The Struggle to Build an American Suburb in Uganda
Akright City promised an alternative to the African cities once designed for the colonial elite. But it has become something it was never meant to be.
The neat row of homes on Avocado Lane are nearly identical – two-bedroom red-roofed houses with SUVs in their driveways and welcome mats on their doorsteps. Toys lie scattered on lawns and in the distance you can hear the low buzz of a lawn mower chomping through the tall grass.
If you think this sounds like an American suburb, you’re about 8,000 miles off.
Welcome to Akright City, Uganda.
In many ways, Akright City, 15 miles from the capital city Kampala, feels like the anti-African city, a polo-wearing, golf-playing suburban inversion of the continent’s teeming metropolises. And that is exactly the point. Akright, like other private cities sprouting up across the Africa in recent years, offers a tantalizing answer to the question of how to fix the continent’s creaking colonial cities: Give up. Start Over.
It’s a trend repeated across the continent, from Johannesburg’s Steyn City – a walled town twice the size of Monaco – to Lagos’ Eko Atlantic, a beachfront cluster of skyscrapers and condos that bills itself as Africa’s Dubai. Private cities are not unique to Africa, but they have special significance on a continent where most urban infrastructure was designed for a long-gone colonial elite, rather than the millions who now crowd in searching for economic opportunity. By some calculations, this is the world’s fastest urbanizing region, and from Dar es Salaam to Luanda, its overtaxed cities are ill-equipped to keep up. By grafting entirely new cities onto the edges of these metropolises, their builders say they can leap-frog the region’s development challenges and create outposts of first-world luxury on the world’s poorest continent.
“I’m selling people a future – this place attracts people with a vision,” says Anatoli Kamugisha, the wiry, energetic founder of Akright City, surveying his half-finished development from a nearby hilltop. And it still takes great imagination to envision all he hopes will one day exist here – schools and shopping malls, factories and tech firms. Still, the promise holds great sway. “Many of the people who live here have come from places with no good roads, no reliable water or electricity [on the grid] – what we call rich man’s slums – and they’re running from those haphazard developments to stay for the first time in an organized living environment.”
But private cities like Akright are not without significant controversy. On a continent where the world’s poorest jostle up against an increasingly prosperous middle class, many say that massive private developments only exacerbate already-gaping economic divides, allowing the rich to opt out of urban institutions while leaving the poor to manage with increasingly overburdened public infrastructure and services. Without their wealthy, after all, cities may find it even more difficult to finance the development they need to bring up the standard of living for the very poorest.
A large-scale exodus of the rich is still a distant future in Kampala, but it isn’t hard to imagine. Like its cousins across the continent, the city is absorbing new arrivals far more quickly than it knows what to do with them. A picturesque city poured over central Uganda’s rolling green hills, Kampala’s current population of 2 million is expected to grow to more than 10 million in the next 20 years, according to the World Bank. That trend is being driven by a simple logic: This is where the money is. Nearly 70 percent of Uganda’s non-agricultural GDP is generated in cities, which also have lower rates of poverty and higher living standards than rural areas.
But the influx of new residents is putting massive pressure on housing. Nearly two thirds of Kampala residents live in shack settlements slumped precariously on the city’s hills, and the city currently has a housing shortage of at least 100,000 units – a figure expected to grow to 1 million units within two decades, according to the Uganda Human Settlements Network.
“There’s a breaking point to it. We can’t just continue packing more and more people into this town indefinitely,” says Brent Potts, the Uganda country director of Habitat for Humanity.
Kamugisha agrees. In 2001, he bought a 1,200-acre plot of overgrown land halfway between Kampala and Entebbe, where the country’s international airport is located, and set about transforming it into a city in what he calls the “Singaporean model”: tidy, green, efficient. Residents, he imagined, would live in the city and work there – in office parks, shopping malls, and factories – putting the chaos and gridlock of Kampala squarely behind them.
But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Today, neighborhoods with dreamy names like “California Village,” “New World Village,” and “European Village” stand less than half full. Soaring mansions sit beside gaping construction sites, many on roads that are little more than a gash of dirt cut into the hillside. A lush golf course stands completely empty on a recent afternoon. Midway through the project, the money dried up, and many of Akright’s more grandiose components were abandoned, including a massive call centre that once ambitiously promised to help Uganda displace India as the world’s outsourcing darling. Kamugisha promises the slowdown is only temporary.
For now, however, Akright has transformed into exactly what it was never meant to be: a bedroom suburb for Kampala, home to ambassadors, ministers, and other civil servants with the patience to make the lurching commute into town, which can last two hours each way during rush hour.
“Life is more or less like Europe: it’s enclosed, we don’t see our neighbors, everyone goes away during the day,” says Grace Amoah, who has lived in Akright for a decade and runs a small convenience store here, one of the few businesses open on a recent afternoon. “They want more people to come here, but I think the distances are too far, it’s too expensive.”
For all its talk of isolated, first-world living, in certain ways Akright’s development has followed a familiar Ugandan script.
“When you build for the rich [in Uganda], the poor will follow,” Potts says, to build and clean houses for the wealthy, water the gardens, and mind the children.
In Akright, like Kampala, there was never a plan for those people, who have settled increasingly in clusters of shacks along the city’s flanks. Now, with Akright’s prospects uncertain, so are theirs.
“We’re scared for the future. We feel we could be evicted at any time,” says Eva Amutahaire, who came to Akright 10 years ago from rural western Uganda. At first, she says, life on the fringes of the private city was not bad – there were jobs to be had painting houses, washing clothes, and cleaning the soaring houses nearby. But slowly, that work dried up. Now she sells fruit by the side of the road to men stumbling out of the local bar and sun-flushed construction workers trudging home from a day of building. Each day, she turns a profit of about 3,000 shillings – less than $1.
“We are a mix of people here: the ones working, the ones waiting, and the ones stealing,” she says, shrugging. “When there’s nothing else for you, you have to do something to survive.”
Ryan Lenora Brown traveled to Uganda to report on this story with the International Women’s Media Foundation.