Idris Elba hones smart city and movie production plans

The actor is backing a smart city at Sierra Leone's Sherbro Island which aims to leverage renewable energy, modern infrastructure, and innovative investment frameworks.

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Image : Angela WEISS /AFP

“It’s the most ambitious project of my life.”

That is how actor and philanthropist Idris Elba introduced Sherbro Alliance, his plan for the transformation of the Sierra Leonean island of Sherbro into a smart city, at The Africa Debate on 6 June in London.

The initiative aims to leverage renewable energy, modern infrastructure, and innovative investment frameworks to foster local growth and international appeal.

Sherbro Island is envisioned as a hub for multi-sector development, encompassing tourism, agriculture, and energy. 

“The idea of building a smart city is definitely young. And that’s the most exciting thing for me,” said Elba, who was born in London to a Sierra Leonean father and a Ghanaian mother.

“We imagine that within the next 10 years, we’ll have a population of somewhere around 250,000 people. It’s about 30,000 now.”

Over the past six years, the star has collaborated with Sierra Leone’s government to create an investable opportunity which aims to attract international capital while aligning with the needs and aspirations of local communities.

“To be very clear, all of this has been done in complete conjunction with the people, the mayor, the chiefs, the chiefs of society, the chiefs of each district, and the people. They feed us into what they would like to see happening,”  Elba insisted.

Renewable focus

Central to the project’s vision is the integration of renewable energy solutions: the World Bank reports that 567m people in sub-Saharan Africa did not have access to electricity in 2021, representing more than 80% of the world’s population without access, and only 27% of Sierra Leoneans had access to electricity in 2020.

“Africa definitely needs to embrace renewable energy space. We can do that. Technology is cheaper and allows Africans to adopt it where the West cannot,” Elba noted, emphasising the continent’s unique position to leapfrog older, less efficient energy systems.

In line with this, Sherbro Island’s development includes plans for wind farms that will provide sustainable electricity to its inhabitants.

“I’ve got Octopus Energy as an energy partner now (in Sherbro),” said Elba.

“We should play a game that protects Africa’s future, by looking much more closely at the green economy. And the priorities are undoubtedly to invest in the infrastructure to get there, to invest in technology, to invest in education to understand the curve that’s coming. On Sherbro Island, much of this energy will require us to install the first wind farms.”

Creative industries

As well as highlighting his work at Sherbro Island, Elba advocated for broader investment in Africa’s creative industries, which he believes can serve as a significant economic driver.

“If we make the creative industries in those countries really popular, we can achieve more than $20bn,” he claimed.

He pointed out that the creative industry in Nigeria alone is currently worth $5bn a year, mainly from local Nollywood productions. 

“The creative industry is like an army; everyone has a role to play. The entire infrastructure is investable,” he explained, highlighting the need for policies that protect intellectual property and provide financial services to support the sector.

Elba wants to nurture Africa’s creative industries, creating jobs and fostering a positive global perception of African countries. In 2023 he unveiled plans to build a film studio in Ghana, tentatively called West African Studios, and has promised to uplift African talent through his Green Door Pictures production house.

He also hopes to leverage his relationships at major Hollywood players Netflix, Apple, and Amazon.

“I am pivoting my productions over the next two years to my studios in Africa. And that will be a game-changer for me, but also for the creative landscape.”

Tax incentives

Despite the optimism, Elba is realistic about the challenges. He acknowledges the need for consistent governance and regulatory frameworks to attract and retain investment in the creative industries.  

And he argues that tax incentives are still a vital tool for African governments in attracting crucial global investment.

“South Africa, Morocco, and Mauritius have built tax incentives. South Africa has done a fantastic job of international attraction for films. That is being done by a broadcast tax incentive. The Nigerian government is moving towards providing tax incentives and, if implemented correctly, these could attract international interest,” he said.

Yet he acknowledges that with many governments struggling financially, it is a tough time for ask for tax breaks, whether for the movie industry or for ambitious schemes like Sherbro Island.

“Governments that are struggling with their own economics find it very difficult to suddenly say, ‘Okay, we’ll give you 15-20% of your investment back.’ The concept is off,” he said. 

Still, Elba insists that Sherbro Island is exactly the kind of long-term investment that governments should lend their support to.

“It’s about making a long-term investment. The beneficiaries of this investment may currently be just 10 years old.”

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Adam Saidane