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When Dorice Moseti first moved to Mukuru, an informal residential area outside Nairobi, sanitation was abysmal. Some courtyards had toilets serving 10 households, but most people were forced to pay for use of unclean public toilets. In the evening, given the lack of proper roads and lighting, women did not feel safe to use the public toilets. Meanwhile, piped water was contaminated, leaving most to buy drinking water from informal vendors at high prices. 

Nearly 20 years later, life is getting better for Moseti, who lives in the Mukuru settlement of Kwa Reuben. Some roads have been tarmacked, sewer lines connect half the area, and bottled water is available for free. “There are security lights on the completed roads so you are not scared to access the public toilets at night,” said Moseti, who was instrumental in gathering 15,000 signatures from women to petition the county government for better sanitation.  

The improvements to life in Mukuru have resulted partly from two research projects supported over seven years by IDRC. The projects, co-led by Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT), the University of Nairobi, Strathmore University, and Slum Dwellers International, married technical data collection with the knowledge and energy of community activists. Ultimately, the process engaged more than 40 different civil society organizations eager to bring sustainable improvements to informal settlements that have long endured poor or non-existent services.  

The positive change has the potential of transforming people’s lives in Mukuru. But its challenges demonstrate that development is never done; each step involves complex dynamics and trade-offs. Informal vendors who sell water, for example, have lost livelihoods since the introduction of free bottled water. And some houses have been demolished to make room for roads. Reconciling such conflicts is only the latest challenge in a long-term legal-empowerment process that is in constant evolution.

Photos of Christine Mweru (right) and Dorice Moseti.
Akiba Mashinani Trust
Mukuru community leaders Christine Mweru (right) and Dorice Moseti.

Mapping the roots of poverty 

Almost half of Nairobi’s 1 million households are in 158 informal settlements that occupy 2.1% of the land space. Mukuru is home to about 100,000 households whose residents have lived “off grid” for decades, primarily in one-room, three-square-metre shacks made of corrugated steel sheets. While the houses are densely packed together, Mukuru is also home to all manner of businesses and services — from informal traders, food vendors, restaurants and bars, to schools, hospitals, mosques and churches. “It is a little city in itself,” said Jane Weru, executive director of AMT. 

By 2011, however, the land was getting more valuable, and landowners began evicting so-called squatters to cash in. Bulldozers arrived in the middle of the night accompanied by harassment, threats, and arson. As evictions grew, the community began to organize through a network called Muungano wa Wanavijiji, meaning united slum dwellers. This alliance of community-based organizations and groups, squatters, and urban poor people included AMT. 

Thanks to Kenya’s 2010 Constitution enshrining economic and social rights, AMT and allied organizations secured a court order to freeze evictions. Any long-term legal and urban-planning solution, however, would require evidence on who owned the land in Mukuru, and who lived there. The first phase of IDRC-supported research, between 2013 and 2015, trained community members to gather data. They mapped 23,000 structures and identified about 300,000 residents in those 100,000 households.  

Among the key findings: about 94% of the households were tenants who paid about CA$25 per month to owners of the structures, who had built the shacks on land owned by absentee proprietors.  

Mukuru had only 3,000 toilets, mostly pit latrines, available to those 300,000 people. Although the constitution guaranteed universal primary education to all Kenyans, Mukuru had only five government-supported schools; most children were educated in informal schools organized by the community. Moreover, residents were paying three to four times more for basic services — such as water, sanitation, and electricity — than those who lived in the formal part of the city. 

The conditions of abandonment uncovered by the research revealed that residents were paying what is known as a poverty penalty, a situation where lack of options forces poor people to pay more for goods and services than the rich. If eliminated, these extra costs would release significant community assets. Rents alone were valued at about CA$3.7 million every month. The ability of Mukuru residents to organize their own schools suggested they also had a wealth of human resources they could tap into. “The government realized they could leverage those resources and provide better services to people in Mukuru,” recalled Weru. 

The research also generated planning models that showed concretely how to improve service delivery, address barriers to gender equality, and build skills for youth during the upgrading process. These initial inroads, together with pressure to pilot some of the models, led the county government to identify Mukuru as a special planning area. This 2017 designation froze further development for a two-year period and initiated a formal process to plan for the redevelopment of Mukuru. It was considered a great victory for the community. A second phase of IDRC-supported research quickly adjusted to support this process and the sectoral plans it required in such areas such as health, land tenure, water, sanitation, and energy. 

“What made the government listen was the information we had. The professionals helped, but all the activities were carried out by the communities,” explained Christine Mweru, a community leader who helped collect data in the Viwandani settlement.” 

