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For decades, Kibera has been touted as the largest and most famous slum in Africa (even though the former claim is exaggerated – Kibera is home to around 200,000 people, making it smaller than many other slums around the continent). Various celebrities, from former US president Barack Obama to comedian Chris Rock, have visited this informal settlement in Nairobi where people live in mud and tin shacks that lack the most basic amenities, like proper toilets and electricity in their homes. Kibera has also attracted a lot of NGOs that claim to improve the living conditions of the people living there. However, despite their visible presence, Kibera remains one of the poorest and most overcrowded slums in the world, with among the worst living conditions.

Slum upgrading efforts in Kibera by United Nations agencies and others have also largely failed. Kibera has seen three upgrading projects since 2004 but none has significantly improved residents’ lives. The main reasons for this, according to research by Urban ARK, a global research programme, are corruption, poor management, and lack of consultation with the slum residents. UN-Habitat’s slum upgrading programme in Kibera, for instance, which saw 1,200 families move to high-rise housing units, faced lawsuits from residents who claimed that the allocations were made unfairly. Studies have also found that many of the beneficiaries ended up renting out their units (because they needed the extra income or could not afford the repayments) and moving back to the slum.

Efforts to move slum dwellers out of slums have failed for many reasons, the most salient of which is that Nairobi’s urban poor – who work largely in the informal sector – can only afford to live in slums. The average monthly rent for a low-cost housing unit in places like Umoja is roughly 7,000 shillings a month, which is unaffordable for someone earning less than 20,000 shillings, especially when one factors in the cost of food, transport and school fees. In slums like Kibera, rents range from 2,000 to 5,000 shillings a month. (A World Bank study in 2016 found that the average Nairobian earns less than 30,000 shillings a month, an income that cannot service any kind of mortgage scheme, even that for low-income housing.)

Moreover, the majority of slum dwellers view themselves as temporary residents of slums (even if many end up spending their wholes lives there). Their aspiration is to eventually move out of the slum to better housing once their incomes improve or to use the money they make in the city to improve their housing in their rural villages. Slum dwellers in Nairobi do not yearn for better homes in the city; rather, they yearn for higher and steadier incomes (which will facilitate their eventual move out of the slum).

Slum residents in Nairobi also view slum upgrading efforts by the government and other agencies as slum eviction exercises, disguised as upgrading, which is not so far from the truth. In Mombasa, for instance, 520 tenants were evicted from Buxton estate to pave the way for a so-called low-cost housing project that only benefitted the rich and middle classes, as documented by the NGO Haki Yetu. Ninety per cent of the evictees moved to other slums as they could not afford to move into the units. What is even more scandalous is that 90 per cent of the units were allocated to the developer; the County Government of Mombasa got only 10 per cent. This project neither reduced the slum population in Mombasa, nor improved their lives.

Which is why the announcement by President William Ruto that Kibera will be history in ten years because every family living there will be moved to proper housing is probably sending shudders down the spine of every Kibera resident. Experience has shown that slum upgrading initiatives either benefit the developers of the housing or the rich and the middle classes who can afford to buy the upgraded units, as demonstrated by the Buxton case.

Secondly, given the authoritarian style of our current government, and its disdain for public participation or consultation with affected Kenyans, it is very likely that the Kibera project will be mired in secrecy and controversy. Perhaps the intention is not to ensure the residents of Kibera have a better quality of life but to grab the 630 acres of government land they live on, which, based on current market rates is worth more than 60 billion shillings. Which makes many wonder if this project is a state-sponsored land grab.

Conflicting claims to land ownership 

On the other hand, maybe there is a genuine effort by the government to improve living conditions in Kibera, to finally get rid of a slum that has remained an embarrassing eyesore for decades. However, before any plan is dreamed up for the slum dwellers, there must be genuine public participation and consultation with the residents and their associations because the case of Kibera is particularly complicated. For more than a century, the Nubian community living there has claimed that the land on which Kibera sits was given to them by the British colonial government as a reward for their service in the King’s African Rifles, a regiment of the colonial armed forces. However, despite living on the land for more than a century, post-colonial governments did not recognise the Nubian community’s ownership of the land. It was only in 2017 that President Uhuru Kenyatta granted a communal title for 288 acres to the community (that has its origins in Sudan). Any efforts to disenfranchise this much-marginalised group will no doubt be met with a lot of resistance.

