Flashy lights, dim hope: Nairobi’s urban reality

Nobody goes to the city to be jobless, homeless or to look completely rudderless to the rest of the world.

Yet Nairobi offers this serving to a huge number of those who come in from Kenya’s rural areas.

The capital is home to 4.4 million people, a significant 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population.

Nairobi is generally known for prestige: the newest high-end cars, the most architecturally advanced buildings, the best companies they are seen here.

But behind that veneer of affluence, the city is also home to Kibra and Mathare, two of the biggest urban slums in Africa. Many other low-end estates offer a feeling closer to slum life than the posh neighbourhoods of the city.

Muthaiga (the Beverly Hills of Kenya’s capital), Lavington, Riverside, Runda, Kilimani, Kileleshwa and Parklands estates, where the very rich live, are in this same city.

Like two opposite worlds in one, residents of either place can tell their stories differently. You would struggle to reconcile them.

In one, they have smooth roads that are regularly refurbished, water that never runs out, security from some of the best firms in the region and schools where children are prepared for the transition to Ivy League universities, and go for holidays in the world’s most attractive retreats.

In the other, sewers run into piped drinking water, puddles of raw sewage form at doorsteps as murky liquids gush out of torn drainages and onto roads. Power is always unreliable, theft is a common practice and children are engaged in hard labour for crumbs.

It is the same city where glorious skyscrapers can be seen jutting out of expensive Upper Hill, overlooking sprawling informal settlements on the outskirts where penury hangs thick in the air.

And yet the majority of the poverty-stricken residents are people who left the rural areas in pursuit of better life in the city.

Census results of 2019 showed that while Embakasi had over 857,691 people above the age of five, 101,012 of them were unemployed and were searching for a job.

For the whole county, the number of people seeking work “with no work available” was at 411,983.

That significant number with no work lives in deplorable conditions, with their dependents.

Granted, the majority of the city lives in congested spaces where amenities are a luxury.

The largest sub-county in the city also has the fewest people per square area. Langata is 216.8 square kilometres, and there are only 911 people per square kilometre.

In contrast, Mathare, three square kilometres, has a population of 68,941 per square kilometre.

Kibra, 12.1 square kilometres, has 15,311 people per square kilometre, data from the 2019 census shows.

And Westlands, home to some of the posh estates of the city, has 3,167 people per square kilometre. It is 97.5 square kilometres in size, more than 32 times the size of Mathare Sub-county.

According to the United Nations’ The World Population Prospects, Nairobi’s population could reach 7.03 million in 2030.

There is not a similar promise that the size of land will increase or that the government will find a better way to provide services.

Even the types of structures Nairobians live in draws stark opposites.

“Kibra constituency has the highest share of mud with wood or cement walls at 71 per cent. That is 71 times that of Embakasi South constituency, which has the lowest share of mud with wood or cement,” notes the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) Kenya Inequality County Report of 2017.

Even villages back in the rural areas have been moving away from mud-walled constructions.

Umoja II ward had the highest share of residents using improved sanitation at 100 per cent, almost three times Korogocho ward, which had the lowest share of using improved sanitation at the time of the survey.

As would be expected, the huge population means that the levels of pollution increase. Non-biodegradable waste is a common problem in the city, uncollected plastic waste strewn all over Nairobi River, which runs straight through the metropolis.

Industrial emissions into drainages endlessly contaminate the water and thus a whole aquatic ecosystem even beyond the city.

In a city wrongly believed to be so well connected to the national power grid no one is perhaps expected to use anything less than electricity, some 28 per cent are excluded from Kenya Power’s services.

“A total of 72 per cent of residents in Nairobi County use electricity as their main source of lighting. A further 13 per cent use lanterns, and 13 per cent use tin lamps,” says the KNBS inequality report.

Only two other counties have populations exceeding two million, and those are Kiambu (2.42 million) and Nakuru (2.16).

