How Nairobi Can Become a “Smart City”

By Jacqueline M. Klopp

We hear a lot about “smart cities” these days.  Even though endless terrible crashes on the roads, poor services and the recent flooding of Nairobi does not feel “smart”, a movement is afoot that could help to make city planning “smarter”.  A bottom up movement to use technology- especially the cellphone-to help see and understand Nairobi’s problems is occurring. The idea is that data can help in the push for problems to be fixed. This movement has the potential- if embraced by government and citizens- to make the city better if not “smarter”. In this NPI blog post, I review some interesting recent examples from the transportation sector and at the end invite you to participate in this movement by providing feedback on some exciting new projects.

A lot of transportation “planning” in the city is currently done in the dark with little or no data to inform it-even with all the consultants around for “capacity building”. This means a lot of talk and no action on specific priority areas that need addressing. At the same time,  around 300, 000 Nairobians are using the popular app ma3route everyday to provide streams of data via twitter on topics such as traffic conditions, police behaviour and crashes. Recently, former MIT student Elizabeth Resor, working for ma3route took the crash data from tweets from May 2015 through October 2015 (7,817 reports about 3,941 unique accidents  and validated 1,900  of them) to make the very first Nairobi accident map . This helpful map reveals some of the serious black spots that need redesign. It also shows that PSV vehicles get in a lot less crashes than cars and trucks, but they affect more people because they carry more people.


The Nairobi Accident Map created by Elizabeth Resor in collaboration with ma3route is very helpful in identifying clear problem spots on the roads that need to be redesigned for safety.

Another project that helped Nairobians and planners is the Digital Matatus project that mapped out the matatu routes, made the data open and created a public transit map for people in the city.


The Digital Matatus project made matatu route and stop data open and the public transit map is freely downloadable at

This data also put Nairobi transit on Google Maps, a first for any African city. This allows you to find how to get from one place to another in Nairobi by matatu. However, the data needs to be updated continuously for it to be accurate. In most cities in the world, a transit agency usually collects this data or mandates that operators collect and share this information as a passenger service, but this has not yet happened in Nairobi. Instead, Digital Matatus is developing some creative strategies to keep this data live by engaging Nairobi citizens.


Out of this problem, ma3route with the Civic Data Design Lab (MIT) and the C4D Lab at the University of Nairobi, both key partners in the Digital Matatus project, collaborated in the class called the “Crowdsourced City” taught by Sarah Williams, MIT Assistant Professor of Planning and Urban Studies. After many conversations with matatu drivers, citizens and policymakers including the National Transport and Safety Authority which is also developing some important new e-services, the students in this class developed some innovative apps to help generate more valuable information for Nairobi citizens and planners. They are currently testing them out and welcome your feedback. 

First, check out ma3tycoon where you can help verify matatu stop data and then compare your answers to others. This little game is designed to help keep up-to-date information on the matatu system. Next, how about ranking your matatu driver? Or if you are a matatu driver and want to brag, check out SemaMa3 which also gives you crash information from ma3route. If you want to see the tweets from ma3route on a map, then Ma3Map is for you. In once glance you can see what people are saying at specific locations. Finally, check out Twiga Tatu which will help you share fare information and as you do so, we can accumulate important information on what matatus are really charging. Clearly, there needs to be a discussion of this issue. All these apps are in testing mode and open for feedback.

So with citizens and cellphones, we can move towards making Nairobi smarter by providing better information and sharing this information for the public good. With advocacy, this shared data can help to make the city function better. For example, if large numbers of Nairobians suggest a problem with the same matatu, then there is an opportunity to take up the issue with the SACCO and NTSA backed by numbers and data. We can also keep transit data updated for travelers and share information about problems through ma3route which can later help us figure out when problems like crashes keep recurring and demand road redesign for safety.  Ma3route data was even used to figure out how well Kidero’s drums worked on traffic flow!

Ideally, the Nairobi City County and the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure should take a lead towards collecting the data needed for transportation planning and make it widely available for citizens and researchers in an open transport portal through the Kenya Open Data Initiative.  But for now, these growing efforts at being a ” smart city” from the bottom up are showing that a lot can be done to start to understand the city including its transportation. Crowdsourcing data can be a helpful way for citizens to help each other, contribute to planning and  push in an informed way for concrete, targeted changes that need to happen on on the ground.




