How a new designation could transform the Nairobi slum and help end the “poverty penalty” its residents face
Posted by Alanna Mitchell on March 29, 2018
Jane Weru, executive director of Akiba Mashinani Trust, knew something was seriously wrong in 2011 when residents of Nairobi’s Mukuru neighbourhood started showing up at her office in the Kenyan capital.
They were being evicted from their homes in great numbers. And by homes, they meant one-room shacks made of rusted corrugated iron sheeting in informal settlements densely packed on land once slated for light industrial activity. Typically measuring three metres by three metres, some had dirt floors. One common means of eviction was night-time arson, forcing the residents to flee. Often, residents were prevented from going back into their homes by gangs who protected the property until the landlord had swiftly rebuilt the home and installed new tenants.
Weru, a lawyer and human rights activist whose organization is a housing development and finance agency affiliated with Slum Dwellers International, an advocacy group for the urban poor in Africa, Asia and Latin America, began plotting how she could help. Because Kenya had passed a constitution in 2010 enshrining economic and social rights, she knew there were new legal avenues for challenging the evictions.
But before she could know what the legal redress was, she had to know who owned the land in Mukuru and who lived there. She and her organization began to amass evidence, a continuing research project that the International Development Research Centre has helped support with a two-year grant of $633,600.
Weru says some of the findings shocked her. For one thing, they discovered that there were more than 100,000 households in Mukuru, each housing three people, for a total of about 300,000 residents. Not only that, but there was a total lack of basic services. Few homes had access to toilets. Only about 3,000 had shared pit latrines which were emptied manually, Weru says.
Equally as disturbing was the fact that 94 per cent of the people were renting. They often paid rent to people who owned the structures but not the land underneath. The land was owned privately, often by well-connected members of the Kenyan elite, including government officials, civil servants and business owners. Many had been allowed to purchase the land for roads, railway activities or utilities, but had never followed through on those developments. The evictions were happening because the land had suddenly become more valuable.
Because residents were settled on private land, they had no access to city services. That meant they were paying astronomical prices for the little unsafe water they were able to get — sometimes as much as six times more than people who lived in serviced areas of Nairobi.
It amounted to a “poverty penalty,” the researchers found. It also meant that a massive amount of money was circulating in Mukuru that could conceptually be put toward raising the standard of living rather than paying exorbitant prices for necessities. One research team calculated that money freed up from these extra costs could come to US$500 million over 10 years.
Armed with the research and evidence of what was happening, Weru and Jack Makau, director of Slum Dwellers International in Kenya, petitioned the city of Nairobi to designate the Mukuru district as a special planning area. They succeeded on Aug. 11, 2017, a landmark day for the advocates.
The move triggered a two-year planning process that will call on the resources not only of the city, but also of 27 other organizations to develop solutions for Mukuru. “We think all these organizations will reach that capacity to benefit the people of Mukuru,” says Makau.
The residents are also heavily involved, say Makau and Weru. Neighbourhood associations representing 8,000 Mukuru families are offering suggestions. People in the community continue to collect evidence and data for the new plan. “People need to have a consultative process to agree on what to do,” Weru says.
Over time, Makau and Weru can envision people in Mukuru being secure in higher-quality rental homes. Perhaps they could own homes, aided by mortgages geared to their incomes. They would also have basic services including toilets and water, playgrounds and public spaces.
Expectations are high. One research project asked 6,000 school children what they would like to see in Mukuru. The students leapt past safe houses, toilets and running water. They dreamed of a zoo, fancy malls and amusement parks.
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This is part of an ongoing series of stories on international development projects supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, presented in partnership with Canadian Geographic. The stories appear online once a month at idrc.canadiangeographic.ca.
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