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The UK’s blossoming relationship with Africa: an interview with Urban Links Africa’s Nadia Echchihab

6 min

The UK SMEs working with African cities have been chosen – now it is time to deliver. But how did they get to this point? What challenges face locals in South Africa and Kenya? Quadrant Smart catches up with Nadia Echchihab, project lead of Connected Places Catapult’s Urban Links Africa (ULA) scheme, to get the latest on the fascinating project!

The Urban Links Africa project and the UK’s latest trade deal with Kenya signals a “realisation of the potential” on the African continent, the ULA project lead has told Quadrant Smart.

Updating Quadrant on Connected Places Catapult’s ULA project, which has matched seven UK SMEs to collaborate on smart projects with city leaders in South Africa and Kenya, Nadia Echchihab said the UK industry interest in emerging economies in Africa is a promising sign for future trade relations.

Nadia Echchihab, project lead, Urban Links Africa

In an interview in June, Nadia spoke about launching the open call earlier this year for a variety of technology solutions in its selection process for applicants. Since the open call, 90 organisations registered an interest in the scheme, with 45 applications from UK-based SMEs.

“I was very pleased with the quality of the proposals,” Nadia explained. “Some of them were very innovative, using a wide range of technologies from IoT, to AI, to Blockchain, that was really good to see.

“To select the seven out of the 20 shortlisted projects, the choice was very difficult, but we were supported in this process by the judging panel, made up by a co-venturing team.”

The judging panel, made up by representatives from cross-industry stakeholders like AfriLabs, SoftBank, and the UN Habitats programme, selected an array of solutions to make up the seven winners.

The awardees will work with Connected Places Catapult, local experts, and city officials, to meet challenges in their area. In Cape Town, for example, competition winner 71 point 4 will partner with the active participation of the Centre for Affordable Housing Finance (CAHF) in Africa to establish blockchain solutions for citizens in informal settlements and townships, allowing them to register their property using blockchain technology.

There seems to be a realisation of the potential in the continent

“That’s very innovative, because at the moment a million informal properties across SA do not have titles,” Nadia said. “Property is a very big issue in South Africa. Allowing citizens living in informal settlements to have access to this to be able to register the property, so that they can then transfer that to their children – and start building capital – is really important.”

In Durban, waste management in the city will be tackled with the help of UK SME Gras, partnering with The Makerspace Foundation; in Johannesburg, city leaders will work with UK businesses and the Connected Places Catapult team to enhance sustainable mobility in the area.

Quadrant is delighted to be continuing the coverage of the Urban Links Africa Project! We’re soon to be interviewing some of the key stakeholders involved from the project – stay tuned.

A circular continent

The three cities in Kenya, Nairobi, Mombasa, and Kisumu, favoured a joint approach to challenges across cities, Nadia added: welcoming solutions in urban flooding, stormwater drainage, solid waste management, active mobility and traffic management, and wastewater management.

A continual theme of the project winners is a reinforcement for sustainable methods and approach to public services. “In all of the six cities we’re covering, the circular economy is a big promise. I think there is a realisation that there is a lot of growth in this area,” said Nadia.

“However, they need to be able to train people to change mentalities.” For example, Nadia argues, in all six cities, waste dumping is a prominent issue. “We need to change the mentality towards that, and you can’t do that in a couple of months.

“So you need to show success stories. I’m hoping with this Durban project, you can show a strong success story, and people will see the value of recycled waste in a way.”

The next steps for the project?

Nadia explained that the ULA project is now in its delivery phase of the seven awarded SMEs, with Connected Places Catapult providing technical and business support. Running parallel to the project, Nadia and her team have assembled a fleet of challenge ambassadors, local experts from all six cities to provide direct insight to the projects. “This is to make sure that they are locally rooted and commercially viable,” Nadia said.

Elsewhere in ULA’s work, Nadia is in the process of setting up a business advisory board, assembled of six major UK and African cities, to be “closely monitoring” the seven partnerships with mentoring, and the potential of further funding the projects.

“We also have an academic committee. This is with five UK universities that have ongoing projects in urban developments in Kenya and South Africa.

“That’s really good because we want to ensure synergy, and also be able to tap into the immense knowledge of these academics from the UK, and potentially open new doors to our seven partnerships.”

Kenya trade deal

Whilst a UK-Kenya trade deal may not reap the same economic rewards as one with the European Union, the news of progressing talks signals a prosperous – and sustainable – future for both economies, Nadia notes.

“There seems to be a realisation of the potential in the continent,” she said. “There is a lot of growth and potential for more equitable partnerships – not just within my own small projects, but more generally speaking in all other sectors: infrastructure, energy, efficiency. It’s all linked with the prime minister’s announcement in December of the green agenda.”

Nairobi c. **ste**, Flickr

Nadia continued that African states are “very in tune” with the UK Government’s Build Back Better agenda, utilising green technologies and building supply chains across nations. In January this year, prime minister Boris Johnson hosted African states for the first UK-Africa Investment summit, taking place in London.

“The Brexit situation is absolutely an accelerator, but there is definitely now a movement towards Africa, and I’m very pleased to see this,” she said. “The global pandemic has been a wake-up call, and there is this will to do better and tackle the climate crisis, creating new jobs in these new sectors. It’s all linked when you take a step back and reflect on it. I feel this is very positive for both the UK and our African partners.”

Top imports to the UK from Kenya in 2019 were in coffee, tea, and spices – totalling £121m.

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