Interview with Ibra Maina, Kounkuey Design Initiative Kibera

Recently, Nairobi Planning Innovations caught up with proud Kibera resident Ibra Maina. Ibra has been involved with the Kounkuey Design Initiative  (KDI) in Kibera for many years. KDI is an innovative international partnership that draws on architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, and urban planning to build partnerships with residents to create low-cost, high-impact built environments (Productive Public Spaces). You can review some of their projects here. Ibra recently conceptualized and help catalyze the production of a moving film “We have  Life”  which won the Rockefeller Storytelling Challenge. We recommend you watch it!


The Kibera Public Space Project has created beautiful and useful public spaces

NPI:  You are a proud resident of Kibera. What about your neighborhood do you like the most?

Having been born and brought up in Kibera, I am really proud to be a Kibera resident. For me, I love our unity and the social life within us that you can’t find anywhere else. The strength and power that exists amongst us is unlike anywhere else. We are very creative and motivated, and most of all we are very passionate about positive change. More than anything else, these are the very important things that make us feel great about our great neighbourhood called Kibera.

NPI: What would you focus on to improve your neighborhood?

To improve your neighbourhood, you always need to have a positive approach towards development. Perfection is impossible, but progress is always promising. You should be real and remain focused towards real issues that can cause change, and always be confident in your work and ideas.

NPI:  You have been critical of the way the mass media tends to portray Kibera and this helped inspire the beautiful film “We have a Life”. What advice would you give journalists who wish to cover Kibera’s affairs?

Over the years, there have been many stories written about Kibera and its residents. These stories often portray the settlement in very negative way. My experience living and working with communities that are pro-development in Kibera tells a different story about my beautiful settlement. In “We have a Life,” we embraced the positive, community-led change in Kibera. Just like any other city we, the residents of Kibera, face a few challenges. Even in the city of New York for example people face challenges like crime and poverty, homelessness and hunger. My advice to learned journalist is focus on sharing positive initiatives and changes that showcase that we all have a life and that we all have ideas and solutions to the challenges that face us all. The people of Kibera have taken the responsibility to advocate and drive development that they wish to see. The youth and women, the residents and leaders are becoming the change they want. They have shown the capacity to manage projects that continue to positively impact their communities. Writing such stories demonstrates that we are not just improving our city of Kibera, but offering solutions for the same challenges in other parts of the world.


Public art is part of the Kibera Public Space Project

NPI: You have been centrally involved in long term and award winning work to improve the quality of public space and facilities in Kibera through the Kounkuey Design Initiative. Can you describe this work and what it means to you?

To realise this dream and vision, we have always worked very, very closely and collaboratively with the communities and residents to empower them to physically transform their environment by building what we call productive public space projects. Our process is community-driven; this process empowers the residents to participate and ensure that the end goal is accepted, owned, and sustained by the community. A challenge is complex: it is economic, social and physical. Where possible, we connect residents to local and county-level institutions that ensure that their work is rooted in networked and sustainable change.

NPI: The National Youth Service has been heavily involved in projects in Kibera. How has this been going from your perspective as a long time resident and designer? What advice would you give to the NYS to improve their work?

Personally I like the idea of NYS projects in informal settlements. The program managed to bring a number of youths together to provide organised manpower. The NYS program created job opportunities for the youths and the residents, while reducing idleness amongst the youths and crime. Our environment was conserved well through the cleaning activities that were being undertaken by the youths. What I would advise is that the programme should detail and implement a strong exit plan so that the projects and its programmes that benefit the community are well transitioned for ownership and sustainability. Through a community-driven process, the programme should have carefully measured community needs through a baseline survey and need assessment strategy prior to commencing any physical interventions.



Investment in Non Motorized Transport Key to Addressing Transportation Challenges in Kenya


Many Nairobi roads have little to no facilities for walking and cycling

By Henry Ochieng, Chief Executive Officer, Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations

Kenya, like many other African countries places much emphasis on moving cars when developing road infrastructure as opposed to moving people.

This has resulted in construction of roads without provision for non motorized mode of transport such us walking or cycling. Little attention has been accorded to the needs of those of who walk or cycle every day yet these are the most common modes of transport in Kenya. In Nairobi for instance, 50% of the population either walk or cycle to their destination every day.

