5 cities of the future in Africa, the world’s youngest continent

Since colonialism, “new cities” have been built in Africa. But in addition to the familiar demographic issues, the new wave is driven by business, technology, and talent – assets that are rapidly developing on the world’s youngest continent.

British actor Idris Elba recently announced an agreement with the government of Sierra Leone to develop Sherbro Island in the Gulf of Guinea. The plan is to build an environmentally friendly, energy self-sufficient smart city. Together with his partner and friend, Siaka Stevens, grandson of Sierra Leone’s former president, Elba envisions creating a kind of African Hong Kong off the coast of the west African country. This city could house up to a million people and attract foreign entrepreneurs and diaspora talent. Although there is no clear budget or construction timetable, the developers aim to open the first tourist facilities within the next five years. 

With one in two Africans living in cities, the economic, social and cultural transformation is underway and will only accelerate.
The eco-district Sèmè City, in Benin. Courtesy RBTA

Elba’s project is just the latest in a series of “new city” initiatives announced or started in Africa since the early 2000s. This term is a passe-partout formula that actually corresponds to different definitions over time. Some, like the grand plan for the futuristic Akon City in Senegal unveiled by American-Senegalese rapper Akon in 2020, have stalled. Others, like Diamniadio in Senegal, are at an advanced stage but have faced challenges in attracting new residents. Some other projects, like Konza Technopolis in Kenya, are progressing slowly or have been periodically suspended due to political and economic issues but seem likely to meet their initial promises. Meanwhile, newer projects like Ebrah in Ivory Coast, still in their infancy, suggest a possible shift in how institutions and urban planners address rapid urbanization.

Historically, “new cities” in Africa emerged first in the colonial period and then postcolonially, serving new administrative functions with strong political symbolism. Today, the renewed interest in big projects is driven by liberal governments that see public-private partnerships as the right tool to create modern cities quickly. Researchers like Sina Schlimmer, who coordinates the program Governing the Urban Transition in Africa at the French Institute for International Relations, note that political ambition now combines with the desire to create hi-tech knowledge hubs, such as Sémé City in Benin. These hubs aim to cultivate local talent, attract foreign investors, like those at Silicon Zanzibar in Tanzania, and promote the country’s international image.

The eco-sustainable smart city of Fumba Town, built along the coast south of Zanzibar City

While investment in African startups fell to $3.4 billion in 2023 (down from $5 billion the previous year), the continent has seen exponential growth in the sector. The digital industry is seen as a key driver of economic growth for a young and dynamic population. It offers solutions to pressing local needs – from health and agricultural sovereignty to financial inclusion and employment – and represents a promising market. South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and Kenya (known as the Big Four) have joined the list of the world’s top start-up nations, attracting more than 75 percent of the industry’s investment. However, they face stiff competition from other countries. The development of hub technology and smart cities has become a priority for many governments. The challenge, as Schlimmer points out, is that “cities are becoming cross-sector projects, and if you try to do too much, you risk not getting anything done.”

None of these urban centers met the expected deadline: “It takes time to create a new city, and these experiences confirm that. And anyway, can a city designed for services, but where no one lives, really be considered a new city?”

The village of Ebrah in Ivory Coast

Africa faces the world’s highest population pressure, expected to exceed 2.1 billion by 2040, with at least half a billion living in urban areas. Between the 1990s and 2020, nearly 5,000 new urban centers have already been created, while sprawling megacities such as Cairo and Lagos (with over 20 million inhabitants) or Kinshasa (17 million) have emerged. With one in two Africans living in cities, the economic, social and cultural transformation is underway and will only accelerate. Meeting the demand for housing, responding to the concrete needs of residents and combating climate change should be priorities. However, major projects announced and implemented to date have yielded modest results, and much remains to be done.

Diamniadio, Sénégal

The Diamniadio project, a new urban center 30 km from downtown Dakar, is one of the most emblematic of the 2000s. The first master plans, dating back to 2007, presented the city as a solution to the Senegalese capital’s traffic congestion. Linked to Dakar by a new railroad and highway, it symbolizes the emerging country envisioned by President Macky Sall. The plan includes housing for 300,000 residents, emphasizing social diversity, as well as offices, shops, green spaces, and ministerial and industrial centers.

