Natasha’s alarm rings, waking her up. It’s 5am (CAT), April 7th 2035. She gives a slight sigh. Her husband, Musa, is already up and working out in their living room. Natasha takes a quick shower, kisses Musa goodbye and rushes off to work. The couple lives in Salaam, a 10-year-old private city in Tanzania.
Natasha and Musa moved to Uhuru as students, and both enrolled into fast-tracked degree programmes at Explorer Academy. Musa studied civil engineering, while Natasha studied computer science. Their programs lasted two years, after which they graduated and were placed into jobs by Explorer Academy. Their education was funded 100 percent by the Explore Fund, an income sharing fund that finances the education of students at the Academy. Musa and Natasha paid nothing at all for their accredited degree programs. They didn’t have to worry about their first jobs either, because that was always going to be sorted out for them by the Academy.
Having graduated, the Academy placed Natasha into a junior software development role working for a tech start-up based in San Francisco. She’s been working with this start-up for the last 4 years, during which she’s been promoted twice. Like her co-workers, she participates in equity-based compensation, and when she travels to the head office has the same perks as her other co-workers; the key distinction is she’s technically a “resident contractor” working remotely. This works great for her, and her employer. She gets a great job, equity in the company, and loads of world class exposure. Her employer’s upside; Natasha’s cheap—she doesn’t live in the Bay Area or the U.S. where the cost of living is significantly higher than it is in Uhuru. She’s paid approximately 30 percent of her peers; salaries; earning US$60,000 as a senior developer versus ~US$200,000 in the Bay Area. May seem unfair at first glance, but that’s about 12x Tanzania’s GDP per capita in 2035. Natasha is in the 90th percentile of earners.
Musa also works remotely for a global civil engineering group. At the moment he’s working on a bridge design for a project in Thailand. The project is a turnkey being designed and developed by a British civil EPC. Musa’s been working on the project for 6 months, largely from Uhuru, but travelling frequently to Thailand and the U.K. Like Natasha, he’s a resident contractor; he’s significantly cheaper than British civil engineers but produces work at the same level. He supervises some Thai resident engineers who are on the ground building the bridge. Musa and Natasha are not the unique exception in Uhuru, most of the city’s 100,000 residents are Explorer Academy graduates.
Explorer Academy was founded by Frontier Cities, an Africa focused city developer. The company was founded to build a network of cities across Africa; with the ultimate goal of building a network of cities with a community of >500 million persons. However, its founders realized pretty quickly that whilst the continent needed a great many new cities to accommodate the population growth that was crystalizing there, it was equally important to build GDP too. To them it seemed pretty natural that educating and employing people was the quickest way to build GDP; the question was what would these people do? What would the economic network they would be building actually produce? The answer was a mix of things. First off, all things being equal markets would figure out what to produce and would have to be allowed to do so. However, in the meantime people would have to be empowered. The founders figured that educating people to a world class level and having them work for increasingly global businesses based elsewhere was a sensible way to allow the network effect to build GDP.
The principle ideas behind Explorer Academy were simple; (a) provide a world class education to as many people as possible (b) find those people global jobs where they earn US Dollars, Euros, Yen or RMB (c) make the education free for the students while they study (d) keep the burden of repayment low and limited to a very limited number of years. Degrees would be cut to between 2-2.5yrs in length, with only 28 days of holiday each year. The goal would be to keep the cost of education as low as possible, and get people working as soon as possible.
Since students would be graduating every year, the pool of labor being placed into global roles would be growing every year as new graduates entered it. The financial incentive of an initially free education and the lack of the frustrations of questionable teaching quality, potential stoppages to semesters due to political issues at the national level, and the lack of certainty with regards to jobs post-graduation made this a no brainer for would be students. What students wanted were jobs, international experience and great economics; Explorers Academy gave them that. The alternative was a lot of uncertainty. As a consequence of this, enrollment numbers were always far higher than the Academy had capacity for.
Natasha drove into the parking lot of the office building that she worked out of. She parked her car, walked to the entrance of the building, checked-in using Vonsay and eventually got to her desk on the tenth floor. The whole of the tenth floor was dedicated to staff that also worked for her employer. About 40 people at the moment. She got to her desk, and immediately got to work. The building was owned by an affiliate of Explorer Academy and leased the space to Explorer Academy, which then placed its graduates in hundreds of buildings like this one across the various cities in which it had campuses. One of Explorer Academy’s community managers was resident in the building, and was walking towards Natasha’s desk, the two had become friends over the years. Her name was Tumelo.