Non Motorized Transport (NMT) users are exposed to fast, aggressive and at times careless motorized transport users resulting to high number of road crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists. According to National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), an estimated 3,000 deaths occur annually as a result of road crushes and 40% of these are pedestrians.

In Nairobi, out of the 668 road crash deaths recorded in 2015, 497 were pedestrians – a whopping 74%. These high pedestrian deaths can largely be attributed to lack of NMT facilities that leads to a scramble for existing road spaces between the motorized and non motorized transport users.


Cyclists have long been ignored on Nairobi’s streets-yet cycling is a healthy way to travel that reduces pollution and congestion

These statistics firmly justifies the need for Kenya to have a paradigm shift and start focusing more on facilitating movement of people and not just vehicles. Besides reducing road fatalities, investment in NMT facilities has many other benefits. NMT is environmental friendly and is a zero carbon transport mode thus resulting to less air pollution.

There are also health benefits as less air pollution reduces incidences of health complications such as respiratory disease. NMT improves affordable access to vital services such as health, education and employment. Major towns in Nairobi have been grappling with heavy traffic on the roads leading to loss of productivity as several hours are wasted on traffic jams. This is partly attributed to the fact that there are too many vehicles on the roads. Investment in proper NMT facilities is a good incentive for people to walk or cycle to their destinations hence reducing the number of vehicles on the roads.

In more advanced cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, walking and cycling are the preferred modes of transport and are given right of way. This is mainly because they have adequately invested in NMT infrastructure and it is not only safe but convenient to walk or cycle.

At a national NMT stakeholders workshop held in Nairobi in November last year, participants were unanimous on the need for Government to prioritize and increase investment on NMT facilities development in Kenya.

It is comforting to note that the leadership of Nairobi County is gradually appreciating the importance of NMT and putting in place mechanisms aimed at improving investment in NMT facilities. Last year, Nairobi City County Government in collaboration with The Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations (KARA) and United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) developed a Non Motorized Transport Policy for the County. The policy is awaiting adoption by the County Assembly.

Given the urgency and importance of developing NMT facilities, we expect that the Nairobi City County Governor, Dr. Evans Kidero will take personal interest in the policy and lead its implementation. It should not be yet another policy document gathering dust in the shelves. The County should also fast track the development of the streets and roads design manual (taking into consideration provisions for NMT facilities), to guide planning, design and management of all transport facilities and amenities within the County.

Until deliberate and drastic steps towards investment in NMT is taken both at the National and County level, more NMT users will continue losing their lives, there will be more negative environmental and health impact caused by emission of carbon and green housse gases and the traffic congestion challenges will persist.

This was reposted with permission from the author.

Interview with Chairman of the Public Transport Operators Union, Joseph Ndiritu

Nairobi Planning Innovations recently spent some time with Joe Ndiritu, Chairman of the Public Transport Operators Union and matatu expert. We asked him to share some of his insights into the sector from a driver’s point of view.


Joe Ndiritu discusses issues in the matatu sector with students from MIT and University of Nairobi

NPI: How did you get into the matatu sector?

I joined the matatu sector while still at school at a tender age of 14 years. Back then, matatus were being operated by young ones and you could hardly see an old or aged person working as a conductor. That was in the year 1990 and peer influence drove me to the sector as it was by then. Today, it has grown to be an industry controlling billions of shillings . Before joining the matatu sector then, you were vetted by the senior workers in the industry and we used to pay royalties to them. When you were new in the industry you were branded names such as njuka, kamande, ka-fala, fariso, ndemwa, mgeni etc, and names according to the route you operated on. It was a form of “monolization” or initiation, which I later on came to learn was to instill “discipline” in the sector;  you were supposed to respect your elder workmates and society (neighbours & passengers) who were friendly to the matatu.

NPI: What are the main problems you face as a matatu driver?

The main problems I face as a matatu driver are brought about by corruption of some state departments that regulate the industry. These state departments are directly involved in the daily activities conducted in the matatu industry, and others are indirectly involved. The state department that hinders the growth and development of matatu workers is the police department which is supposed to serve and protect lives and property. It is this department that harasses matatu workers, intimidates and demands and coerces for bribes. Police instill fear in matatu workers, mostly because most workers do not understand the Traffic Act which the police enforce.