Sorting out priorities with community research 

AMT and its partners held inclusive, community-wide consultations to develop the sectoral plans. “If you’re going to plan, then you need evidence,” said Weru. “The support from IDRC helped us collect the data, identify the challenges and to work with the community to address them.”  

The research process engaged 30 villages in the Mukuru settlements of Kwa Njenga, Kwa Reuben, and Viwandani. To ensure no one was left behind, community consultation was organized around cells of 10 households. Representatives from each cell came together as a sub-cluster of 100 households. Each sub-cluster then elected one person to represent them at sectoral consultations.  

Putting people at the centre of planning allows for the distinct challenges of different neighbourhoods to emerge. “Some people live in areas with flooding, some with fires,” Moseti stated. Kwa Reuben, for example, regularly suffered from cholera outbreaks that came with floods during the rainy season. Residents had to go to Viwandani for medication and treatment since Kwa Reuben had no hospital.

COVID-19 spurs county to action  

The COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to community meetings but also brought attention to these poor neighbourhoods as potential hot spots of virus transmission. This galvanized the county government to put the five completed sectoral plans into action. New roads, for example, are transforming the lives of many residents and allowing other infrastructure to develop, including a pilot project to provide toilets. 

“The roads also create a social space,” said Weru. “When you come in the evening, the kids are playing on the road and riding their bikes, and people have tables out because there are not so many cars.”  

Even as crews build roads, lay sewers, and install electricity, the county government has already built two hospitals, including one in Kwa Reuben. “The hospital will admit people and you can stay if you are very sick,” said Moseti. “It is close to me, so I don’t need transport.” 

Trade-offs lead to anger 

Yet while the road in Kwa Reuben makes it easier for Moseti to get around, there are places she cannot go without an escort. During community meetings, people had agreed to move their houses if needed, to free existing roads that had been built on, and to build new infrastructure. However, when these abstract ideas became concrete, some affected people were embittered. As a community activist, Moseti has had death threats from residents who blame her for “selling Mukuru to the government.” 

“I cannot go into a crowd, but I cannot run away from home either,” Moseti stated. “You have to change things from [inside] the community. The owner of the shoes knows where it itches more.” 

Mweru, too, has been threatened. In Viwandani, some houses were removed to make way for a new hospital. “Sometimes I could not sleep wondering if I would be attacked at night,” Mweru explained. “It has not been easy, but we are pushing on.”  

Grievances can eventually be resolved through compensation or the courts, especially if there is political buy-in to support the communities.  

Mukuru representatives develop sectoral plans at a community-wide consultation.
Akiba Mashinani Trust
Mukuru representatives develop sectoral plans at a community-wide consultation.

Building foundations for the future 

Poverty in Mukuru will not vanish overnight, but the informal settlement now has a much stronger foundation to build on. The sector plans have short-, medium-, and long-term components. Over 20 years, for example, the number of toilets is projected to grow from 3,800 to 20,000, and all would be connected to sewers. Eventually, Weru hopes that permanent homes will replace the shacks. 

For Weru, the successes to date in Mukuru have relied on the Muugano alliance’s deep community links, its willingness to build partnerships, and its strong relationships with policy-makers. “We were able to mobilize the non-financial resources of other civil society organizations and the professionals who want to give something back to the community,” Weru said. “It’s important to build slowly, seek help from all corners and not give up,” she added. 

“The solutions to Mukuru are not technical,” observed Adrian Di Giovanni, senior program specialist at IDRC. “No one is asking how to build a road. It’s more about the political dynamics, how governments recognize that citizens living on their territories are entitled to rights.” 

As part of its focus on supporting inclusive governance in urban settings, IDRC has been building a larger body of lessons, beyond those learned in Mukuru, by supporting similar research in other informal settlements around the world. 

In Nigeria, for example, Justice and Empowerment Initiatives is working with residents in a context of rampant evictions to document justice challenges and their economic toll. They are also identifying alternatives that would be more effective than the current policies bent on eliminating informal settlements from the city landscape. In Pakistan, where land acquisition has triggered resistance from urban and rural communities, researchers and community groups use gender-sensitive methods to empower all affected community members to defend their rights and entitlements.

“It’s important to give voice to excluded groups,” said Di Giovanni. “Giving people a seat at the table helps develop more sustainable, legitimate, and ethical solutions.”

Read about the Mukuru redevelopment in the Guardian’s Global development website: Community-led upgrade to a Nairobi slum could be a model for Africa | Global development | The Guardian 

Top image: Akiba Mashinani Trust