Tumelo walked over to Natasha’s desk and brought over a latté, “you look like you needed this!” she exclaimed. “Yes, I actually did…took me a while to get out of bed today. I’m jealous of Musa, he gets to stay in today.”
Tumelo was responsible for checking in on the community of graduates in this particular building, organizing events for them, and ensuring their careers were progressing in line with agreed-to plans. She was one of thousands of community managers posted across many buildings across the burgeoning network of cities. Frontier Cities now had well over 20 cities across 7 countries, with about 3 million people living in them. Tumelo perched onto Natasha’s desk, “you know you’re about 6 months away from another promotion.”
Natasha looked at her and gave a brief sigh. “Yes, I know. But I have this project that I’m working on, and I just don’t know if we can deliver it in time — it’s pretty complex.”
Tumelo was thumbing through her phone. “Well, you’ve had great feedback from your supervisor thus far, just yesterday they said to me they’re happy with the progress. But you need to…”
The conversation went on. Tumelo was trying to get Natasha to be less involved in the intricacies of her work and focus on the managerial aspects — how to get her team to increase its output all together. As she looked through the feedback on Natasha on Class Guru, the Academy’s core platform, it was clear what direction the employer wanted Natasha to go. The question was whether that’s what Natasha wanted. “Look, to be frank, what the guys want you to do is work your way towards becoming a senior product manager. They think you’re a great software developer, but your perspective on the entire product chain impresses everyone.”
Natasha didn’t seem surprised. “Yeah. I’ve been getting that vibe from them for the last several months, it’s just that I love to code. Product is great, but I’m not sure it’s what I want. I’ll let you know next week.”
The system that Explorers Academy had put together wasn’t novel. It was an integration of various verticals that were being popularized at the time. Income Sharing Agreements by Lambda School, Africa focused global placements by Andela, and Afro-futurist education by ALU — an Africa-focused university. What was unique was the integration of these elements into a platform for job creation within private cities; as part of a broader governance as a service product. This was new. Frontier Cities founders new they had to execute. Creating an actively deployed pool of labor that earned hard currency, and had significant purchasing power would create economic anchorage for their network of cities. This purchasing power would create a basis for demand for goods and services that others would satisfy; the markets would be given the space to deliver to demand, that which it sought. The ever-growing number of African children being born would have some semblance of hope that they would have a better future. The rest of the world would turn Africa into its factory for high skilled non-factory work; at least in Frontier Cities’ network.
Natasha and Musa’s stories started in very humble circumstances. Natasha was born in a village near Arusha, and Musa was born in a township in Dar-es-Salaam. They both attended public schools and were consistently top of their classes. When they graduated they had two options available to them. They could attend public universities, or the emergent private universities that were now present in most large cities across the continent. They considered both options seriously. Unfortunately, neither of their parents had the resources to afford the private route. Which left the highly competitive public universities as their only path forward. While their grades were great, space was limited; and bursaries and scholarships especially so. To be so close, yet so far was devastating.
Natasha was walking towards a bus station when she saw a billboard advertising the Explorer Academy. “Free university education, your future awaits you.” She scratched her head — “free?” She was doubtful. It seemed too good to be true — but there it was, exactly what she needed. She took note of the number on the billboard and called the Academy.
Musa sat frustrated on the beach. He watched as planes flew tourists from Dar to Zanzibar and back. His eyes peering into the blue of the sky, depressed that he wouldn’t get a chance to be one of those bwanas [bosses] flying into Zanzibar for a holiday, staying at the Park Hyatt that he had heard was once the Sultan of Oman’s private palace on the island. “Well that’s how life is, people like me shouldn’t even bother dreaming,” he said to himself.
As he was lamenting he heard a foreign accent. Some young lady wearing a shirt with an “Explorer Academy” logo on it was walking towards his direction. She seemed too old to be a high school student, she was walking with another lady, and it seemed like they were talking about some engineering-type stuff. Musa had been reading a little on civil engineering as he prepared to go to university, so he could vaguely make out what they were talking about. It was about some buildings in the city. “Excuse me, miss, He said. “Sorry to listen-in to your conversation, but I’m wondering where you work or study — I noticed you are discussing engineering matters.”
