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The Urban Links Africa Project: a Q&A with Connected Places Catapult

11 min

Cape Town, South Africa

Keen to help unlock the prodigious potential of African smart cities and provide opportunities for UK technology firms, Connected Places Catapult is calling for entrants for the Urban Links Africa project: seeking out British innovators and connecting them with South African and Kenyan authorities to help build smart cities of the future. Cityscape sat down with project lead, Nadia Echchihab, to find out more.

Tell us a little bit about your own experience working at Connected Places Catapult and how the Urban Links Africa project came about?

NE: I’ve had different hats within the Catapult but always working in the international space, and so I’m currently Global Commercial Team Lead, and project lead on Urban Links Africa. What does that mean? I sit in the international business team at Catapult, and that means that I am overseeing what we call Commercial Projects.

So this is where we have a specific client commissioning us to do a project or a piece of analysis in particular, and that’s what Urban Links Africa is for us. This is a £2.5m project, funded by UKR&I, through a fund that is called the Global Challenges and Research Fund – GCRF.

How did the stakeholders in this project come together on the UK side, and why the choice of Africa for the rollout of the project?

NE: The GCRF is usually the fund used for UK Businesses to access international markets. We are working with Innovate UK in these projects, so we’re two partners on this ULA project. The project started in October last year, and will run through to March 2021, this timeline has not changed, even after the COVID-19 pandemic.

What we are doing is we are looking to create a long-term relationship between Kenyan and South African cities and urban innovation stakeholders, and link them to the UK. We think that urbanisation is a growing market in Africa; in the next 15 years, the 10 fastest growing cities will be in the African continent, and so this continent is growing extremely fast, faster than Europe at the time.

Nadia Echchihab, project lead, Urban Links Africa

We are completely aware that it may be difficult for these companies to expand into Africa: the continent can be very daunting, there’s a lot of things that may not be as easy as you think, and so we’re here to facilitate these connections, and make it as simple as possible for the two ecosystems to collaborate.

Walk us through how the project was able to build relationships with African smart cities.

NE: First we had to confirm six cities participating in this programme. That’s Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town in South Africa, and Kisumu, Nairobi, and Mombasa in Kenya. Based on previous research that we’ve published on our website, called the African Cities Innovation Report, we have identified Kenyan and South African cities as the most mature ecosystems to do business with the UK.

We had to go and meet all of these cities and understand their challenges. We did this during our User Research phase – that meant that we went on the ground, we met with everyone from the city, we met with the ecosystems, the tech hubs on the ground, we asked about what the main issues are on the urban and urban innovation sides. We did that through what we call our City Academy Workshops, which are interactive workshops that are full days of discussing with all the different actors on the value chain, from SMEs to academics, to city people, NGOs, to really understand their urban challenges.

For South Africa, each city wanted to focus on one challenge each: for Cape Town for example, that is resilience in informal settlements, very fascinating topics as you can imagine, especially in this time of COVID-19.

For Durban, they wanted to focus more on waste management and pollution, and for Johannesburg it was more about sustainable mobility. So three different challenges, however they wanted to focus on only one, but these are shared challenges, so they are interested in collaborating and exchanging their results obviously.

And how did Kenyan authorities want to approach the project?

NE: For Kenya, we had a different approach. Kenyan cities work really well together already, and they wanted to have a joined approach. We listed four challenges out of our consultations, and the four challenges are common to all three cities. That is stormwater drainage and urban flooding; solid waste management; wastewater management; and traffic management and active mobility.

We’re going to tackle all of these seven challenges, and based on this user research, we have a full description of these issues; what are the issues, the pain points, with concrete details on areas of the city where this really is a problem – and we have highlighted what we call Opportunity Areas where we think technology can make a difference.

This is what we are asking the market to come up with solutions, and so what we’re looking for is digital solutions in these areas with these seven challenges – I’m really insisting on digital solutions, because in this time of COVID-19 it’s won’t be possible to deploy hardware there.


Cityscape is delighted to be covering the Urban Links Africa project with Connected Places Catapult and will be bringing interviews and insights from British stakeholders on the huge untapped potential of African smart cities as the project rolls on. To apply to the ULA scheme click here. To find out about the innovative work of one the Urban Links Africa project’s host cities, read Cityscape’s Cape Town: Global City in The Spotlight.


