especially in Nigeria.
For instance, Eko Atlantic, a purpose-built city near Lagos, planned to house more than 250,000 people in an area where a large majority of its 15 million population cannot afford housing. The ongoing project, which commenced in 2009, also threatens to displace tens of thousands of people who live in coastal areas around the new development.
Nigeria’s special economic zones (SEZ)—regions with different business and trade laws from the rest of the country, with tax and business incentives coupled with regulatory innovation—have also struggled. For example, the 16,500-hectare Lekki Free Trade Zone hasn’t lived up to expectations.
The precedent set by these two plans showcases a more significant problem: Charter cities and SEZs often can’t escape the crisis and economic stagnation of their host state, particularly in poor countries.
This is why there’s some skepticism surrounding the Talent City project, a futuristic charter city for tech professionals announced in January 2020 by Future Africa, a firm housing rolling funds and collectives that invest in African startups. But the firm believes the planned city will be a success because it will focus on “creating jobs and attracting the talent that drives Africa’s technology, innovation and digital economy.”
Talent City, in a statement, the city will be managed within a free trade zone with its own “productivity-focused, entrepreneurial-centred regulations and bylaws.”
It’s been two years since this announcement. And while no single structure has been constructed, Future Africa general partner Iyinoluwa Aboyeji and his partners have continuously touted Talent City’s promise.
Progress has been incremental, but Talent City has acquired land to begin construction of its first location: Talent City Lagos, a 72,000-square-meter plot of land located in Alaro City, a 2-000 hectare city-scale development area in the Lekki Free Zone.
This first prototype city, featuring a central coworking campus and a variety of housing options, will be home to 1,000 residents and 2,500 remote workers. These figures are subject to change.
A small piece I wrote about my moonshot startup project – building a new city where the digital economy may thrive. https://t.co/mPk5B6ohck
— iyin.eth (@iaboyeji) January 16, 2020
On a call with TechCrunch, Aboyeji, who kickstarted the project with Luqman Edu and Coco Liu, points out three main problems Talent City hopes to solve for techies.
During Aboyeji’s time at Andela, the company was still a tech talent incubator and housed engineers in its hubs. Between 2014 to 2017, the company spent heavily on office settings and living quarters because most real estate developers in Lagos didn’t understand how to build real estate for tech people, said the Andela and Flutterwave founder.
Andela, like many others, also faced issues around power, internet and commutes. Furthermore, these startups contend with stifling government policies (2020’s ride-hailing ban and last year’s cryptocurrency ban come to mind), political instability and security issues.
“This was not just an Andela problem,” said Aboyeji, who also co-founded payments unicorn Flutterwave. “Today, I run an investment firm with 60 portfolio companies (mostly technology companies) and over $20 million in assets under management, and they all continue to tell me the infrastructure problem has not only gotten worse but more expensive to solve.
“Over the years, the industry has grown from when I was at Andela. Last year, the technology industry raised over $1.4 billion in venture capital. Yet entrepreneurs in Lagos are still stuck in a subpar environment despite a strong drive to build, deeply frustrated with their living conditions along with a system that is not functional.”
Talent City, he claims, could remedy these problems.
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