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Remember Kinshasa Traffic Robots? Can They Be A Solution To Africa’s Traffic Problem?

Kinshasa Traffic Robots
A typical traffic gridlock in Lagos State, Nigeria (Photo credit: Daily Trust)

Kinshasa is the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is also the most populous city in Africa, with an estimated population of 15 million. Like most other megacities in the continent, Kinshasa has one major problem, traffic congestion.

The rise in the number of car owners and the sometimes narrow and dilapidated road conditions make navigating these cities a hassle. Lagos is another megacity in Africa that is notorious for its traffic congestion. In fact, it is estimated that Lagos commuters spend 75% of their working hours in traffic every week.

Not surprisingly, the death toll and accident-related injury reports are equally staggering. The Federal Road Safety Corp which is the lead traffic agency in Lagos city reports a total of  101 deaths and 625 injuries between January and August this year.

Attempts to Curb Traffic Congestion in Major Cities

Several methods have been adopted to curb the rising traffic problems in Lagos. These include banning commercial motorcycles on major roads and enforcing stricter traffic laws. However, this only seems to have a minor impact on the state of Lagos traffic.

Lagos commuters are not the only ones going through this plight. Residents of major African cities like Cairo, Johannesburg, and East London share the same plight daily. According to the global indexing site, TomTom, Cairo is the 30th most congested city out of 416 cities indexed on its website.

To solve its traffic problem, Kinshasa authorities took a different and much more innovative approach with an 8 ft tall humanoid robot known as the Kinshasa Traffic Robot. But can this be the solution to the traffic problems in Africa?

The Brain Behind The Kinshasa Traffic Robot

Therese Kirongozi - Inventor of Kinshasa Traffic Robot
Thérèse Izay Kirongozi with one half of her Robot cop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Congolese industrial engineer, Thérèse Izay Kirongozi is the brain behind the Kinshasa traffic robot project. A native of Kinshasa, Kirongozi lost her brother in a motor accident at an early age and since then, she developed an interest in traffic safety. But, this wasn’t her only motivation. Kirongozi was aiming for more than traffic regulation in Kinshasa’s busy roads. According to her, traffic defaulters can easily bribe their way out when arrested by traffic cops.

This means that many of these violators go unpunished for their crimes. So she designed her robots to be capable of regulating traffic flow and also taking traffic footage. Kirongozi is working with a team of engineers from her alma mater the Higher Institute of Applied Technique. Together the team hopes to bring some serenity to the chaotic roads of Kinshasa and beyond.

Introducing The Kinshasa Traffic Robot

Kinshasa Traffic Robot
Kisanga is one of the five traffic robots in Kinshasa (Photo credit: @westewille via Twitter)

At 8 ft 2 in (about 2.5 meters) tall, the Kinshasa traffic robots are anything but inconspicuous. Each robot weighs about 250 kg. The robot has two segments, the upper and the lower segment. The upper segment consists of the head and chest. This houses most of the electronic equipment like the camera and the robot arms on which the traffic lights are mounted.

The lower segment is mostly stationary and acts as a support base for the robot. The housing is made of aluminum which is an excellent material for the unforgivably harsh climate of Kinshasa. The earlier versions of the robot became operational in 2013.

By 2015, three more Kinshasa traffic robots nicknamed Tamuke, Mwaluke, and Kisanga were commissioned. These later versions come with some nifty features like sun shades, speech capabilities, and speed radar. The robots transmit data to the control center using the antenna affixed to the top of its head.

Perhaps the best thing about these robots is that they are solar-powered. This makes them independent of Kinshasa’s inadequate power supply. Earlier versions of the Kinshasa traffic robot went for about $15,000 each but the new upgraded version cost about $25,000.

Reactions Trailing The Kinshasa Trafic Robot

So far, there have been mixed reactions following the launch of the robots. At first, most people give an expression of awe and surprise with words like “Wow”, “Cool”,  “incredible”. This initial reaction is not entirely surprising considering the fact that DRC, like many other African countries, is still plagued by frequent power outages. So, the sight of a robot controlling traffic was bound to draw these reactions.

But after the excitement and shock had worn off, people began to consider the value and effectiveness of the traffic robots. This is where the crux of our discussion lies. Can these robots solve Africa’s traffic problem or are they merely a show-off?

The promoters

On one side are those who see the robots as a worthwhile innovation. Like one Twitter user who was quick to point out how helpful the robots are to the visually impaired.

A motorcyclist in one of Kinshasa’s busiest roads expressed joy over the installation of the traffic robots. In an interview with CGTN, the motorcyclist said that traffic on the road is much better when the robots are in control. He further claimed that people respect the robot more than the traffic cops. This could be due to the fact that the cops do collect bribes, making it easy for traffic violators to go unpunished.

It is just like Kirongozi said, the robots cannot be bribed and thus are more reliable. Knowing this, traffic offenders are likely going to be more cautious. Running the red light means a visit from the traffic police and less chance of bribery. With this, the government can recoup its expenses and even generate additional revenue from traffic violation tickets. This can be used to further develop the city.

The condemners

On the other side of the fence are those who appreciate the innovation as a step in the right direction but question its adequacy. A commuter was quoted saying that,

“The robots are not made to arrest offenders or act on accidents or other violations of the trafficker. Because if someone knocks someone else off the road, the robot is not going to follow that up.”

But this doesn’t seem to be a problem seeing that traffic cops are often around the vicinity. Instead, the inability of the Kinshasa traffic robots to function properly at night seems to be a major challenge.  This was first tweeted by the Wall Street Journal, drawing a hilarious response from another Twitter user.

Another point worth deliberating is the poor maintenance culture of the government. In Kinshasa like many other cities across Africa, it is common to see public facilities in poor shape. Street lights and traffic lights are two common examples of facilities which once installed are barely given a second thought by the government. If this is the case, will the fate of the Kinshasa traffic robot be any different?

Conclusion

Reports on the performance of the Kinshasa traffic robots have been positive so far. Like most other technological innovations, these traffic robots seem to have gained mainstream acceptance from the very first day. Nevertheless, there are still a few rough edges that need ironing out. One of such is that at the moment, the solar-powered robots still struggle to operate properly at night.

Also, considering the complexity of traffic congestions across different African cities and the poor maintenance culture in Africa, abandoning the project after some time would be a waste of financial resources that could have been used to improve the existing traffic infrastructure.

Putting all this into consideration, what is your take on the issue? Do you think other African countries should consider giving the robots a try or are they better off using the existing traffic technology? Drop your opinions in the comment box below. Also, feel free to share your worst traffic experience in any African city with us.

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