So how can UK innovators get involved?

NE: We are looking for joint UK-African partnerships (either UK/South Africa or UK/Kenya). The good thing is we do not need the organisations applying to already have these partnerships in place – you can apply even if you don’t have a UK or African partner. We can help match these people with the right and the most relevant stakeholder on the ground. That is important.

In the next 15 years, the 10 fastest growing cities will be in the African continent, and so this continent is growing extremely fast, faster than Europe at the time

We were initially going to deploy these technological solutions on the ground and select up to six innovations, so one per city. This has changed. Because of COVID-19 and the travel ban, it is becoming impossible to deploy any technologies in these times.

So what we did is we have enlarged the scope of the open call: we have shifted from technology deployment to solution development, that means that we’re going from a much more early stage than we were planning to. We have decided to have a two-tiered open call: because we’re not deploying, it’s not as costly for us to support these organisations, so that means that we can now select up to 15 of these partnerships, instead of six. Potentially that can be between two or three maximum per city, which is really great and really embeds the project in a post-COVID recovery programme, because we can help more companies.

And what kinds of funding can UK innovators expect?

NE: One tier will be for early-stage companies, such as start-ups, with concepts and ideas that do not necessarily exist yet. For these joint partnerships, we are able to provide them with up to £25,000 to develop this concept into a prototype. On the second tier of the open call, we are also welcoming more mature companies, fully-established SMEs for example, with existing technologies that can be applied in one of these seven challenges but still need a little bit of a tweak to be adapted to the African city context.

Ideation board, Cape Town

For these joint partnerships, we can provide up to £40,000. We have been able to pivot the project  by enlarging the scope of the open call, and so these solutions development phases can happen online and remotely. We’re still going to provide them with some technical support and business support to ensure that these solutions being developed are commercially viable.

How has the UK business sector responded to the scheme?

We had a lot of interest from the UK community straight from the beginning, because Africa is such a tough market to tackle. Deployment was very appealing, but I think even in the time when we cannot deploy there anymore, it is still relevant – so we have had the SME community validating that they were still very much interested in solution development.

I really want to emphasise this – the solutions we will be helping to develop in this project should normally lead to an implementation phase – whether that is with CPC or as a spin-off project. I am hoping by the end of this project, the 15 projects will be put in touch with investors, with international donors to continue the good work and deploy – this is really our intention here.

What are the next steps, and how does the technology selection process work?

The open call is open until 21 August, and the companies will have until that time to apply. At the end of August, we’ll bring together a judging panel that will be made up of Catapult expert, representatives from the business world and city representatives, as it is really important that they have a say in the selection of the solutions – and then we also have Challenge Ambassadors.

We are currently recruiting for what we call Challenge Experts or Ambassadors, who are local people in each of the six cities that can be the go-to person to explain to these joint partnerships that we will select how it is working locally.

Take for example waste management: we are currently looking to recruit an expert in this area for Mombasa, Kisumu etc. And these people will be taking by the hand the selected partnerships throughout the project, in order to ensure that these solutions are locally grounded, open doors and introduce the partnerships to the right people.

Nairobi, Kenya

This is really to make sure that this is viable in the target city. There are already a lot of innovative projects in these cities, and we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, but instead we want to make sure that these projects that we will be funding will be inserted in the local ecosystems.

How scalable is a project like this for the future? What does success look like from a project such as this?

We are actually already discussing more projects with the six cities, so I am confident there will be more projects, so in terms of scaling we are in discussions with three other cities in Africa, and that is Addis Abada, Kigali, and Dar es Salaam. We would like to give them a role in the project as observers, so they would be a part of the networking and the discussion with the current six cities.

We want to connect them with the UK – not just Connected Places Catapult, or Innovate UK, but also with their peers in the UK. So we are in the process of interviewing the UK cities that share these challenges, and tech hubs in the UK as well that may be able to interact with their peers on the ground – and we really want to build capacity with important information on procuring innovation, share best practices on the best way to tackle these challenges that I mentioned, and potentially also give access to potential other funders of these solutions on the platform.

This is going to be key. It’s not going to be an open public platform, just for the partners in this project and the observer cities, and hopefully this will pave the way for another Urban Links Africa in the other three cities that we’ve mentioned.


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