The Promota Magazine
Angola’s Chinese- built ghost town
The ghost towns of China, Ireland and Spain – full of large empty house estates – may be a phenomenon that is on its way to Africa.
Built for people who never move in, they leave those who did with a worthless property they cannot sell.
Perched in an isolated spot some 30km (18 miles) outside Angola’s capital, Luanda, Nova Cidade de Kilamba is a brand-new mixed residential development of 750 eight-storey apartment buildings, a dozen schools and more than 100 retail units.
Designed to house up to half a million people when complete, Kilamba has been built by the state-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC) in under three years at a reported cost of $3.5bn (£2.2bn).
Spanning 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres), the development is the largest of several new “satellite cities” being constructed by Chinese firms around Angola, and it is believed to be one of the largest new-build projects on the continent.
The jewel in Angola’s post-war reconstruction crown, Kilamba is the star of glossy government promotional videos which show smiling families enjoying a new style of living away from the dust and confusion of central Luanda where millions live in sprawling slums.
But the people in these films are only actors, and despite all the hype, nearly a year since the first batch of 2,800 apartments went on sale, only 220 have been sold.
When you visit Kilamba, you cannot help but wonder if even a third of those buyers have moved in yet.
The place is eerily quiet, voices bouncing off all the fresh concrete and wide-open tarred roads.
There are hardly any cars and even fewer people, just dozens of repetitive rows of multi-coloured apartment buildings, their shutters sealed and their balconies empty.
Only a handful of the commercial units are occupied, mostly by utility companies, but there are no actual shops on site, and so – with the exception of a new hypermarket located at one entrance – there is nowhere to buy food.
After driving around for nearly 15 minutes and seeing no-one apart from Chinese labourers, many of whom appear to live in containers next to the site, I came across a tiny pocket of life at a school.
It opened six months ago, bussing in its pupils in from outlying areas because there are no children living on site to attend.
One student, a 17-year-old called Sebastiao Antonio – who spends nearly three hours a day in traffic getting to and from classes from his home 15km away – told me how much he liked the city.
“I really like this place – it’s got car parking, places for us to have games like football, basketball and handball,” he said.
“It’s very quiet, much calmer than the other city, there’s no criminality.”
But when I asked if he and his family would move there, he just laughed.
“No way, we can’t afford this. It’s impossible. And there is no work for my parents here,” he said.
His sentiments were echoed by Jack Franciso, 32, who started work at Kilamba as a street sweeper four months ago.
“Yes, it’s a nice place for sure,” he said.
But then he sighed: “To live here, you need a lot of money. People like us don’t have money like that to be able to live here.”
And therein lies the problem.
Apartments at Kilamba are being advertised online costing between $120,000 and $200,000 – well out of reach of the estimated two-thirds of Angolans who live on less than $2 a day.
However, Paulo Cascao, general Manager at Delta Imobiliaria, the real estate agency handling the sales, told the BBC that the problem was not the price, but difficulty in accessing bank credit.
“The prices are correct for the quality of the apartments and for all the conditions that the city can offer,” he said.
“The sales are going slowly due to the difficulty in obtaining mortgages.”
A new legal frame work has recently been introduced to allow local banks to give mortgages, but for the majority of Angolans, even the few with well-paid office jobs, just finding enough cash for a deposit would be a struggle.
“The government needs to start giving priority to building low-cost housing because great majority of the population live in shacks with no water, electricity or sanitation,” Elias Isaac, country director at the Angolan Office of the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA), told the BBC.
“There is no middle class in Angola, just the very poor and the very rich, and so there is no-one to buy these sorts of houses.”
According to Mr Cascao, the government has recently announced a portion of the apartments at Kilamba will be designated social housing, which people on low incomes can rent long-term at low prices.
No-one is quite sure how that scheme will work or who will be eligible, and cynics have dismissed it as a vote-winning stunt ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on 31 August.
There is also the issue of what will happen to all the full-cost apartments if they do not sell.
Kilamba was financed by a Chinese credit line – which Angola is repaying with oil – so it has technically been paid for.
But if the houses go unsold, then the Angolan government will be left with stock on their hands and a potentially wasted investment.
Manuel Clemente Junior, Angola’s deputy construction minister, staunchly defended the scheme and said it would definitely be a success – although he seemed convinced it was possible to purchase a flat for $80,000, much cheaper than is advertised.
“It is with absolute certainty, an excellent project,” he told the BBC.
Responding to the complaints about Kilamba’s isolated location, he said: “There are always people who criticise but thanks to the new highways which are being built, as a location it is only going to be about 15 to 20 minutes from the city centre.”
The city of Kilamba is a government flagship project that goes some way to helping President Jose Eduardo dos Santos fulfil his famous 2008 election pledge to build one million homes in four years.
Allan Cain, head of Angolan non-government organisation Development Workshop that specialises in urban poverty alleviation, has welcomed the investment, but has some reservations.
“What we have been advocating for is a programme of upgrading in situ where people are living now, something which is considered to be international best practice,” he said.
“I don’t think many places in the world can afford actually to displace and re-house whole populations of cities.”
By Louise Redvers Kilamba, Angola