Would We Know Scale If She Walked By? Revolutionary Planning in Mukuru, Nairobi

04 April 2018

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By Jack Makau and Jane Weru

Oh, I see her hand reaching out to me
Only she can set me free
Have you seen her
Tell me have you seen her

“Have You Seen Her”
The Chi-Lites, 1971

Muungano wa Wanavijiji is a slum dweller movement that emerged in Nairobi in the 1990s as a response to widespread informal settlement evictions. It federated to the global SDI network in 2001, and in 2003, Muungano built its first slum upgrading houses. These were 34 single-room units, each occupying a footprint of 16 square meters, which matched the size of existing informal structures. Each unit cost an affordable $1,000, and the owners could incrementally build them upward into two-bedroom apartments to increase living space. There was a sense that a milestone had been achieved in the search for affordable and in situ slum upgrading. Yet one question lingered: Have we cracked it—is this the solution for Kenya’s 5 million slum residents? A decade and 10,000 homes later, the questions around achieving scale persist.

On August 11, 2017, the Kenya government’s official journal, the Kenya Gazette, published notice number 7654 declaring an area of 550 acres (the area occupied by Mukuru slums) to be a Special Planning Area (SPA). Issued by the Nairobi City County Government, it announced the county’s intention to “initiate a participatory process to develop a physical development plan.” The Mukuru slums are home to 100,000 households and businesses. Contestation over land ownership, consolidation of informal ways of delivering basic services like water, sanitation, and electricity, as well as entrenched informal systems of education and healthcare, make the planning of Mukuru a much larger and more complex undertaking than has been attempted before by the federation or city.

Notice 7654 begins to answer the dogged question: What does scale look like? The treatment of the Mukuru SPA was significant, as it deviated from the country’s conventional approach to slum upgrading. In most cases, Kenyan slum interventions are driven by international development agencies that then draw in city governments. Such interventions are governed by a Memorandum
of Understanding or by other bilateral agreements. In contrast, the Mukuru SPA is a project of the Nairobi city government. Notice 7654 makes the SPA a statutory obligation of the city. The notice makes no reference to the word “slum” or any of its euphemisms. It also does not mention Muungano or any of the other proponents of the program. The SPA’s key goal is to develop a plan that is incorporated into the city’s own 20-year vision instrument, the City Integrated Development Plan. Muungano is confident this arrangement has the potential to create the critical institutional infrastructure required to achieve inclusive slum upgrading at scale in Nairobi.

Bold New Partnerships

The planning process, which will run up to August 2019, does more than provide a legal basis to a slum upgrade. According to the county, “The approach to the Special Planning Area intervention in Mukuru is conceptually a reconfiguration of the planning process.” A key aspect of the evolved approach is that it goes beyond the planning department of the county government to incorporate all departments of the county, as well as multidisciplinary consortia of non-state actors.

At the end of 2017, 37 organizations had signed up to participate in the development of the plan. One of the generally agreed-upon principles among the participating organizations is that the SPA is strengthened by pooling different types of resources from multiple sources toward a common goal. The participation of these organizations in the planning has been largely self-financed. Muungano is to provide community organization and community- focused financing. It plays a key role in what has been called the Coordination, Community Organization, and Communication consortium. This group, discussed in greater depth below, seeks to ensure that every technical consortium has meaningful engagement with the community and, in turn, that community voices remain at the forefront of the planning process.

The diversity of participating organizations is another piece of the scale puzzle. Civil society and development organizations are well represented. In addition to Muungano was Wanavijiji and its professional support organizations Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT) and SDI Kenya, Caritas Switzerland leads a consortium to develop the water, sanitation, and energy plan, while Stockholm Environment Institute leads the environment consortium.

Academia is also prominently represented, with the Strathmore University Business School leading the finance consortium; the University of Nairobi leading the housing, commerce, and infrastructure consortium; and the University of California, Berkeley, participating in three consortia (housing, environment, and health services).

A distinct difference between Kenya’s previous slum upgrading experience and the Mukuru process is the involvement of private sector firms. Ordinarily, private sector corporate social responsibility schemes make sizable charitable contributions to development efforts such as children’s homes and other charity projects. In Mukuru, the Kenya Medical Association, a health professional body, leads the consortium that will develop the health services plan. The consortium of land and legal issues has the support of New York-based global firm Sullivan & Cromwell LLC and one of Kenya’s top legal firms, Pandya & Poonawala advocates.

Making the Case for Slum Upgrading: Unlocking the Poverty Penalty

Boy, nothin’ in life is free
That’s why I’m askin’ you what can you do for me
I’ve got responsibilities…
So I’m lookin’ for a man whose got money in his hands
‘Cause nothin’ from nothin’ leaves nothin’
You got to have somethin’ if you wanna be with me
Oh, life is too serious, love’s too mysterious
A fly girl like me needs security

“Ain’t Nothing Going On but the Rent”
Gwen Guthrie, 1986

A lot of slum improvement has been supported by philanthropy. Despite evidence that slum improvement has multiple long-term benefits to the city, the business case for these ventures has not yet been made. The idea of more immediate returns on slum investment, the kind that mayors use on the campaign trail, remains elusive. This makes for a less than attractive proposition for city managers, who are often resource-strained. Part of the impetus for Nairobi to commit to Mukuru upgrading was the possibility of
a measurable short-term return on investment.

Research supported by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) between 2013 and 2018 and undertaken by a consortium consisting of Strathmore University, Katiba Institute, the University of Nairobi, the University of California, Berkeley, and Muungano established that there is a penalty exerted on the residents of Mukuru. The city’s poorest pay far more for lower-quality water, sanitation, and electricity than households in the city’s formal neighborhoods.

