I arrived in Kenya with some specific goals. One of them was to visit the Kibera slum in the suburb of Nairobi. Kibera is famous and considered one of the largest slums in Africa. The figures published by International agencies usually exceed 1.5 million residents, but the Kenyan Census of 2010 accounted for a little more than 170.000 people living in that slum.

I am not really a great fan of numbers and I could care less if they are hundreds, thousands or millions. I believe that the problem there is the lack of infrastructure and equal opportunities for whoever is living in that place. I decided to make my first remote approach. I went with my friend and host Stanley, and his girlfriend Debrah, to a middle-class neighborhood called Langata. From there I could have a better view of Kibera. But the view was not good...

On the left side of the view, the UN-Habitat project, in partnership with KenSup (Kenyan Slum Upgrading Program) which I got to know. My two friends worked at UN-Habitat and participated in part of the project, which unfortunately was considered a failed attempt. The project built new houses for Kibera’s residents, right next to the current complex. However, when the residents moved in they had to pay a rent of 1.000KES, almost twice as much as what they used to pay. Moreover, the recently built apartments could be rented for approximately 15.000KES. Thus, the project beneficiaries either sold or rented their new apartments and returned to the so called slum.

We parked our car at the top of a hill and watched the region. A creek divides the KenSup project from the rest of Kibera. At the end of the complex, there are high-value apartments in the region of Langata. While we ate a sandwich in the car, we discussed the possibility of a local intervention. My friends are trying to start a consulting business for the development of slums and poor neighborhoods, by means of trainings and cooperation with several sectors (NGOs, Government, Universities and the private sector).

On the other side of the complex we got to the main Kibera’s court. Basically, the place is the headquarters of most of the trials in the region.   My “surprise”: cement floor, running water, electricity, parking with several well-maintained cars, security and that feeling of a “normal place”. One left turn later the slum starts, no running water, no official electrical connections, no pavements and no planning. The distance between the two realities is physically small, but clearly shows the impact of exclusion in the planning of a city.

If it is possible to bring the infrastructure up to the slum “door”, why wouldn’t those benefits reach the residents? There is a huge list of NGOs and international agencies working with the community in order to empower young men and women, to prevent HIV/Aids, conduct trainings in entrepreneurship, business and microcredit, among other things. But how is it possible to improve the quality of life of those people and develop the region without providing them with the basic infrastructure of the rest of the city?

I am always pondering about this whole social business issue and the “innovative solutions for the poor”. Why do those people, who are currently being considered as poor, deserve different solutions than those that we, “the rich”, have in our houses? Why not start here: offer to the “slum” the same services that are offered to the rest of the city. Obviously, infrastructure is just one part of the problem, but if we compare it to agriculture, the first action is to prepare the soil, then fertilize it, plant a variety of seeds, “irrigate” and then, harvest.

In order to prepare the soil, it is important to ensure that the residents in the region have access not only to water, and electricity, but to health services and quality education as well. This may sound trivial, but it is also important to consider building adequate access roads, in order to develop a relation between the region and the rest of the city and its economy. In this phase, I believe it is also important to conduct a detailed mapping of the community conditions, active leaderships and organizations, status of the ground and presence (at what level?) of the public power.

In order to fertilize the soil it is essential to have children’s education action, empowerment of youth and women and specific trainings. By and large, the important is ensure that the community deficient areas are served by those trainings, but the essential is  to find out which tools the community already has and then catalyze them. Instead of approaching a community just looking for problems, the mapping is critical in order to identify the tools, the already existing institutions and “fertilize them”, offering the coordination and cooperation between such initiatives, the public power, the private initiative, and of course, the rest of the civil society.

The initial actions also correspond to planting the seeds. It is important to take into account the “irrigation system” to be applied to those seeds. A follow-up by the leaderships, periodic meetings between the community members and the engaged partners (be them government, enterprises or the civil society). In my opinion, it is important to hold these meetings within the community, in the “soil”, to make sure that all are completely involved in the physical and abstract changes of the region.

The harvest portion is not passive. As soon as the community starts reaping some fruits, it is very important to ensure the access to the markets and services of the rest of the city. And it is also important to work in order to break the region stigma and warrant equal rights in all levels to all the local residents. This could be done by means of the media, exchange projects between the regions, and mainly, by means of a spontaneous media generated by the residents.

I’ve observed that a very common phenomenon that often happens is the exodus of youth and trained leadership from the community. Of course this means, on one hand, the improvement of the quality of life of those people. On the other hand, the region continues suffering from the same problems, receiving more and more people and repeating the migratory cycle: on one hand, the number of people that arrive from the rural or less favored areas to try their luck in the urban clusters is constantly increasing; on the other hand, young people and trained leaderships are abandoning the community.

It is clear that what I drafted here is a theoretical and simplistic description of a slum development project, but I believe it is worth it to highlight that so far, in my observations, there is always a pattern in those regions: a clear division between the city and these “non-places” called slums. If we already have the means to develop those regions as well as the rest of the city, why not do it r?

One of the arguments, which is very valid, is that the services provided (such drinking water, sanitation, electricity and benefits related to the legal property of the land) are still too expensive for those dwellers. As unemployment and underemployment rates are extremely high, even the smallest amounts, if constantly charged, are unaffordable. I believe that one action leads to another: when the quality of life and stability improve, the residents of these communities have more tools to restore and achieve better jobs (together with technical support and specific training).

Everything is important. Access to the right markets, skills that may generate income and livelihoods, participation in qualified networks that can catalyze interesting initiatives, and so forth. However, one cannot take a paternalistic position, which is often observed, saying that “those people” do not have the necessary characteristics to escape poverty. Much to the contratry. I constantly challenge myself to try to imagine how to survive with less than a dollar a day, with no infrastructure, no voice, no support and no reliable institutions, and I always fail in my projections.

People in a poverty situations (because let’s admit, nobody IS poor) are extremely qualified and professionals in the art of surviving in more than adverse situations. Once I heard form an NGO coordinator that those people do not know how to manage a budget and need training; and I wonder how they maintain a house with more than eight children, with no money, no resources. And how come, even though, some of those children attend school, even attend college, find jobs and improve the quality of life of their families. It seems to me that “those people” have some understanding about economics.

What really bothers me is seeing development and underdevelopment, side by side, living together as if they were two different worlds. The solution is clearly complex, but not necessarily complicated. I feel that if we are no managing to find some answers, we need to start asking the right questions.

6/24/2012 12:42:27 pm

I created a weebly blog after seeing how simple it looked.

9/19/2012 05:12:58 pm

Thanks to your blog, I'm gonna create one now too, thank you.


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