Africa’s New Cities Summit

by | Nov 20, 2023 | Blog

Africa stands on the brink of a profound urban transformation, poised to add 1 billion people to its cities by the year 2050. Projections suggest that by 2100, the continent will host 13 of the world’s most populous urban centers, up from just two today. This demographic change will necessitate not only the expansion of existing cities but the creation of entirely new ones too.

The construction of new cities was the focus of Africa’s New Cities Summit, which took place last week in Kigali, Rwanda. The event brought together developers, builders, governments, and academics under the auspices of the Charter Cities Institute (CCI), an organization that shares the Free Cities Foundation’s goal of promoting autonomous cities.

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CCI’s Africa Lead Mwanda Phiri moderates a panel discussion

CCI advocates for the development of ‘Charter Cities’: new urban centers built on greenfield land endowed with wide-ranging authority in areas including labor law, business procedures, education, and tax. They argue that granting cities autonomy will enable them to generate economic growth and tailor governance to local conditions.

Africa New Cities Summit Map

In line with CCI’s goals, the summit convened representatives of around a dozen aspiring new cities from across Africa, each possessing a degree of devolved authority. The continent has established more than 200 special economic zones since the 2000s, and several of the projects were located within them. They included:


  • Fumba Town (Zanzibar): A development in one of Zanzibar’s Free Economic Zones that aspires to create a knowledge economy while promoting affordable and eco-friendly housing. The zone has already secured $85 million in investment, built 600 residential units, and created 500 local jobs.
  • Kigali Innovation City (Rwanda): A 62-hectare walkable and mixed-use technology hub that aims to spearhead Rwanda’s economic development goals. It integrates universities, offices, housing, and support services with a focus on creating a connected ecosystem.
  • Enyimba Economic City (Nigeria): A tax and duty-free special economic zone that spans 9400 hectares and aims to position Nigeria as a manufacturing and industrial powerhouse. CCI helped to draft the zone’s regulations, which were subsequently approved into law.
  • Itana (Nigeria): Nigeria’s first Digital Free Zone where businesses can incorporate remotely and receive access to incentives, one-stop-shop services, and a business-friendly regulatory environment.
  • Gaius King Smart City (Zambia): A new cross-border city that aims to become the industrial and economic hub for mining communities at the crossroads of Zambia, Angola, and the DRC.
  • Maluku Preserve City (DRC): An aspiring charter city in Kinshasa that aims to become a place where people, ideas, technologies, and industries converge in a sustainable urban environment.
  • Small Farm Cities Africa (Malawi): A project that blends agriculture with affordable housing, combining open-field horticulture, fish farming, and poultry with privately-titled land. CEO Jon Vandenheuvel used the summit to announce plans to expand the development to accommodate a community of 100,000 people.
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Kigali Innovation City

Small Farm Cities Africa Overhead View

Small Farm Cities Africa

The range of projects featured at the summit was impressive and presentations were marked by a pragmatic rather than ideological tone. The importance of market solutions, public-private partnerships and streamlined bureaucracy were recurring themes.

CCI founder Mark Lutter emphasized the need for Africa to glean lessons from successful autonomous cities worldwide, citing Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, and Shenzhen as examples. He argued that these cities achieved success by establishing robust institutions that upheld property rights, took a liberal approach to international trade and foreign direct investment, and limited the role of central planning.

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Mark Lutter speaks on the importance of learning lessons from successful new cities

Patrick Lamson-Hall, the master planner of Ciudad Morazán, stressed the importance of flexible urban plans. “It’s not our job to pick economic winners. It’s our job to remove the bottlenecks that allow winners to emerge on their own,” he argued. Tipolis Chief Strategy Officer Andreas Baumgartner stressed the importance of cultivating win-win relationships with governments and putting in place effective dispute resolution mechanisms.

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Andreas Baumgartner (second from right) takes part in panel discussion on investing in new cities

Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade delivered a powerful speech emphasizing the importance of removing regulatory barriers that stand in the way of African innovation. Mwaka Mukubesa from Zambia’s Finance Ministry underscored the importance of Public-Private Partnerships in developing effective infrastructure for new cities.

While the summit highlighted the substantial urbanization challenges that Africa faces, it also left me with a sense of optimism about its new cities’ ability to meet them. The fact that so many officials and business leaders traveled from across the continent to attend a charter cities event demonstrated a willingness to explore city autonomy as a catalyst for positive change.

For advocates of Free Cities, the growth in number of special economic zones across Africa, and their increasing degree of liberalization, should be seen as an encouraging sign. As these zones continue to evolve, they pave the way for a more promising urban landscape in Africa—one marked by greater innovation, adaptability, and prosperity.

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Tipolis CSO Andreas Baumgartner is working to develop Free Cities