The difference is that while Kiambu’s 2,538.6 square kilometres and Nakuru’s 7,462.4 square kilometres result to 952 and 290 people per square kilometre respectively, Nairobi’s 703.9 square kilometres carries 6,247 people living per square kilometre.

And this is only made to look good because of plush estates where dwellers have space for backyards, and parks to walk their dogs in the evenings.

Nairobi is an expensive place to live, nevertheless.

Beatrice Koech, Director for Physical and Land Use Planning in Nyeri County, says the migration from rural to urban areas can be managed.

“Rural-urban migration can be checked through balanced regional development. We need to identify the factors that pull the population towards these areas and try to promote them in the areas they are running away from,” she told Home & Away.

“The ever-increasing population cannot be controlled suddenly but it can be done gradually since the main reasons why people move in masses to areas such as Nairobi include a ready market for their economic activities, employment opportunities, better basic amenities and the expectations that the rural population has in urban areas.”

Koech says the necessary amenities can be provided but only if the government works with the private sector and embraces fair distribution of resources.

“The government may not be able to fully provide these basic amenities but with a workable framework on public-private partnerships, private investors can support in the provision of the same,” she said.

“Spatial planners should come up with plans whose implementation will minimise rural-urban migration, while government should also check on the urban-biased provision of infrastructure and do the same in rural areas.”

The Mercer 2020 Cost of Living Survey ranked Nairobi at 95 among 209 cities across the globe. The study measures the comparative costs of more than 200 items in each location.

One in every five Kenyans in Nairobi lives in slum areas, according to the survey, without access to basic amenities. They cannot afford basic needs and live from hand to mouth – that is, for those who have jobs.

In its draft 2020 Budget Policy Statement (BPS), Treasury noted that around 10 million Kenyans live in slums, which translates to 21.2 per cent of the country’s 47 million people as at last year’s census.

“Ninety per cent of Kenyans living in urban areas live in rented houses, 65 per cent of whom live in informal settlements,” said Treasury.

“With the population growth of cities, there has been urbanisation of poverty with 22 per cent of the population in Kenya’s five cities living in slums. The number of individuals living in slums varies significantly by city, with 36 per cent of residents in Nairobi living in slums while 24 per cent of Mombasa residents live in slum areas.”

Many cities in Africa face the same problem.

Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, also grapples with the risk of overpopulation and overrun on amenities.

UK newspaper The Guardian three years ago reviewed Koye Feche, a vast construction site on the edge of Addis Ababa that was mooted to soon be sub-Saharan Africa’s largest housing project.

“Koye is the latest in a handful of miniature cities that are gobbling up land all around the Ethiopian capital. Since launching the integrated housing and development plan in 2006, the Ethiopian government has built condominium estates like these at a pace unrivalled anywhere in Africa,” the paper said.

“To date, more than 250,000 subsidised flats have been transferred to their new owner-occupiers in Addis Ababa and smaller towns. Situated 25km south-east of the city centre and covering over 700 hectares of land, Koye will house more than 200,000 people in row upon row of muscular concrete high-rises.”

Modelled on the modernist housing estates found across the post-war West, in particular East Germany, Addis Ababa’s condominiums symbolise the vaulting ambition of the Ethiopian government in its efforts to manage the country’s relentless urban growth.

“But whether they will ever solve its housing problems is uncertain. The population of the capital alone is expected to double to more than eight million over the next decade,” said The Guardian.

South African cities such as Johannesburg, attracting people from the hinterland as well as beyond national borders who come to look for work, education, recreation and other opportunities, have relatively high population densities, and have been particularly prone to overcrowding.

Research covering the period between 2002 and 2014 showed that more than one-quarter of formal, low-cost dwellings in South Africa were overcrowded.

In a study by BMC Public Health, conducted in two settings of poverty in the city of Johannesburg, 57.6 per cent of dwellings were found to be overcrowded.

Koech feels it is time Nairobi’s sub-counties stood to be counted.

“For the city, it is time we think of decentralising the same economic attractions to the counties. The government should strategically plan for or develop these magnetic developments so as to redistribute the populations in the city,” she said.

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