Kibera’s land tenure status is further complicated by the fact that the structures in which people live are owned by private individuals who extract rents from the inhabitants. While the government claims ownership of the land, the poor-quality shacks residents live in are built and rented out by individuals who charge anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 shillings in monthly rent. Landlords have made a killing from their slum rentals over the years, yet have done little to improve the structures or to provide basic amenities like toilets. They are likely to resist efforts to deny them this lucrative source of income. Tenants, on the other hand, will likely see the project as another slum eviction exercise. No one wants to live in a slum, but if the alternative proves untenable or has dire financial consequences, then there could be a backlash.

Do cities like Nairobi need slums?

More than two decades ago, Babar Mumtaz, a technical advisor to the UN in Indonesia made a startling claim – that cities in poor countries need slums because slum dwellers are a source of cheap labour that is used to build those cities. Slums reflect the level of economic activity in a city, he argued. Domestic workers, jua kali artisans, construction workers, street vendors – these people who live in slums make cities function. “While we should deplore the conditions in slums, we should see their formation as an indicator of urban success,” he wrote. “They provide a useful role in providing cheap (though not necessarily cheerful) housing for those who cannot or, as likely, will not, want to spend any more on housing than they possibly can,” he wrote.

Mumtaz further argued that slums will always exist as long as wages for low-income groups remain low. “I have yet to hear those wanting to get rid of slums and informal settlements make a plea for wages that allow affordable housing as a solution. As long as gross wage disparities exist (making it possible for cities to employ cheap labour), slums are here to stay,” he said.

No one wants to live in a slum, but if the alternative proves untenable or has dire financial consequences, then there could be a backlash.

Moreover, as I have stated before, Kenya’s urban poor are not interested in home ownership; rather, they are interested in earning higher incomes, getting and keeping jobs, and having access to improved infrastructure, like roads and sanitation. They do not want to enter into long-term mortgage arrangements, especially in an environment where jobs are insecure and low-paying. Any effort to force them to own homes will therefore fail. This is why even if low-cost housing units are built in Kibera, they will end up benefitting the rich and the middle classes.

The world over slums disappear when the incomes of people grow sufficiently enough to enable them to live in proper housing or when the authorities build affordable rental housing that is highly subsidised by the local authority (as happened in London in the 1950s after the Second World War when the authorities decided to get rid of slums and build affordable low-income rental housing). In a market-driven economy like Kenya’s, slums will only disappear when the majority of urban residents can afford better housing, and when the incomes of the general population rise to levels where they do not have to lead undignified lives in shacks. (There are no signs that the government is looking to build public rental housing, which would be a better option given that the majority of Kenyans cannot afford mortgages.)

We as a country are not there yet, and are not likely to reach high- or even middle-income status any time soon. We are still a very poor country with a per capita income of slightly more than US$2,000 a year, among the lowest in the world. The aim of this government should be to ensure that people enjoy incomes that are high enough to enable them to move out of slum conditions. This will automatically reduce the size of slum populations. But with the IMF-imposed policy of forcing higher taxes on struggling citizens, and a government eager to extract as much money from citizens without offering much in terms of employment and business opportunities in return (on the contrary, the harsh tax regime detailed in the Finance Bill 2023 is likely to close down many businesses and lead to massive layoffs), chances are the majority of Kenyans will remain poor for a very long time to come. And continue to live in slums.

The aim of this government should be to ensure that people enjoy incomes that are high enough to enable them to move out of slum conditions.

The Kibera housing project envisioned by the president is either a pipe dream, or a plot to evict Kibera’s residents so that some private developers (and their benefactors in the political class) can make enormous profits. The eviction of the residents will likely lead to the creation of slums elsewhere, and lead to much hardship for people who call Kibera home. It may also become the source of much conflict. Under the current extremely harsh economic conditions of high unemployment, high taxes, inflation, and a tanking economy, implementing such a project will be a foolhardy exercise.