Satellite Cities: Is this the future of East Africa’s urbanization

Satellite Cities: Is this the future of East Africa’s urbanization

The following is an introductory blog post setting up the context of a recent Greater Horn of East Africa (GHEA) Outlook report published by the Society for International Development. Read the full report on Satellite Cities here and learn more about the GHEA here.

Take a careful look at the data on urbanization in East Africa and three trends stand out.  First was the low level of urbanisation in the region in 2000, relative to the rest of the continent (34%) and the world (47%). Second, is the very fast growth rate of three of East Africa’s capitals. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘World in Figures 2010’, Kigali is the fastest growing city in the world, Kampala was number sixteen and Dar es Salaam eighteenth. Third is the very high rate of slum residence in the region, accounting for more than 80% of the urban population in 2005. Faced with this character of urban growth, visible in the capitals that are literally bursting at the seams, how is the region responding? With satellite cities. Five new satellite cities that are proposed in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They include Tatu City and Konza Technology City adjacent to Nairobi, Kigamboni and Kalungulu in Dar es Salaam and Kampala respectively and La Cite du Fleuve (River City) in the DRC, which will literally rise from the River Congo itself. What do these ambitious visions and projects mean for the future of urbanization and social cohesion in the region? Three observations are worth noting.


Equity ignored: displacement and relocation

The purpose of these satellite cities are to accommodate the impending economic and population growth expected in the major cities of the region. But who are these cities really for? From the onset they all seem quite cosmopolitan and presents an exclusive demeanor. It is almost inevitable that the poor will be displaced from their homes and livelihoods to make way for the new cities. For instance, it is instructive that while the government of Tanzania promised that there would be limited displacement in the areas earmarked for Kigamboni Satellite City, a UN Habitat report expressed its doubts about this, noting that given the size of the development, a large proportion of existing landowners would have to be relocated. Compensation could reduce some of the pain of displacement and relocation but only when it is deemed adequate in the eyes of the recipients – a rare event under prevailing conditions of determined governments and property developers. Tanzanian legislators raised serious questions on behalf of the incumbent residents, some of who have little or no legal basis (title deeds) for their claims to the land on which they live. On this basis they can face lawful dispossession and displacement. Overall, questions of fairness, justice and equity appear to have received little more than a passing mention.

Satellite cities as secession by the rich

It is difficult to shake off a sense of concern that these cities, as envisaged and designed will deepen the social division and exclusion in the region’s urban areas. There is an almost deafening silence on the issue of their implications for ordinary and poor urban residents. While some of the language and marketing sounds inclusive, the pricing is not. In more concrete terms, the poor and vulnerable populations in the ‘mother’ cities face the heightened risk of further marginalization and impoverishment in at least two ways. The first is by encouraging the migration of the richer residents to the new cities, taking with them the property taxes, land rent, rates and levies paid to local city authorities. This revenue loss would have to be compensated for either by imposing higher rates, or levying new taxes on the less affluent residents who cannot move, or by lowering the quality of existing services, for want of resources. Ultimately, that most fragile, intangible and precious quality of vibrant cities, a sense of shared space and experience between rich and poor, could be lost forever.

East Africa’s satellite cities as prototype Charter Cities

The US economist, Paul Romer, has developed the concept of Charter Cities as a ‘radical solution to the problem of poverty.’ According to the website, “A charter city is a new type of special reform zone. It extends the concept of a special economic zone by increasing its size and expanding the scope of its reforms. It must be large enough to accommodate a city with millions of workers and residents. Its reforms must extend to all the rules needed to support exchange in a modern market economy and structure interactions in a well-run city.” Combining Romer’s concept and the growth of satellite cities in East Africa points to the fascinating possibility that the region could lead the world in the creation of private charter cities which are geographically, socially, fiscally and, ultimately, politically separate from their host nations. The emerging satellite cities contain the seeds of such autonomy: Tatu City has struck a fiscal deal with the Ruiru Council; Konza City is premised on a new, almost self-contained high-tech economy; La Cite du Fleuve is rising from the waters of the Congo river and physically separating itself from Kinshasa. Imagine a future in which international bidding processes will select the management teams for the satellite cities; residents (firms and families) would apply for residence and be interviewed to gauge their financial fitness and cultural compatibility; and day workers would be issued with special passes to be in the city.

These practices are not new: special city passes are used to control the inflow of migrant workers into China’s manufacturing heartland in the Pearl River delta; residence interviews are conducted by some New York co-op apartments; and contracts are regularly awarded to manage large infrastructure assets such as ports and utilities. Commenting on Romer’s Charter Cities concept, Financial Times columnist Tim Harford is excited by what he calls the ‘real radicalism’ it represents, “that building cities could become a business in its own right. And as with any dynamic industry, some of these city-businesses will flourish magnificently. Others will fail.”

A new ‘city-building business’ has arrived through the satellite cities in East Africa. A future of Charter Cities is on the doorstep. It remains to be seen, which of the city-firms will ‘flourish magnificently’ and which of them will ‘fail.’

