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Mixed reviews for Kilamba Kiaxi, Angola’s giant city of the future

A flagship project of Angola’s former president José Eduardo dos Santos era, the ‘new city’, located on the outskirts of the capital Luanda, has not lived up to all its promises. However, projects of this type are multiplying, encouraged by the current president, João Lourenço. 

All African cities are looking for solutions to manage their growth. Luanda, Angola’s capital, which is home to almost a third of the country’s 33 million inhabitants, is no exception to the rule. In recent years, the creation of ‘new centralities’ (novas centralidades in Portuguese) has multiplied on the outskirts of the metropolis and the other provinces of the lusophone world’s oil giant.

This movement started by former president José Eduardo dos Santos, who was in power from 1979 to 2017, has continued with his successor João Lourenço, and for good reason. In Angola, as elsewhere on the continent, the demographic boom and galloping urbanisation are generating a growing need for housing, which Angolan authorities intend to meet by building new cities.

The flagship of this policy is Kilamba Kiaxi, which was created by the Chinese group Citic, about 30 km from Luanda. The giant city of 20,000 flats is visible from afar due to its size and the bright colours delineating the different blocks of buildings. It was inaugurated in July 2011 with great pomp by President dos Santos, shortly before the 2012 general elections.

A trailblazing project

At the time, Kilamba Kiaxi, an African trailblazer in terms of its scale, was presented as a solution to the housing deficit for an emerging middle class. The reality turned out to be more complex. After a difficult start, notably because of high property prices, the city finally came to life and even expanded with the construction of 5,000 additional homes. However, its growth was thwarted by the economic crisis, caused by the fall in oil prices, which hit the country between 2014 and 2016. Since then, Kilamba has regained momentum and continues to inspire many Angolans, despite its limitations.

During its early days, the city was sometimes referred to as a ghost town or a white elephant, but has still managed to beat the odds. Almost fully occupied and connected to water and electricity, Kilamba Kiaxi has become one of the Angolan capital’s districts in its own right, with local administration and police, health centres and sports fields, a huge supermarket, a few local shops and street vendors.

“In Angola, there is no better offer in terms of nurseries and schools,” says one resident, pointing to the infrastructure nestled in the centre of each block of buildings. To make the area more attractive, authorities have relocated certain public services and even university classes to the area, as well as adding a church, a shopping centre and a hotel. “Kilamba is less and less a commuter town,” says one resident who has lived there since 2013. “Even if everything isn’t perfect, those of us who live here are happy to be the envy of many, proof of the city’s attractiveness.”

Lower sales prices

Before reaching this point, however, two major things occurred. The first was a 30% to 40% reduction in the sale price of flats. Put on the market from $120,000 to $200,000 for three to five-room flats, these apartments only found takers a year later, after the state offered a rent-to-own scheme with a preferential interest rate, reducing the price of the smallest flat from $120,000 to $84,000. This programme was costly for the state, but paved the way for the arrival of many civil servants.

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The second aspect concerns the management of the housing stock. It was initially entrusted to the private company Delta Imobiliaria and then handed over to Sonip, a subsidiary dedicated to national oil company Sonangol’s real estate investments. The program was later entrusted to the private company Imogestin for marketing, alongside the Housing Support Fund – which is part of the ministry of public works – for the collection of rent. Although the system seems to have stabilised, there is still room for improvement, with the fund struggling to collect certain sums due…

Kilamba has a mixed record. “While the project is a success on the social front since it expanded access to property, that is not the case from an economic perspective,” says Allan Cain, an architect who heads Development Workshop, an NGO specialising in urban planning, and is the author of several studies on Angola’s new cities.

Kilamba Kiaxi’s first phase, which cost $3.5bn, was financed by Chinese loans repaid through Angolan oil sales. This was “an expensive system that increased Angola’s debt, without the country managing to make a profit on its investment”, says Cain, an architect who has been living in Luanda for more than 40 years. Aside from this was the ongoing criticism during the construction phase over the massive use of Chinese labour instead of Angolan workers.

Mitrelli wins $750m contract

In addition to these difficulties, two other problems have long been criticised. First of all, although wide avenues provide access to the entrance of the district, no public transport network has been planned to serve it, forcing inhabitants to spend a large part of their income on petrol, group taxis or individual transport services. “Without a car, your life is hell,” says one resident, who limits his weekly outings to manage his budget.

On the other hand, while the project was supposed to meet the housing needs of the majority, it has in fact benefited only a certain category of people, the middle class, even though the stated goal of Kilamba Kiaxi was to provide social housing. “The problem of housing for the poorest, who are the majority of the population, remains,” says Cain. According to official statistics, 42% of Angolans live without access to drinking water and 60% without sanitation.

This context explains why other ‘new city’ projects are ongoing throughout the country. In late December 2022, the government awarded a $750m contract to the Israeli group Mitrelli, which has long been present in Angola, for the construction of 4,500 homes in two provinces (Malanje and Kwanza Norte). It already validated another $730m contract with the same group in May 2021 to build some 5,000 homes in three other provinces (Kunene, Bengo and Cabinda).

Have the lessons from the Kilamba Kiaxi experience been taken into account? At the June 2022 inauguration of another project – 3,000 homes that will be part of a 20,000-person residential area in the Huambo region – Mitrelli said the construction site had created 2,000 direct jobs locally. Explaining that it had carried out the project in collaboration with the future inhabitants, the group insisted on the services available (education, health, security, etc.) and on the social support planned to facilitate settlement.

Source: The Africa Report