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The Inaugural Africa’s New Cities Summit: An Inflection Point for the Charter Cities Movement and Charter Cities Institute

2023 saw incredible progress for the charter cities and new cities ecosystem, capped off by the phenomenal success of the inaugural Africa’s New Cities Summit. Hosted by the Charter Cities Institute (CCI) on November 16-18 in Kigali, Rwanda, in partnership with the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and Africa Infrastructure Development Association (AfIDA), the Summit brought together for the first time the developers, builders, governments, academics, and other stakeholders playing a key role in meeting the challenges posed by rapid urbanization in Africa. For a by-the-numbers recap of the Summit, see below. 

More broadly, the Summit represents something larger than just the successful event itself – it stands as an inflection point for the Charter Cities Institute and for the broader ecosystem of city developers, governments, and other stakeholders CCI has cultivated around the idea of new cities since our founding in 2017. For the first time, this ecosystem was gathered together in one place, in person, in large numbers, and with bankable projects and actionable policy ideas presented to an audience with the resources and authority to finance those projects, get dirt moving, and make policy change happen. In countless post-Summit conversations – whether with a city developer, a development bank official, or a government policymaker – a recurring sentiment was that finally someone had gotten the other people also thinking about new cities as a solution for many of the challenges facing urban Africa together in a room to facilitate action.

MOU Signee's at Africa's New Cities Summit

CCI has always viewed the development of this ecosystem as evolving over three stages. Stage 1 is building the intellectual infrastructure for charter cities, new cities, and similar projects. This has included the publication and dissemination of introductory pieces or reference guides, like CCI’s Governance Handbook, which outlines a specific vision of how new cities with special jurisdictions can and ought to be organized, as well as how these new cities can help address the challenges posed by rapid urbanization while helping improve governance and facilitate economic transformation. CCI elaborated in detail on our core ideas and spread that information to key audiences in academia, multilaterals, governments, and the private sector.

Stage 2 comprises two elements. The first is to see city projects move from design and conceptualization to financing, construction, occupancy, and operation. The second is to see governments, international bodies, and multilateral institutions make the necessary policy changes to support the successful development of thriving new cities in the face of rapid urbanization. Stage 2 is the beginning of scalable action, rather than mere talk and agenda setting. 

Stage 3 is about maturation, lessons learned, and iteration – the first generation of new city projects will reach “maturity” with tens or hundreds of thousands of residents (or even millions), and Stage 3 requires continual reevaluation of what has worked and what could be done better, from urban planning and design to financial structure to policy implementation and everything in between. Establishing such feedback loops will be essential for a thriving charter cities ecosystem.

The success of the inaugural Africa’s New Cities Summit marks the close of Stage 1 and the rapid onset of Stage 2. 

2023 was a year of major successes for CCI. In addition to the Summit, we co-hosted the
New York University New Cities Conference with the Marron Institute of Urban Management, officially launched our Africa office in Zambia, have grown Africa’s NXT50 Cities Coalition to nearly 100 members, have completed or are currently engaged in technical assistance projects in Tanzania, Zambia, and Malawi, and launched the New Cities Map—the first global dataset covering all new city projects across the world. We also published the Charter Cities Atlas digitally and in hardcover, the first-ever publication from Charter Cities Institute Press, which we intend to build into an outlet for important works of social science within the broader charter cities ecosystem. But there’s much more coming in 2024, riding off the success of Africa’s New Cities Summit, that we’re excited to share. 

The number of new city projects in Africa and elsewhere is on the rise and developers, financial institutions, and governments are now more aware, receptive, and ready to be involved than ever before. The next five years will see new cities attracting residents and businesses, additional projects being announced, and governments taking action to facilitate the creation of new cities in their countries. 