Ahmed is currently finishing up his Master of International Affairs at Columbia University focussing on international security policy and Africa. Ahmed’s interest and focus is primarily on politics and the intersection between security and development in Africa. Prior to Columbia, Ahmed finished his undergraduate degree in 2008 at Lehigh University with a BA in International Relations and Africana Studies. Ahmed was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania but spent most of his life in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where he was exposed to the potential as well as the shortcomings of politics and development in Africa. Currently Ahmed is waiting to pursue a career in political risk consulting. Ahmed writes for Vijana FM with a focus on politics in both Tanzania and Africa.


  1. peter 7 years ago

    I write this sitting smack bang in the middle of what is planned to be “Kigamboni New City” in one of Mkapa’s “20,000” plots. These were laid out c. 7 years ago before the KGB new city idea and are to remain as is, assuming this scheme ever gets off the ground.

    The 20,000 plots project – which should have been quite straight forward – has been a collosal failure and illustrates the capacity and intent of public authorities. Up the road is a failed private housing development being slowly reclaimed by bush. All around, most plots in the neighbourhood have reverted to their original use – shamba. Every evening people from the neighbouring village scour the area for firewood. More often than not at night the area is scoured by armed gangs. Individual title and non transparent allocation mechanisms have been a speculator’s dream. The vacuum is filled by the vibaka and majambazi.

    There really is a need to be realistic about the capacity and intent of our public authorities. The “new city” of KGB (just a few hundred metres from the existing city centre: does that qualify as a ‘new city’?) will, at best, be poorly and incompletely implemented. The inchoate rent seeking practices we are familiar with will give us more disjointed planning and more exclusion.

    Dar es Salaam has been developing chaotically since colonial times. Does it make sense having three urban authorities and four mayors? Should we go back to having an appointed city commission? Would that allow joined up strategic planning that gets implemented, as well as sanctions for those that mess up? I don’t know, but before we get carried away with talk of charter cities and what might happen *if* these plans are implemented, lets start with the people, institutions and practices we already have.

  2. bihemo 7 years ago

    I completely subscribe to your thoughts Peter!

  3. Rebekah 7 years ago

    I am interested to know what happens to individuals who do not live up to the application standards for living in these Charter Cities. It seems to me that this is just another way to discriminate against the poor and/or by ethnicity/race etc. Who decides who is legitimate and worthy of citizenship? Rather than these cities actually dealing with urban problems in equitable ways – this just seems to be an escape route for those who do not want to face the reality that is poverty, and the work that it takes to create culturally varied and vibrant cities.

  4. Ahmed 7 years ago

    @ Peter, I appreciate your perspective and insight. Your comments raise the underlying question that these satellite cities poses, who are these for and at what cost? If we look at the Cite du Fleuve in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) we know exactly who will inhabit the housing units and city and they are not going to be from the DRC. Considering the political instability, security situation, and high poverty levels in the DRC, by creating a gated and isolated city in the area (separated by the river) it is almost an admission that creating such a city is not a good idea. Why not focus on what you already have? I agree with your assessment of a chaotic attempt on development, we can just look at Upanga. The high rises and construction in the area seems chaotic and has no real structure or urban planning. These buildings will create a lot of congestion and traffic. We think electricity cuts are bad now, wait till these buildings are fully functioning. We will literally be living on top of each other and that is a testament to the lack of urban planning and city development strategies.

    @Rebekah, your assessment makes me wonder if these satellite cities and gated communities are just a new and modern-day version of apartheid and Jim Crow segregation. Will we need visas/work permits to enter Kigamboni or Tatu City? What will happen to the original cities after these satellite cities are fully implemented? These new cities will most likely attract high and middle income households and large businesses creating a vacuum in the ‘old’ city. That does not sound like equity.

  5. dd-m 7 years ago

    Nice to remind us again Ahmed about the importance of these satellites towns.
    Some us have been living in these proposed towns for the past 7 years. All the proposed and promises of electricity, water and drainage/sewage system and other infrastructure, have just been promises, but again the residents are not surprised that all these plans and proposals are still on heavily dusted files, and we expect them to remain there for some time!
    No implementations would be auctioned, those responsible will continue to research and write papers, I am sure there will be no follow up as well, that is a story of bongo, plenty of talk and no substance!

  6. Aidan 7 years ago

    @Peter, three of the five examples of satellite cities are being developed by private business. KGB (I love the ominous acronym) is one of two being driven by government. My bet (and I am not a betting man) is that the private initiatives will likely be completed faster. My take on Charter Cities is that the represent a dystopian future…and one we should not ignore, even if today they seem very unlikely.

  7. peter 7 years ago

    @aidan and Ahmed, if the other developments emerge as gated and isolated communities that would be another colossal failure. Mind you, there’s more and more such micro developments around town.

    With regard to intent and capacity, take a turn in Addis Ababa and check out the range of housing developments to the west of the city – a mix of private adn public housing developments that are fully connected to water and power grids, public transport networks etc. Clear decisions have been taken by authorities as to the shape the city will take – and then they’ve gone ahead and done it, also in the past seven years. Both intent and capacity are clear.

    If SID have collaborators in Ethiopia , it may be worth looking at.

  8. City Inc. 7 years ago

    “Cities are increasingly behaving like companies, becoming intimately involved in their citizens’ quality of life and, in an increasingly mobile world, competing for ‘customers’.”

    From a recent op-ed (appears to support the idea of charter cities) on Al Jazeera titled “Intelligent Urban Design” by Esther Dyson:

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Human verification:

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box