In Nairobi’s Slums, Problems and Potential as Big as Africa Itself

Nairobi | 01/03/2013 1:00pm
Sam Sturgis | Informal City Dialogues

Highrises pierce the sky not far from Nairobi’s slums. Photo credit: Sam Sturgis

On August 19, 2011, ANISUMA Sony, Kenya’s official dealer for the Japanese electronics manufacturer, opened the country’s second Sony showroom in Nairobi’s upscale Junction Mall. Journalists heralded the 3-D TV sets and Cyber-Shot digital cameras as symbols of the new Nairobi, “the growing number of middle-class in Kenya,” and “the Kenyan consumer’s sophisticated lifestyle and affinity for the latest technology and products.”

But a mile and a half from the showroom, in the slum of Kibera, “affinity for the latest technology” is hindered by the fact that 80 percent of the settlement’s residents don’t have electricity. It’s a disconnect that’s emblematic of the gulf separating Nairobi’s wealthy and expat communities from the informal city, which exists within the slums and makeshift businesses throughout this sprawling capital. Nairobi has long been the economic heart of one of Africa’s most important countries, with the city accounting for 45 percent of Kenya’s GDP, according to UN figures. It also has some of the largest slums and the biggest informal economies on the continent. Yet the shocking economic division here — Nairobi’s inequality levels are among Africa’s highest — still runs roughly along the blurry line that separates the city’s formal and informal worlds.

Kibera stands a mile and a half from Nairobi’s upscale Junction Mall. Photo credit: Sam Sturgis

This divide persists despite these two worlds’ intricate intertwining. There are 300 households per acre in Kibera, and the slum is growing larger every year. So is the informal economy, which employs over 80 percent of Kenyans, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ recent 2012 Economic Survey. Nairobi alone accounts for 24 percent of the country’s informal workers. And the informal sector will grow even faster in the coming years, generating nine out of every ten new jobs. This past year witnessed the creation of 74,000 new jobs in the “modern sector” — and over 445,000 new jobs, or six times as many, in the informal one. But while informal jobs can offer a chance at upward mobility, especially for women and other groups that typically face higher barriers to entry into the formal economy, the report points out that the vast inequality separating the formal and informal worlds is exacerbating the city’s already-deep economic incongruity.

“It has been estimated that the richest 10 percent of the population of Nairobi accrues 45.2 percent of income, and the poorest 10 percent only 1.6 percent,” according to a 2009 study on urban poverty by Oxfam. “While some urban dwellers have seen their position improve due to impressive levels of economic growth in recent years, poverty has been deepening for the majority of the urban poor who have become trapped in downward spirals of deprivation and vulnerability.”

This discrepancy is of particular concern given the Kenyan government’s Vision 2030 program, a set of objectives aimed at propelling Kenya to middle-income status by the year 2030. Importantly, the Vision 2030 outline stresses its goal of achieving “a society that guarantees equality of opportunity in accessing public services and providing income-generating activities.”

But decisions made by Nairobi’s officials often seem designed to achieve just the opposite effect. Rather than supporting and legitimizing the city’s slum dwellers, official policy often cuts them off from basic services and subjects them to chaotic evictions. And instead of finding ways to uplift the informal sector, the government seems content to let such workers operate on a knife’s edge, with virtually no legal protections or safety nets. These attitudes hold back the city as a whole.

This blog will document these intersections of formal and informal in Nairobi, with an eye toward how the two realms can function more harmoniously; its readership, I hope, will include bureaucrats, street vendors, and everyone in between. Moreover, Kenya’s upcoming presidential election in March will hold great consequence for the country’s urban poor, whose numbers are surging dramatically. What new policies might be developed that will impact their communities and livelihoods? How will their strengths be cultivated and harnessed for the city’s greater good? Their stories may hold some of the solutions to these questions, provided they are heard.