Workers revolved around an unfinished eight-story building in a vast field in Konza strewn with zebras and antelopes – the only visible sign of progress in a decade-old plan to make Kenya in 2030 the leading technology center in Africa .
Grandiose plans, red tape and lack of funding have left Konza Technopolis behind – the new city of $ 14.5 billion that will be built some 60 km (37 miles) southeast of Nairobi – far behind schedule with the goal of 2020 20,000 people on the spot.
"It has taken too long and I think people have gone further," says tech entrepreneur Josiah Mugambi, founder of Alba.one, a software company from Nairobi, that was initially excited by the government's ambitious project.
With the name Silicon Savannah, Konza wants to become a smart city – using technology to efficiently manage water and electricity and reduce travel time – and a solution for the fast, unscheduled urbanization that plagued existing cities.
About 40 percent of the 1 billion people in Africa live in cities and the World Bank predicts that the urban population will double in the next 25 years, which will increase the pressure on the already stretched infrastructure.
Konza's dream is to become a top center for outsourcing business processes by 2030, with on-site universities training locals to feed themselves in a 200,000 strong technically savvy staff that provides IT support and remote call center services.
But the first building has yet to be completed on the 5,000-acre former cattle farm, three years after breaking the ground, and the company has shifted its focus to other African countries, such as Rwanda, with competitive visions to become modern technical hubs.
"No one can wait so long for the construction of a city, for a tech entrepreneur they think about where their start-up will go on for two to three years", says Mugambi.
Other smart cities planned throughout Africa are Nigeria Eko Atlantic City near Lagos, which houses 250,000 people on land reclaimed from the sea, Ghana's Hope City and an Ethiopian city stylized as the real Wakanda after the film " Black Panther. "
Bringing such utopian plans to life is no easy task for African governments who have difficulty in providing adequate roads, power, water and security to their existing cities.
"Upgrading infrastructure in places like Kibera (slum) in Nairobi to provide water and a better sewage system is just as important as building a new city like Konza," said Abdu Muwonge, a senior urban specialist at the World Bank in Kenya.
Some critics say that Konza was ill-conceived from the start.
"The vision is wrong: the vision is too big," says Aly-Khan Satchu, an independent financial analyst from Nairobi.
"This is miles from anywhere, no use is made of the existing infrastructure … It is assumed that you can contribute academic knowledge, you dare to bring in venture capital, you can bring in corporates."
The first serious hurdle arose in 2012 when the National Land Commission (NLC), which manages public land, introduced a cumbersome land purchase procedure, said Bitange Ndemo, who led a team that in 2008 created Konza Technopolis.
"The NLC said that we should follow the processes of acquiring public land, which would take years to complete," Ndemo, now associate professor at the University of Nairobi, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The delays caused at least one agreement with a German university to fall through, he said, since the process was much slower than the old one where investors made deals directly with ministries that provided landleases.
To solve this, the government has transferred ownership of the site to the Konza Technopolis Development Authority (KoTDA), which was established in 2012 to coordinate the development of the new city, which now grants land to investors at 50-year-old renewable leases.
Financing has also proved to be a major problem.
In its strategic plan, the government promised to finance 10 per cent of Konza, while building the infrastructure, while the private sector would bring in the rest of the money to build universities, offices, homes and hotels.
But the government slowly made its contribution and still has to pass a law to create KoTDA as a legal entity that would make it easier to sign contracts with external lenders, said Lawrence Esho, one of Konza's project planners until 2013.
"They are far behind schedule, partly because the government took the time to give Konza money," he said, adding that there was no money until 2013.
"This stopped working from the start of the site and investors may have developed cold feet while they waited."
The CEO of KoTDA, John Tanui, said the government has pledged to invest more than 80 billion shillings ($ 780 million).
"When I say that being committed does not mean we have absorbed, our absorption is less than 10 percent of that figure," he said, without elaborating.
The government has stepped up funding since 2017, said Abraham Odeng, deputy secretary of the Ministry of Information and Technology of Kenya, without giving any figures.
Odeng pointed to a contract of 40 billion shillings, signed in 2017 with an Italian company to build roads, water and sewerage infrastructure by 2021, financed by the Italian government.
"That's a concessional loan, which is a long-term loan that the Kenyan government will pay," he said.
Come in the ocean
But Kenya's growing dependence on loans is causing itch, with the International Monetary Fund warning of an increased risk of default.
The Washington-based lender predicts that total government debt in Kenya will reach 63 percent of economic output or GDP by 2018, against 53 percent in 2016, citing government investment in investment and revenue shortages.
The Muwonge of the World Bank said that the problem of solving challenges for the private sector to do business is taking away.
"To get Konza city off the ground, we need to attract private capital with concessions for them to offer certain types of infrastructure for which the government may have no resources," he said.
Five local investors, including Nairobi-based software developer Craft Silicon and the state-run Kenyan electricity transport company, are expected to build offices, residential buildings and hotels by 2020, said KoTDA director Tanui.
But critics say it is not enough.
"What (investors) have allocated so far is still a drop in the ocean," said Ndemo, the former government technocrat.
And international interest is shifting elsewhere.
Rwanda – widely regarded as the least corrupt country in East Africa – launched its Kigali Innovation City in 2015, designed to house 50,000 people in universities and technical companies on 70-hectare grounds outside the capital.
The $ 2 billion plan to be completed in 2020 is seven times cheaper than Konza.
"All these other cities have better proximity, better density and better feedback frequencies," says financial analyst Satchu. "We now have a serious disadvantage compared to these other countries."
($ 1 = 102,5000 Kenyan shilling)