Test bed: Turning Kigali into Africa’s smart cities hub

edie investigates the green business potential of breakthrough technologies and innovations in this new series of 'test bed' case studies. Up next: a look at how a new public-private partnership is using the Internet of Things (IoT) to transform the Rwandan capital of Kigali into a connected smart city that champions sustainable agriculture and water management.

The Government of Rwanda is aiming to become a middle-income country by 2020, following the disruption caused to development by genocide more than 20 years ago. The country has identified IT as a key driver for economic growth. In order to sustain this growth beyond the 2020 target, Rwanda has a larger masterplan in place for 2040. The Government has acknowledged the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a key consideration, and will use developments of the nation’s IT infrastructure to champion certain environmental goals.

The Government launched its SMART Rwanda Vision Statement, which is moving the nation towards a “knowledge-based society” as part of the wider Smart Africa Manifesto, in 2013. The wider initiative tasks certain African nations with developing IT concepts to improve the wealth and living standards of the citizens on the continent.

While Uganda was tasked with championing ‘big data’, and Cote d’Ivoire with cyber security, Rwanda will be positioned as Africa’s IT Hub – through the development of smart cities and communities that capture key environmental goals listed in the SDGs.

The Government of Rwanda has enlisted the expertise of the private sector for the next phase of this project: British satellite company Inmarsat, telecomms equipment supplier Ericsson, and technology firm Intel have been brought in to create blueprints that foster sustainable innovation among Kigali’s residents.

The challenge

Using IT as a driver for sustainable growth is a particular challenge in Rwanda, where the IT sector contributes to 3% of economic benefits. According to Inmarsat, the difference in connectivity is the only difference you’ll find when rolling these out across cities.

Barriers facing the project are less about infrastructure, but rather about how citizens and society react to smart networks and devices – particularly at a time when other environmental and social issues are so prevalent. 

The SMART Vision project is aiming to help improve living standards across the capital, but this in itself is a big hurdle given the sheer size of the challenge. International charity WaterAid states that more than three million Rwandans have no access to safe water, and that five million lack access to toilets. This has a detrimental impact on health and infant mortality in the country, with more than 2,000 children dying every year from preventable sanitation-based diseases.

The nation is also suffering from a housing crisis. The Rwandan Ministry of Infrastructure found that between 2012 to 2022 an extra 460,000 buildings would need to be constructed. As of 2016, around 350,000 are still yet to break ground.

Other significant chalenges identified so far relate to the environmental aspects of the project. Global issues regarding food production and security and population growth are necessitating the need for smart farming practices, which Kigali is keen to capture. Through guidance from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), authorities are turning to urban farming and green areas to grow fruit and vegetables to boost farmer incomes.

The solution

The new SMART Vision project takes into account the “preservation of hillsides, forests and wetlands so that they may be available for future generations” and uses “natural cycles to provide efficient infrastructure for water, drainage, water purification, biogas generation from waste and recycling”.

Inmarsat has partnered with local academic institutions to encourage engagement with the projects, specifically those aimed at achieving more sustainable energy, transport, water and agricultural systems. The project also has a social goal of creating 100 innovation studios in schools, 200 supportive projects in universities and colleges and the introduction of 100 new start-up companies with a combined market capitalisation of $50m.

Working with the Ministry of Youth and IT in Rwanda, the supporting companies are providing a network based on satellite and cellular connectivity that acts as the foundation for the projects. Already, solutions around security, access control, CCTV, facial recognition, tracking vehicles and assets, water management to monitor pipelines for leakages and utilities management have been identified through this public-private partnership.

In parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is a large amount of wastage in food production, in terms of produce, land and water. The SMART vision project seeks to deploy technology that analyses how saturated the water soil is on a Ph scale, what the air humidity, pressure and pollution levels are like in areas of farming, and using that data to create productive outputs for particular crops. While the formula for each crop is still being developed, Inmarsat is confident that the collection of data will allow farmers to adjust irrigation systems, or have them adjust autonomously to counteract certain soil types.

The decision to automate water irrigation systems was decided so that farmers can interact with the system without being overwhelmed or confused by the numerous data points. Inmarsat has already tried a proof of concept in Malaysia, which is now being adopted on the outskirts of Kigali. Focus for the first 12 months will be on short-term impact solutions such as water distribution filtration plants. Largely used in shipping containers, the system transfers water through pipelines to local villages. The pipelines are fitted with sensors and data points to analyse for leakages.

Sensors are also used to monitor air pollution and transport levels. These data points will be combined with the development of pedestrian and cycling corridors for a new public transit system. This will reduce car use and air pollution as a result. These sensors could be used on livestock to track animal welfare further down the project’s timeline. In total, it is estimated that 100,000 new jobs will be created through the introduction of new IT sensors and infrastructure.

Financial cost and savings

Investments into 67 identified projects through SMART Vision will amount to more than £500m. However, the accumulated economic benefit is estimated at $1.18bn, a 142% return on investment. That return on investment largely depends on how citizens are integrated into smart communities that utilise IoT, Big Data, drone technology and 3D printing among other concepts.

Scaling up

With more than 70% of Kigali’s population living in informal settlements, the businesses and government departments involved in the initiative expect further investments to bring them to the expected £500m target.

As many African cities were built by connecting different communities, many of them slums, the planning and traffic routing needs fixing. Inmarsat claim that the initiative is learning to design a fully-sustainable city that could be built outside of Kigali, essentially replacing it as Rwanda’s capital.

While the SMART Vision project is primarily aimed at transforming Kigali, the companies involved in the initiative want to develop a blueprint that can be applied to numerous cities in various stages of wealth, including Barcelona and Mexico City.

The businesses involved will showcase some of the successful innovations at an upcoming smart cities event in Barcelona in November 2017.

The businesses will focus on testing these innovations with local organisations and systems to examine the business case further. Inmarsat has already cited the possibility of deploying the sensor technology into plantations and water treatment mines, provided they are successfully embedded in the smart cities initiative.

Matt Mace

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