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Actor Idris Elba dreams of becoming a city builder in Sierra Leone

Actor Idris Elba's visionary leap into city-building in Sierra Leone has sparked global interest! Le Monde's recent coverage of this story features CCI's Executive Director, Kurtis Lockhart, who sheds light on the essential ingredients for a thriving African urban future.

You can find the original article on Le Monde’s website by clicking here.

Famous for his performances in the series The Wire and Luther , British actor Idris Elba now wants to take on a new kind of role: builder of an intelligent and ecological city on an island in Sierra Leone. In this West African country where his father comes from, the star “dreams” of seeing the emergence of a city that redefines “the way Africa is perceived” , as he told the BBC . “The idea is to be autonomous, to set up an economy that feeds on itself and has growth potential ,” he summarized.

According to the actor and his partner, Siaka Stevens, grandson of the former Sierra Leonean president of the same name and who, like Idris Elba, grew up in London, the city could ultimately accommodate up to a million people , as well as many companies. All on Sherbro, an island of 600 square kilometers located two hours by ferry from the coast, where the approximately 40,000 inhabitants live mainly from fishing, rice growing and a little tourism.

Developed in a country that is among the poorest in the world, the design is intriguing with its ambition. “Sherbro Island could have the same role with regard to the West African market as Hong Kong with China” , assures Le Monde Siaka Stevens, highlighting the trump card of the project: a “unique governance structure” , based on a public-private partnership with the Sierra Leonean State.

The island must be transformed into a special economic zone, with a separate economic and legal system and placed under the leadership of the private sector. A series of partners have already been associated with the project, including the British insurer Lloyds, the design offices Sasaki and Frost & Sullivan, and the European energy supplier Octopus, which is to build a wind farm on the island. and solar. No budget has been set for the entire project. The timetable also remains unclear, even if the promoters say they hope to see the first projects materialize within five years, in particular tourist facilities.

Not the first project

Siaka Stevens hopes that the economic potential of the smart city and its future infrastructure – notably a port and an airport – will also attract members of the diaspora: “Today, many of them are tempted to return, but they find often the country too difficult to live and work. Sherbro Island could offer them a favorable framework, as well as multinationals who will benefit from tax exemptions and numerous regulatory advantages. » The strategic commercial location of the island, in the waters of the Gulf of Guinea, is also highlighted. However, its distance from the continent and other major urban centers raises questions.

Sherbro Island is far from being the first new town project launched in Africa. Over the last fifteen years, numerous projects have been announced or started. However, few of them have really succeeded. Thus, in Senegal, Akon City, a futuristic city supported by the American-Senegalese rapper Akon , remains in limbo for the moment. The first phase of this metropolis with an aesthetic inspired by Wakanda, the fictional kingdom of the Black Panther films , and at an estimated cost of $6 billion, should have been completed at the end of 2023. But work has still not started.

Before that, Hope City, a technopark supposed to be built in 2016 near Accra, the Ghanaian capital, and which was to house the tallest tower on the continent, never saw the light of day either. In Kenya, Konza Technopolis, a smart city dedicated to innovation, is moving slowly. Still in search of its inhabitants, it hardly resembles the city announced by the authorities more than fifteen years ago…

“Opening to the international economy”

“Frequently, these projects stop after the construction of a few infrastructures, or the reality on the ground turns out to be very far from the initial objectives ,” notes Sina Schlimmer, researcher at the Sub-Saharan Africa center of the French Institute of International Relations. Building an urban center is a complex task, but these new cities are often presented with a form of urgency, particularly from States which hope through them to demonstrate their openness to the international economy.

However, as this specialist in urbanization issues points out, the “smart city” or “new city” label is applied to projects with different philosophies. And that of Sherbro Island is resolutely long-term, with its promoters evoking a process that could last “decades” .

“In any case, it is imperative to explore new ways to cope with the galloping urbanization of the continent ,” argues Kurtis Lockhart, director of the Charter Cities Institute, an American organization which promotes the creation of urban centers in countries in development. In Africa, the urban population doubles every twenty years. “However, existing municipalities have limited financial and technical capacities ,” continues the expert. A new city involving the private sector and enjoying both a certain autonomy and the support of the authorities could constitute an interesting response.

It remains to be seen whether Sherbro Island will be, as Siaka Stevens predicts, “the first well-planned city on the continent . ” Or if this “dynamic and international Afro eco-city” , as he describes it, will in turn remain at the stage of urban utopia.

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