Nairobi, Kenya

by Winnie Mittulah


The roots for the formation of Nairobi’s slums can be traced back to the pre-independence period when the urban layout was based on government-sanctioned population segregation into separate enclaves for Africans, Asians and Europeans.13 During this period, slums essentially developed because of the highly unbalanced allocation of public resources towards the housing and infra-structural needs of the separate sections. The post-colonial period saw a relaxation of the colonial residential segregation policies, and major population shifts occurred, notably rural-to-urban migration, with little obstruction to the proliferation of urban shacks ‘as long as they were not located near the central business district’. Slums sprang up all over the town in the proximity of employment. Spatial segregation during this period continued to be reinforced, but this time more as socioeconomic and cultural stratification. The post-independence period also saw rapid urban population growth without corresponding housing provision, poor population resettlement due to new developments and extension of city boundaries that included rural parts within urban boundaries, often changing the characteristics of the settlements.

There is no official definition of slums or informal settlements, and the terms slums and informal settlement are often used interchangeably. City authorities, however, view lack of basic services and infrastructure as characteristics of slums, an aspect that slum dwellers do not emphasize.

Slums accommodate the majority of Nairobi’s population and are generally of two types:

Squatter settlements.

Illegal subdivisions of either government or private land.

A number of slums are located on land that is unsuitable for construction, and all have high to very high population densities, with up to 2300 persons per hectare. Slums and informal settlements are widely located across the city, typically in proximity to areas with employment opportunities.

The majority of structures are let on a room-to-room basis and the majority of households occupy single rooms.14 Several studies indicate that 56 to 80 per cent of the slum households rent from private-sector landlords (who, in the past, often had the political connections that helped them to protect their investments).

Between 1971 and 1995, the number of informal settlement villages within the Nairobi divisional boundaries rose from 50 to 134, while the estimated total population of these settlements increased from 167,000 to some 1,886,000 individuals. In terms of percentage of the total Nairobi population, the share of informal-settlement village inhabitants rose from one third to an estimated 60 per cent. Today, both natural growth and rural-to-urban migration continue to contribute to the growth of Nairobi’s informal settlements villages.

Slums contain urban residents who earn low incomes and have limited assets. Employment is largely low skill (domestic help, waiter, bar maid, guard), often on a casual basis (construction labour), small business owners (kiosk owner, newspaper seller) and other income-generating activities. Discrimination, especially along ethnic lines, exists, with most ethnic groups living in (sub) communities of their own ethnic background. Clashes between ethnic groups have been experienced. Slums are not a major source of urban unrest, although they constitute areas with a higher concentration of crime, violence and victimization.

There is a lack of a clear policy that would facilitate and guide urban development in Kenya, and urban interventions are largely made on an ad hoc basis. Most slums are located on unplanned sites that are unsuitable for housing, and their residents are exposed to different forms of pollution. In some slums, housing and infrastructure programmers are being put in place through joint efforts of the government, donors and civil society organizations. These interventions have had mixed results.

Several policy-sensitive initiatives have been undertaken and institutions and facilities have been established to address the issue of slums, including the enabling strategy, the Nairobi Informal Settlements Coordination Committee, Nairobi Situation Analysis, the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper and the Local Authority Transfer Fund. They address a series of themes, including settlement upgrading, community participation and improved access to services. The outcomes of these interventions are an increased housing stock and expanded
community opportunities and participation, as well as a host of less fortunate aspects. These include:

Proliferation of new slums.

Exclusion of particular population groups.

Subsidy and affordability mismatches.

Top-down approaches.


Erroneous focus and failing partnerships.

Non-replicability of efforts.

It is perhaps also the lack of a precise definition of the concept ‘slum’ that contributes to the lack of effective and tailored policy response. Additionally, in the face of the failure to establish coherent and effective Nairobi-wide urban policies, the outlook for the situation in slums appears to be rather bleak.

This summary has been extracted from:

UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies', pp195-228.
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2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh