Turning Kibera’s mud huts into apartment towers

New apartment buildings stand next to mud-hut dwellings in the Soweto East section of the Nairobi slum Kibera. (Greg Scruggs)

NAIROBI, Kenya — Kibera has long been the African poster child of slums, a household name that conjures images of overcrowded shacks, poor sanitation, and grinding poverty. Municipal officials here in Kenya’s capital traditionally have ignored the community even though its roughly 800,000 residents account for about one-fifth of Nairobi’s population.

Visitors today might be surprised by some of what they encounter, however, at least in one corner of Kibera known as Soweto East. A nicely paved road lined by neat vendors’ stalls leads to a cluster of new six-storey apartment buildings with balconies, indoor plumbing and electricity. Further along, a community resource center includes a computer lab and a medical clinic with a video link to a major Nairobi hospital where specialists are on call.

“People are so poor that even accessing normal medical care was difficult,” says Dr. John Okiri, of the Soweto East Resource Centre. “Most patients come in with contagious symptoms like diarrhea, skin conditions, and respiratory tract infections. But the new housing will change the hygiene situation. No more common toilets means fewer urinary tract infections.”

Such improvements mark a turning point for public policy toward informal settlements in Kenya. And it’s part of a growing trend in Africa spurred by the United Nations agency known as UN-Habitat. The Nairobi-based agency, tasked with a focus on cities and human settlements, has long espoused the virtues of upgrading slums for the people who live in them over the more typical alternatives such as official neglect or evicting settlers and demolishing their homes.

Kibera offered an opportunity for UN-Habitat to put these principles into practice in its own backyard. The experience has been anything but smooth — 12 years into it, the new apartment buildings are only just starting to come online. Still, the project has succeeded in changing the conversation in a number of countries about how to handle slums. It’s also providing some lessons for leaders across the continent who are watching to see what they can learn from it.

Big ambitions

In 2003, the Kenyan government and UN-Habitat signed a memorandum of understanding that led to the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme, or KENSUP. The program has an ambitious 15-year budget target of US$8.6 billion to improve infrastructure and housing in three major cities.

For Kibera, that investment first manifested in the form of pay-per-use toilet and shower facilities stamped with the UN-Habitat logo. They were desperately needed in a community plagued by “flying toilets” — the practice of defecating into a plastic bag and flinging it as far away as possible.

A community resource center in Soweto East includes a medical clinic with a video link to a major Nairobi hospital where specialists are on call. (Greg Scruggs)

I first visited Soweto East in 2010. The toilets were in place but residents had their eyes on a bigger prize: proper housing. Living conditions in Kibera are precarious even by the standards of informal settlements, with families crammed into tiny spaces in shacks with mud walls. Unlike Brazilian favelas, where homes are typically built by residents who take pride in improving the structure over time, African slums often feature shoddy housing rented out by predatory absentee landlords.

The plan was to replace the existing shacks with modern high rises, but to do it in a way that gave residents a fair chance to move into the new units and own them. Before any slum housing was demolished, residents were issued ID cards to establish their right to live first in transitional housing, and eventually in the new towers that would rise where their old dwellings stood. Cardholders pay a daily fee of 20 Kenyan shillings (about 20 U. S. cents), a significant but not prohibitve amount for people earning an average of US$1.25 per day.

When I visited Soweto East five years ago, the ID-issuing process was complete. Part of the neighborhood was in rubble awaiting new construction. Residents were getting settled into the transitional housing, another set of apartments a few miles away known locally as the “decanting site.” Meanwhile, the landlords of those mud-walled shacks were fighting the plan tooth and nail because they stood to lose rental income with no compensation.

Today, card-carrying residents abound and the landlords have lost in court. But due to many delays, groundbreaking on the new units was delayed to 2012. The first group of families moved to the decanting site still has not moved back to Soweto East. The 822 new apartment units, including 1-, 2- and 3-bedrooms, are almost ready; move-ins are expected to begin soon.

John Andale, secretary of the Soweto East Housing Cooperative Society, says the process is going reasonably well despite the delays. Andale lived in the old Soweto East, and helped manage the ID process, which he says was driven by the residents and worked.

“It was a smooth process because we went house to house identifying each tenant,” Andale says. “People were reluctant to give their information at first but they had an idea of the slum upgrading program.”

The cooperative was formed to collect the cardholder fees and invest them in the new construction. According to local newspaper Daily Nation, the cooperative has raised 100 million Kenyan shillings (US$990,000) thus far. Although KENSUP is financing the apartments, part of the program’s goal is to make sure residents have a financial stake in their future home. 

Getting from A to B

Soweto East has been divided into four zones, A through D. The first group to be moved to the decanting site more than five years ago, Zone A, consists of 1,200 families. The remaining three zones have about 1,000 families each. Once the Zone A families move into the new apartment towers, Zone B residents will move to the transitional housing and the process will repeat. The next cycles should move faster now that the legal questions concerning the landlords have been settled.

The Kenyan Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development did not return repeated requests for comment, but did send two program reports with some basic facts and policy statements. The reports makes clear that the aspiration with the new apartments is to mimic housing stock where there is a higher standard of living. “The project is secured by masonry wall fencing,” the report states. This “matches the standards of an upper middle class estate in Nairobi.”

While the new housing in Soweto East (top) includes a dedicated market space, there will not be nearly as much commercial real estate as there was before demolition. (Greg Scruggs)

Naftali Omondi is a plumber and Zone B resident, meaning he’s next in line to move to the decanting site under the promise of a new apartment when he comes back. As we sit in the shade of a stall along one of Soweto East’s bustling commercial strips, he eyes the new but still empty housing gleaming in the midday sun.

“Yeah, I want to live there one day,” Omondi says. He has an ID card. And while he doesn’t have to move to the decanting site — he could live elsewhere instead — he’s pretty sure he’ll go there. “I have friends who like it but they are ready to come back,” Omondi says. “This is the original place.”

But the fact that the Zone A families still haven’t moved back leaves him with a trace of doubt. “People like the project but they fear that it is not sure — they will be more sure if they see the people back here,” he says. The Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development would not tell Citiscope when the housing units would finally be delivered; its report indicated that the housing should have been ready in June.

Omondi is also concerned about the fate of mama mboga, the streetside produce hawkers who are a fixture on Kibera’s thoroughfares. While the new housing includes a dedicated market, there won’t be nearly as much commercial space as there was before demolition.

Long transition

Traveling seven kilometers from Soweto East to the decanting site in Lang’ata takes longer than it should, a typical problem in traffic-choked Nairobi. But it’s better than an initial proposal to set up the short-term housing a brutal 23 kilometers away. A dirt path here leads to a cluster of five-story apartment buildings, already showing age despite their recent vintage. The complex is bustling, with kids kicking a soccer ball made of plastic bags and small groups hanging out in the shadier corners of the grounds.

To smooth the transition, the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development relies on Patrick Munyao Mbuvi, a Soweto East resident who bought into the upgrading process early. Five years ago, I met him when he served on the Settlement Executive Committee, a body representing different local interest groups in order to generate community buy-in. Now he is the caretaker of the Lang’ata site.

Soweto East residents moved to a transitional housing site that is showing signs of age after just five years. (Greg Scruggs)

“People are adjusted, it’s been five years now,” Mbuvi says. “In the beginning, there were lots of hiccups, like where to buy food and water. Even with an orientation people still needed to familiarize themselves with their neighbors.”

Undoubtedly, the decanting site has its faults. Promised retail kiosks were not delivered. A ban on informal shops is only partly enforced, but in general the commercial needs of the temporary community are way underserved.

“The structural design is OK but it’s poor quality construction,” Mbuvi admits. “The plastering and inside work were done poorly. It has to be renovated before the next group comes.”

The site went through other growing pains. At first, electricity was provided free of charge, which led to rampant overuse. Now tenants are paying for utilities, on top of a monthly rent ranging from 700 Kenyan shillings (US$6.93) for a room to 1,200 Kenyan shillings (US$11.88). Some Soweto East residents decided to skip the decanting site and are instead waiting out the interim period as renters back home in the slum. Others have opted to illegally sublet their decanting site units and voluntarily move back into slum housing.

In its year-end report on KENSUP, the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development acknowledges challenges, ranging from sorting out tenure arrangements to the difficulty of resettling a population that is 85 percent renters. The report also cites other complicating factors such as a lack of adequate land, sufficient financial resources, and a comprehensive legal framework governing slum upgrading.

But this is also Kenya’s first undertaking to improve the lives of its poorest city dwellers, a marked change from decades of neglecting them. Executing such a sea change in thinking can be expected to have its difficulties.

Pan-African policy

According to UN-Habitat, 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live in informal settlements like Kibera. They comprise more than 60 percent of the region’s urban population, the highest such figure in the world. But that alarming statistic is also an opportunity to change the minds of people in government about how to deal with such a large segment of the population.

“We are sensitizing governments on the way forward because slums aren’t in citywide planning documents,” says Kerstin Sommer, project leader of UN-Habitat’s Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme. Whereas the U. N. was once an equal partner on the Kibera project, its handoff to the Kenyan government, which has taken ownership of it, is itself seen as a success.

An open sewer runs between the old Soweto East and the new apartments. Three more sections of the area are to be upgraded in a similar fashion. (Greg Scruggs)

As Raf Tuts, Chief of Urban Planning and Design for UN-Habitat, puts it: “Countries are moving to acceptance that slums are part of the reality of the city.” He explains that UN-Habitat’s approach is to help city governments — and often national governments — come up with a strategy and help them implement it. “Ten years ago, they assumed slums are illegal and pretended they don’t exist,” he says.

Going forward, UN-Habitat seeks to leverage its partnership with private-sector entities like Cisco, Orange Telecom, and BASF to build resource centers such as the one in Soweto East. These flashy projects meet a tangible need in the community. They also put informal neighborhoods on the map of politicians who get to cut ribbons on sleek corporate-financed facilities in parts of town they might otherwise never step foot in.

Ghana is one country that has followed and finalized a framework for a national slum upgrading program with a priority focus on Accra, the capital. The government of Niger has established a US$3 million budget line for informal upgrading. Under the banner of UN-Habitat’s Participatory Slum Upgrading Programme, 25 sub-Saharan African countries are finally recognizing the importance of providing safe, decent living conditions to all their citizens. “We are not shy to use human rights language,” Sommer says, “and point out that housing is a constitutional right.”

And that means we can expect to see a lot more projects like Soweto East — both the good and the bad of it — coming to cities across Africa.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

LEARNING FROM NAIROBI

  • Shacks in part of the Kibera slum are being replaced with modern high rises in a way that gives residents a fair chance to move into the new units and own them. 
  • Residents were issued ID cards to establish their right to live first in transitional housing, and eventually in the new towers that would rise where their old dwellings stood.
  • While the execution of the upgrading program has been bumpy, it’s helping to change the conversation in Africa about how cities should handle slums.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.