In addition to the country’s second university, currently under construction and scheduled to open in late 2022, the green smart city was to host national and international companies in a state-of-the-art technology park. Today, the city, which has no local government and depends entirely on the presidency of the republic, is not particularly attractive to the population. Construction difficulties have driven up housing prices, and not all homes are connected to the water and electricity grids. However, the city is being upgraded as a ministerial and event center thanks to the new International Conference Center, the Dakar Arena, the fairgrounds and the Abdoulaye Wade Stadium.

Sèmè City

Sèmè City in Benin is a large eco-neighborhood dedicated to knowledge and innovation, part of a government investment program launched in 2016. Initially planned for about 200 hectares near the Nigerian border, the project will now occupy more than 350 hectares in Ouidah, the region’s main slave-trading port, which the government wants to develop as a historical and tourist site. The Presidency of the Republic has approved the executive design of the first phase, submitted by Hardel Le Bihan (principal), Ricardo Bofill and Cobloc, together with landscape architects from the Niez Studio.

 The site will be structured around a huge campus that will house 30,000 students and researchers, five training clusters, and incubation spaces for start-ups and local creative industries such as design and fashion. The goal is to create job opportunities for young people, promote made-in-Africa products and prevent brain drain. Sèmè City will offer modern and connected services ranging from optimized waste management to low-emission transportation and smart energy management, as well as environmentally sustainable academic and residential buildings built in partnership with local businesses and supply chains.

Silicon Zanzibar

Silicon Zanzibar is one of the continent’s newest hi-tech hub projects. The Tanzanian government hopes it will allow the country to rival Kenya in the sector and diversify the economy of an archipelago heavily dependent on tourism. At the heart of this ambitious plan is the eco-sustainable and smart Fumba Town, built on a 600,000-square-meter site on the coast south of Zanzibar City.

The project, led by CPS and South Africa’s Bosch Holdings Group, includes three phases of development. It is expected to eventually include 3,000 residential units, 180,000-square-meter of commercial space, and a 27-story skyscraper billed as “the tallest wooden building in Africa” – the Burj Zanzibar, designed as a luxury modular tower by German firm OMT Architects. About 500 of the 700 apartments planned for the first phase have been completed, and the developers say they have already sold 1,000 units. Despite some setbacks, such as the main private partner, Kenyan e-commerce company Wasoko, pulling out due to financial problems, the development of Silicon Zanzibar remains a priority for Tanzania.

Konza Technopolis

Konza Technopolis, located about 70 kilometers south of Nairobi, began construction in 2013 but has faced numerous delays. It recently entered its second phase, moving toward its goal of becoming a symbol of African digital leadership and contributing 2 percent of Kenya’s GDP by 2030. Designed as a walkable, mixed-use, high-density city of more than 1.5 million square meters, Konza Technopolis will feature east-west road axes connected to the highway to Nairobi and mixed-use strips intersecting other sectoral bands.

The city will include residential areas, a university, a science and technology center, offices and commercial space, all bounded by the highway. A large natural park, an urban greenbelt, and several neighborhood parks will complete the picture. The first phase included the construction of basic infrastructure in the central part of the master plan, primarily for the university and mixed-use buildings.


Ebrah, a village of about 6,000 people located 40 kilometers from Abidjan, is the centerpiece of an urban planning project by the renowned Ivorian architectural duo Guillaume Koffi and Issa Diabaté. Their plan for Ebrah, presented at the 2023 Venice Biennale, marks a shift in their personal and professional journey, moving from focusing on individual buildings to considering the urban fabric as a whole. It’s a long-term vision, with a 15- to 20-year horizon, that the architects have been developing for seven years in constant dialogue with residents and institutions.

“The way new cities are designed today doesn’t address the fundamental problems of the population and implements an urbanism that creates pockets of precarious housing,” notes Diabaté. With a project born from the existing context and based on thoughtful urban principles shared with the local government, the duo proposes a paradigm shift. They take into account all the social strata and functions present in African cities when designing the urban fabric, integrating socio-cultural aspects that lead people to live in informal neighborhoods (proximity to home and work, inclusion in a community, etc...) and structuring alternative responses to urban and demographic pressures.

Opening image: The eco-district Sèmè City, in Benin. Courtesy RBTA

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