Households in Mukuru pay 45 percent to 142 percent more than the formal electricity tariff when connected to informal connections. The penalty on water provision is especially high, as residents can only access small amounts of very low-quality water, at a cost that is 172 percent more per cubic meter than the water utility tariff. The only toilet option for 30 percent or more of Mukuru’s population is a pay-per-use facility outside their homes.

Based on a conservative basket of services (electricity, water, toilet access, and rent), Mukuru’s annual economy is estimated at USD $70 million, much
of which ends up in the hands of informal service providers. The methods used to connect “informally” often result in significant spillage of service cost. So while the poverty penalty presents a challenge, it also demonstrates the latent capacity of communities to afford services, invest in their communities, and perhaps make contributions to housing improvement.

Where Is the Community?

I was born by the river
In a little tent
And just like the river I’ve been running
Ever since
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.

“A Change Is Gonna Come”
Sam Cooke, 1964

Perhaps one of the bigger challenges in achieving scale is how to ensure that the people whose homes and settlements will be most affected continue to be central to decision making as the process becomes increasingly technical and complex. Can the quality of the community’s involvement remain high as the program expands to the city-scale? And what does that look like?

The SPA has developed seven thematic and technical consortia. These consortia attract and engage the services of professionals and specialists from organizations with core competencies in project management, financing, planning, and architecture—specialty skills needed for the scale of SPA planning and implementation.

Muungano plays a lead role in an eighth consortium, known as the Coordination, Community Organization, and Communication Consortium. This reflects Muungano’s core mandate for community organizing and pro-poor finance. It also recognizes Muungano’s ability to draw upon the SDI network for support. This serves the dual benefit of bringing SDI expertise to the project and sharing vital lessons from Mukuru throughout the SDI network.

A core consideration for Muungano in this process is how to apply SDI’s distinctive approach to community organizing, sometimes referred to by federations as “SDI rituals.” What are these rituals and associated tools, and how have they manifested in Kenya?

  •  First, Muungano invests in establishing women-led community savings groups to drive community organizing, learning and gendered approaches to upgrading.
  • Second, SDI’s Know Your City campaign, which seeks to create city-wide slum profiles, has been Muungano’s key tool for framing the slum transformation agenda in Kenyan cities.
  • Third, household level slum enumerations, carried out by the savings groups, have been the basis of consensus-building within slums and have provided vital data to design interventions.
  • Fourth, Muungano’s project financing models have been based on community savings groups that have leveraged resources, often city or state resources, sometimes at ratios as high as 1:50 (converting community savings to development finance).

Muungano’s experience shows how the enigmatic pull of scale affects the rituals that have proven to be so effective for SDI over the years. It is exploring ways for these to evolve and accommodate the city government and sensitivities of a broader range of partners. Take, for example, the strategy of women-led community savings groups, very much the holy grail of SDI. In Kenya, this ritual has been adapted over the years to suit local context. Muungano is working to grow the number of savings groups in Mukuru from 53 in 2016 to 330 by the end of the SPA planning process in 2019.

The savings groups will act as catalysts for the establishment of theNeighborhood Associations, which the 2012 Constitution and various County Planning Acts have authorized to support public participation and civic engagement. Muungano’s intention is for these women- led savings collectives to imbue the Neighborhood Associations with qualities of horizontal accountability, peer-to-peer support, gendered development strategies, and the vivacious energy that characterizes federations in the SDI network. The savings schemes will also play the dedicated and critically important role of building the financial capacity of individual households to participate in the implementation of the Mukuru plan. The Neighborhood Associations, dubbed Leave No One Behind, will organize each community into household units of ten families. This is intended to ensure complete representation in the SPA planning process of all residents. In this regard, Muungano has effectively applied SDI rituals—designed to be flexible—to the demands of scale and the context in which they operate.

The New Narrative of Interconnectedness

The exploration of achieving scale has led not only to the evolution of Muungano’s practice but to the creation of a whole new narrative among city stakeholders. Essentially, the narrative has shifted from one in which slum improvement is a matter for slum dwellers alone. Instead, it is a challenge for the whole city and one that requires the city, in the broadest sense of the word, to unpack and resolve barriers to inclusive development. Perhaps nothing demonstrates the interconnectedness of the formal and informal city and the rich and poor more starkly than the real-life example of Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance contracting cholera in 2017 at the very same time that reports emerged of an outbreak of the disease in the slums of Mukuru and Kibera. The SPA represents a multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral approach to what were previously regarded as challenges exclusive to the slums and those who had to live in them.

The approach is significant because it produces new ways of understanding these challenges and a new set of innovations toward resolving them. Social, political, and economic resources are vested in different sectors—state, civil society, the private sector, and the community—and each should use its reach and influence, individually and collectively, in order to resolve challenges of the city as a whole, not just the challenges of its growing number of citizens who are locked spatially into areas known as slums.

The SPA has used research, including community collected and analyzed data, to begin to frame the problem of slums in a new way: a way that says, “together we can.” Together we can mobilize resources and start to blend these resources for greater impact. Together we can take advantage of the political opportunities that exist, such as the new Constitution, the creation of counties, and the willingness of the counties to address the problems of marginalized and excluded groups. Together we can create a city for all.


In February, SDI launched a landmark publication titled “Know Your City: Slum Dwellers Count,” showcasing the extraordinary contribution of the Know Your City (KYC) campaign to creating understanding and taking action to reduce urban poverty and exclusion. We are posting a new chapter from the book every week. Enjoy! 

Download the full publication here: http://bit.ly/2seRc0x