In Zanzibar, CCI’s flagship new city project, Fumba Town, is pressing ahead. CCI is working with the developer of Fumba Town, CPS, and the Zanzibar Investment Promotion Authority to expand the area available for the city’s development, create a more expansive zone framework to allow for more devolved local governance, and drive down the price point to make Fumba Town affordable for Zanzibari residents. Fumba Town is set to become an integrated component of the government’s economic development strategy for the island, hosting a variety of industries from technology and higher education to light manufacturing to agriculture and aquaculture to sustainable tourism. Anchoring this expansion will be a new African School of Economics campus, which CCI is helping establish in partnership with Princeton University and the Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM also just opened a campus near Fumba Town). These new higher education institutions will serve as key building blocks for the broader “Silicon Zanzibar” initiative to make the island a hub for research, innovation, and technology entrepreneurship. Silicon Zanzibar is led by Wasoko, a B2B e-commerce company and the fastest-growing company in all of Africa. 

We’re already seeing the beginnings of a transition to Stage 2 in Malawi. The country just adopted new special economic zone legislation which allows for secondary cities and entire urban centers to be designated as zones, on which CCI provided the necessary legal advisory services. This new zone law aligns with the Malawi Secondary Cities Plan to create eight urban investment hubs across the country, for which CCI is an implementation partner. At the same time, Small Farm Cities Africa, a key partner for CCI, plans to expand their operations in Malawi from Mpingu Gardens, a modular small-city starter focused on hyper-affordable housing combined with agriculture/aquaculture, to Titanium Gateway, a 10x larger development anchored around a new titanium mine, to be organized under the new city-scale SEZ framework. In effect, this means that yesterday’s industrial park in Malawi is today’s special economic city or charter city, a huge legislative win for both CCI and for the broader charter cities movement!

CCI is also continuing our technical assistance with numerous other projects – for example: (1) helping the government of Zambia realize special economic cities, with projects across the country, including at the Kafue Gorge Lower hydroelectric power station, (2) supporting Itana, backed by Andela and Flutterwave founder Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, develop Africa’s first digital free zone within the Lekki Free Zone outside Lagos, Nigeria, and (3) beginning work in Kenya on refugee cities and other urban policy programs, among other work and research projects being carried out across the continent. 

Africa’s New Cities Summit by the Numbers

The Charter Cities Institute is extremely grateful to our partners, sponsors, speakers, attendees, staff, and everyone who helped bring this extraordinary gathering to life. Some Summit facts and stats:

  • Over 250 delegates from nearly 50 countries, including 26 countries in Africa, attended the Summit. 
  • In addition to event co-hosts, RDB and AfIDA, there were 18 sponsors of the event, including: Afreximbank, Surbana Jurong, UN-Habitat, World Resources Institute, Small Farm Cities Africa, Itana, Waterfall City, RwandAir, IKAZE, BGR, Rendeavour, Smart Cities Council, and Rwanda Convention Bureau, and Maroon Associates. 
  • Six Memoranda of Understanding were signed at the Summit, including agreements between:
    • CCI and CPS, the developer of Fumba Town, Zanzibar
    • CPS and the African School of Economics 
    • CCI and the African School of Economics 
    • CCI and Itana
    • CCI, Surbana Jurong, and Africa123
    • CCI and Smart Cities Council 
  • Over 45 different speakers addressed the Summit, including:
    • The Honorable Pudence Rubingisa, Mayor of Kigali
    • The Honorable Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi, Secretary General of the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa
    • Nelly Mukazayire, Deputy CEO of the Rwanda Development Board
    • Magatte Wade, Founder and CEO of Skin is Skin (and CCI Advisory Board member)

What’s Next?

Building on the successes of 2023, we will carry this momentum into 2024 with further legislative victories and convenings of key stakeholders in the charter cities movement.

Our goal is to achieve similar legislative success to Malawi in Zanzibar, Zambia, and Kenya in 2024. At the same time, we will be expanding our efforts to establish a continental framework for charter cities established at the African Union level which can be adopted and iterated on by AU member states. 

In addition to these policy objectives, we have a slate of exciting events planned throughout 2024, including: a City Builders’ Retreat in Zanzibar for executives leading the charge on the ground to build Africa’s new cities; a summit in Washington, DC on refocusing development funding and interventions towards economic growth; a panel debate on charter cities at the University of Chicago; and more. Stay tuned for updates on the next New Cities Summit as well, coming in 2025. We’re excited about the huge progress over the last year, but even more excited for what’s to come in 2024 and beyond!

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