What the Rise of Smart Cities Means for Africa

What the Rise of Smart Cities Means for Africa

Philippa Dods
10 October 2017

It is predicted that by 2040, 65% of the world’s population will be living in smart cities. And by 2030, at least six of the world’s megacities (a metropolitan city with a population of more than 10 million people) will be located in Africa. Today, cities still have a long way to go before they’re considered geniuses – but they are getting smarter pretty quickly. View an interactive infographic here that predicts what the future of your city will look like to you based on your current age. The term “smart cities” covers a broad range of technologies and capabilities, and it’s an exciting time for Africa in general. Here, we uncover why.

Why Smart Cities?

The globe is currently facing massive societal challenges: over-population and inefficient energy usage are among some of the top factors putting the world at danger. Additionally, there has been an influx of people moving into cities in the last decade, resulting in major cities experiencing an increase in crime, unemployment and air pollution.

Technology has played a major role in cities for many years, but it is now that the adoption of technology is becoming quicker and easier – giving space to the rise of more disruptive innovations. It is the technology that is available to us and that is being developed, that has the potential to solve these major metropolitan challenges. Consequently, urban areas are transforming into “smart cities.”

The second ingredient for the success of smart cities is data. The power of data is its ability to create “smart solutions” – solutions to challenges that address the real needs of urban citizens and provide actual value to them. The third vital feature of a smart city is the people. The success of a smart city relies on the decisions that are made, how they are executed and how they help the population of that city.

rise of smart cities in africa

The Technologies Backing Smart Cities

The five main industries and factors driving the need for smart cities are environment, safety, transport, utilities and buildings. Technology advancements of all five work through either sensors, networks or engagement.


Accurate measurement of environmental conditions like pollution levels, wildlife counts and water run-off will all become possible with sensor networks.


Structural health monitoring of buildings, dams and bridges can now be put in place, as well as advanced warning systems in emergency situations.


Real-time traffic and transit can be manged to reduce travel time and fuel inefficiencies, through sensors embedded in roadways and streetlights.


Smart utility grids will empower users to be more aware of their energy usage and will allow utility companies to only deliver as much energy or water as is required.


Smart buildings will use monitoring devices that track usage and empower users and service providers to better control and reduce electricity demands.

what is smart city

A Global Drive

Established publications like Forbes and Fortune.com have included mostly Westernized cities in their lists of the Smartest Cities in the World. In fact, North American and European cities dominate 43 of the top 50 Smartest Cities. According to Forbes, Abu Dhabi (64th globally) replaces Dubai (66th) this year as smartest city in Asia, Buenos Aires ranks top in South America (83rd) and Cape Town is the smartest city in Africa (133rd).

There are so many insights that we can take away from the Top 50. This includes how New York City and London are focusing on decreasing unemployment, Barcelona’s commitment to the advancement of electric cars as public transport and Copenhagen’s pledge to become the first capital city to be carbon neutral.

But “smart cities” need to be more than just green, environmentally-friendly cities. They need to focus on more than only transportation or only employment and education. And they need to have measurable plans for the future in addition to be currently technologically driven.

The smart city revolution is underway in the third-world economies too. Mumbai, Cape Town and Nairobi are all experiencing the challenges of over-population and as a result, the dangers of carbon dioxide. Cities of developing countries, particularly the above three, are working to reduce carbon emissions, supporting the digital economy with smart-grid technologies, reducing the digital divide with public Wi-fi, safe and secure public transport systems and embracing open government policies to promote transparency.

From “SlaapStad” to Silicon Valley

Nairobi and Cape Town rank among the most advanced cities on the African continent on the smart city front. Kenya’s Nairobi, home to thee million people, has won the title of Most Intelligent City in Africa for two years in a row. South Africa’s Cape Town, with a population of 4 million people, is rumoured to be the “new Silicon Valley” as it is currently the biggest start-up hub in Africa. With hundreds of innovative companies in Africa emerging in the last few years; from mobile payments in Kenya to crowdfunding in Egypt to solar power companies leapfrogging over electricity completely, it’s not as if Cape Town has little competition in the continent.

Along with Johannesburg, Cape Town is the second most densely populated city in South Africa, with 64% of the population residing in the city. There are a couple of key factors that differentiate Cape Town from its African counterparts: the number of start-ups headquartered, the number of venture capital firms and their activity and the number of support programmes available. From an analytical point of view, research shows that more start-ups call Cape Town home and more VC and support structures are available than anywhere else in South Africa. And from a sociological point of view, innovators and entrepreneurs tend to favour the laid-back, mountain-over-skyscraper, café-over-club stereotype that Cape Town seems to play into.

cape town smart cities

So, What’s Next?

With Innovative Cape Town, Intelligent Nairobi and the dozens of new technologies becoming a reality to citizens across the continent every month, an African city making the Top 50, or even Top 5 Smartest Cities in the World, is not far off. What’s next for us, as a continent, is to keep following trends from NYC, Singapore and Paris and learn how technology is applied and executed in the smartest cities. Africa as a whole needs to keep encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, and keep investing in cutting-edge technology that can either leapfrog over now-redundant technologies or lead from the front with disruptive innovations.

To learn more about how Meltwater is investing in machine learning to break new boundaries in the media intelligence landscape, contact us today. Or join in on the conversation on Twitter @Meltwater.