The lady smiled enthusiastically. “Oh yes, we’re chatting about a project we’re working on. We’re Civil Engineering students at Explorer Academy. We’re in Dar for the weekend to work on the project. We live in Uhuru, on campus there.”
“Ah I see. Ok carry on then, I was thinking maybe I could potentially work with you to get some experience as construction worker. I recently graduated, and applied for university, but there is too much competition and I don’t have confidence I will be accepted. But guessing by your attire, I cannot afford your university either.”
Jess looked at Audrey, and they both smiled. Musa was confused, “why are they smiling at each other?” He asked himself. “Are they amused by my situation?”
Jess pointed at her shirt. “Explorer Academy, this school — is free. Anyone can attend it. As long as your grades are good enough, they’ll take you. When you graduate, they’ll find you a job in your area of study. They’ll take a portion of your pay to cover the cost of your education. But after 6 years — you’re done.” Musa was shocked. He didn’t expect this turn of events. He now had a path forward. He had a future. “How do I apply?” Musa asked.
Musa turned on his TV and switched to BBC World News. There was an election in Thailand and he was keeping himself updated with events there. He liked to get inside the cultures of the places where he built structures. As he sat back, he looked at the pictures on the wall next to the TV. His wedding photos, him and Natasha on their honeymoon, pictures of both of them in their respective freshman years. He couldn’t believe his luck. Musa and Natasha lived in a two-bedroom apartment with a view of the ocean.
Uhuru had been built about an hour and a half outside of Dar. It was developed in what had previously been a bush area with nothing much going on. In a few short years it had begun to bustle with life. Its initial residents were a mix of people that were looking to leave the megacity that Dar had become and Explorer graduates. It was the equivalent of Uber building a city for all its drivers in the outskirts of a city like San Francisco. Natasha and Musa had bought this apartment on a mortgage about two years after she graduated. They had been married about a year at the time. They’d had their parents and siblings over, and everyone was proud of their achievements. Their siblings had also enrolled at Explorer Academy, the possibility of a better future was a proposition no one was prepared to say no to. Musa’s TV blinked for a moment, Jacob’s at the door — it signalled. Musa went to the door and opened it, Jacob his co-worker walked in. “How’s it going man!” he exclaimed.
Jacob was a senior civil engineer working with the same group that Musa worked with. “Man, we need to talk! I just got off the phone with my community manager. Wild — conversation!!”
Musa stood there expressionless. “Ookaaay. Whats happening, what’s new?”
Jacob smiled, “a couple things. First off, I’ll be moving to a new city. Secondly, I’ll be helping set up a local office for the firm. Looks like they’ll be setting up in Kenya and will cover East Africa from there. They’ll be based in New Turkana, Frontier’s new city up there in Kenya. EA will help them with initial recruitment, and I’ve been designated lead for the new office. Would you like to join the effort?”
Musa was thrilled at the news, “Wow! This is big man, congrats! I’d love to be part of setting up a new office, I’d gain a lot from the exposure, but I need to see my project in Thailand through. Still, I’ll chat to Tash about it. She’s built up a team here so she’d have to think this through quite a bit, it’s a lot of change. It’s exciting, but I’ll have to get back to you.”
Jacob was still standing, looking at the TV as Musa spoke with him. “Hey man, I understand — I can see you’re following things in Thailand quite closely so I get that you want to see this through. Think about it and let me know. Anyways, I have to dash out, thought to talk to you about this.”
Musa walked him to the door, and watched as his car drove him off to wherever he was going. A calendar notification went off on the TV screen — lunch with Tash at the marina in 20 minutes. Musa took a shower, got onto his car — how’s the traffic today he asked — “not bad, ETA in 10 minutes,” the car responded.
I find that stories can be useful way to describe the sort of future we want to build. Africa today is poor yet growing. It has great promise but all too often is ill-governed. The work we are doing, building cities, is an attempt to change that narrative. Building new cities offers entrepreneurs the sort opportunity often only available to those who seek public office. The ability to build and frame a society from the ground up. Building not only homes, and much needed infrastructure, but also employment and the institutions necessary to make the society thrive. Building cities isn’t only about the hardware, or even the potential application of cutting edge software — it’s about building GDP and making people’s dreams come true. It’s about making it possible for a little girl, and a little boy whose dreams may otherwise be quenched instead thrive, giving them the opportunity to be whoever they want to be, and to inspire others in the process.