The first indication that Kalumbila is a town with its eye on the future is when you land at the airport: although the airport is in the very early stages of construction and doesn’t even have a terminal building yet, its 2,7 km runway is the second-longest in Zambia, and easily handles mid-size jets.

When the runway eventually reaches its full design length of 4 km, it will be the longest in the country and will be able to handle intercontinental widebody jets such as the Boeing 747 and the A-380.

“This will eventually become a major business and tourism hub. Airlines from Angola, South Africa and other countries will be able to fly straight into Kalumbila to drop off passengers and cargo, or simply to re-fuel,” says Michael Kabungo, Town Services Coordinator for the Kalumbila Town Development Corporation.

Kalumbila is not coy about its ambitions. It intends to rival Kitwe in size and scope by 2050. For now, it is a small mining town in the remote North-Western province, and most of its 5 000-plus inhabitants work for FQM’s $2.1-billion Sentinel copper mine – but it already sees a future beyond mining.

Johannesburg is a good example of a mining town which outgrew its mining origins,” says Kabungo. “Here, in Zambia, Ndola has successfully carved out an identity beyond mining, with its strong administrative and trading roots.”

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Several companies have already moved operations to Kalumbila’s industrial zone, attracted by its planned tax incentives, its infrastructure and growth potential, and the proximity of Congo and Angola as export markets. ME Elecmetal, a leading Chilean mine supplier, has concluded a contract with Sentinel mine to construct a multimillion-dollar plant to manufacture high-quality steel mill-balls. When complete, the plant will employ about 300 people.

It seems counter-intuitive, but a strong, vibrant mining town is one whose fortunes are not too closely tied to those of the mine which gave it life. So when the mine eventually closes (as Sentinel will in about 20 years’ time), the town will continue to thrive.

That’s the logic which has underpinned the design of Kalumbila, where the Sentinel mine, owned by First Quantum Minerals (FQM), the country’s largest mining company, is located. The mine started operating in 2015 and is scheduled to hit full production of 300 000 tonnes a year by 2017.

So how do you design a mining town that doesn’t depend on the mine? With a clear vision, significant financial resources and good town-planning skills.

The vision was to avoid the mistakes of “traditional” mining towns. That meant proper infrastructure, sewerage and street lighting; shops, businesses and leisure facilities; good schools; good medical facilities; quality housing which allows mining staff to live in the town with their families – and, most important of all, the ability to attract private investment so that the town can grow sustainably.

The financial resources were significant: FQM committed nearly $200-million to the project. It was driven by Gehl Architects, a Danish urban-design consultancy which has worked in more than 250 cities globally. On the Kalumbila project, Gehl worked with three African design firms: Kama Associates and Arch Consult of Zambia, and Arup of Zimbabwe.

The town was designed around a handful core principles, such as protecting and using nature (minimal environmental disturbance); creating a good foundation for everyday life (priority to walking and cycling); and ensuring the town can grow by attracting private investment (creating infrastructure and incentives for businesses).

To stimulate home-ownership by residents, an innovative rent-to-buy scheme allows a portion of the rent to go towards buying the house; after 14 years, ownership is transferred. To encourage private investment and land acquisition, Kalumbila is owned by the Kalumbila Town Development Corporation, not the mine. It is envisaged that Kalumbila will eventually be classified as an independent town within the larger District, with autonomy to run its own affairs, and ensure revenue raised locally is spent locally.

“Kalumbila intends to rival Kitwe in size and scope by 2050”

It’s easy to see that Kalumbila is a town with a plan: there is no ad-hoc, chaotic growth. Streets have names; roads have drainage and wide pavements – though drivers lament the fact that pedestrians still walk on the road! Houses come in many architectural styles, to reflect different tastes and incomes; fences are low and see-through (1.2 m maximum) to encourage visibility between homes; and TV satellite dishes are discreetly located on the ground rather than ostentatiously on roofs or walls. Powerlines are underground rather than overhead on the roadside, for both aesthetic and environmental reasons. At night, streets and squares are lit by solar lights: a common sight is people playing volleyball and basketball under floodlights.

“The current citizens of Kalumbila report a relatively high degree of happiness living in the town,” says Kabungo.

As well they might: it’s hard to find disgruntled people in a new, well-equipped town where everyone is employed. Crime is virtually non-existent, so the local police station is not exactly a hive of activity. The town is also well liked by Sentinel’s highly skilled mining expats, who come from all five continents and live with their families in town housing and in large, well-equipped houses at the local golf estate. “It’s like the United Nations,” says Soyapi Mapulanga, Human Resource manager at Sentinel, who counts several different nationalities as neighbours.

The viability of Kalumbila is a major reason why highly skilled mining personnel, from the Copperbelt and abroad, relocate their families to this remote corner of Zambia.

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However, the measure of Kalumbila’s success is not what it looks like now, but what it will look like in 20 years, when Sentinel eventually closes down. By then, Kalumbila will need to be big enough, and diversified enough, to stand on its own two feet. That means investment, private capital and new businesses.

This ambition is not without its problems. One is the slow development of retail facilities for everyday shopping, which makes some people reluctant to bring in their families. A bigger problem, not wholly unrelated to the former, is the administrative efficiency of local government in granting land-title to investors, as well as the necessary permits, licences and approvals to get businesses off the ground.

Joseph Ngwira, environmental manager at Sentinel, recalls the long administrative battle to get environmental approval for the construction of the airport runway. Despite the fact that the $100-million airport will be handed over to the government on completion, the application was mired in red tape and objections – including the allegation that the airport would be used to fly copper out of the country illegally. “What should have taken a maximum of three months ended up taking six months for government to make a decision, and over a year for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process,” he says.

Speaking at the Zambia International Mining and Energy Conference (Zimec) in June this year, FQM’s operations director, Matt Pascall, said a number of potential investors in Kalumbila had given up starting shops, farms, hotels and other businesses because it had taken more than four years to approve land-title. A $2-million sawmill which employs 120 workers is at risk because of delays in obtaining a licence to process and export the timber.

Sentinel’s commercial manager, John Dean, says it is “critical” that Chilean company ME Elecmetal’s planned manufacturing plant is a success, and doesn’t get bogged down in bureaucracy or delays. “The success of this venture will encourage other investors to come to Kalumbila. It will send a clear signal to the world that Zambia is open for business.”

Despite these very real challenges, the Kalumbila Town Development Corporation is positive and forging ahead. Its view is that success is the best way to silence sceptics. “We will continue to develop Kalumbila and grow its economic base to the point where both government and investors are forced to take notice,” says Kabungo.