County inspectorate askaris also harass transport workers when enforcing by-laws. Many of these by-laws we do not understand or have access to. Some are outdated and do not conform to the demands of cities and urban centres.

Another issue is with the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) which has allowed cartels to collect illegal tax on matatu workers, and we end up paying a lot in illegal taxes rather than what we would have paid the taxman. KRA has mechanisms to address this issues and collect tax from matatu workers in the form of pay as you earn (PAYE) or income tax or any other form of tax that would work in the sector. 70% of matatu workers have a Personal Identification Number (P.I.N) and have at least an employer who is supposed to remit tax to KRA.


We also wish the labour department would help us. It is supposed to advise other state departments, inform, educate and enforce labour laws and related matters. They have totally ignored the transport industry in Kenya or have not been engaged by the state. The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) is desperately trying to address labour issues affecting matatu workers without the input of labour department.


Another problem I face as a matatu worker (driver) is when my colleagues overlap in traffic or when they are arrested and coerced to give bribes. It makes me feel that I am part of that problem collectively, and it paints a bad picture of me as an empowered matatu driver.


There is a health problem that we have as drivers and is not spoken about. This problem is back pain and headache that is an effect of long driving hours and most drivers abuse a pain relieving drug called Diclofenac  because of lack of medical cover. We also have pneumonia that is associated with exposure to extreme cold and poor air quality and has killed many of our drivers and conductors. Another health problem is H.I.V. Despite national campaigns, matatu workers have not undergone sensitization seminars, hence exposing them to the dangers of the epidemic.


Poor air quality and other public health problems impact matatu drivers

Bad roads, goods roads and poorly maintained vehicles are also a main problem to most drivers. Bad roads and poorly maintained vehicles increase risk of crashes but good roads can also cause problems. Most drivers have not undergone refresher courses or defensive driving courses despite improvements on road infrastructure. Our employers and governments have not invested in us (workers) in terms of facilitating improved learning through such courses.

 NPI: Tell us about the Public Transport Operators Union that you chair. What are you aims and why should the public support your efforts?

Public Transport Operators Union (PUTON) is a trade union registered in Kenya under the Labour Relations Act of 2007 to represent the interest of informal transport workers in Kenya. It was registered on 12/02/2013 through a court order after the registrar of trade unions in Kenya had initially refused to register the organization. Informal transport workers in Kenya are estimated (yes estimated) to be 300,000 of which 200,000 work directly as drivers and conductors and the 100,000 are indirect workers.

Our aims are found and elaborated in our union’s constitution.

They include but are not limited to:

To provide a basis for the establishment of sound traditions, good culture and fair solutions to disputes.
➢ To promote, improve and develop responsibility, interests and aspects of life and contribute towards a healthy social life among workers.
➢ To provide and avail means to the workers for expression, views and decisions upon matters affecting the interests of the public transport industry.
➢ To participate in all matters calculated to lead to the improvement of the matatu transport and to promote the establishment of a system suitable for our unique system of public transport.

➢ To provide effective representation of matatu operators in the government, National Transport Authority, Public/Private organizations/institutions, NGO’s or any recognized agency where such representation may be required.

The public should support our efforts because we need a win-win situation where all stakeholders are responsible enough for their actions when providing service. Matatu drivers have been for a very long time been on the receiving end because of being voiceless.

NPI:  What improvements in the routes and passenger services would you like to see implemented and how can matatu drivers help push for these changes?

  • Route re-design on the existing framework that will also lead to people shifting residence to far areas outside the city centre e.g. Thika, Ruiru, Mavoko, Limuru etc.
  • Allocation of new routes within the city and combining some routes to give better services. This means that some existing routes will become obsolete.
  • Public safety e.g. by not carrying excess load and passengers
  • Conducive working environment will improve service delivery
  • Devolving public transport to county level.

NPI:  What do you think the government could do to build a more cooperative relationship with the matatu sector?

  • Engage all stakeholders in transport
  •  Improve infrastructure
  •  Invest in policies that will guide the future of the matatu industry e.g. up to the year 2030 and beyond when we shall have an improved transport system.

This policy must take into account the interests of informal transport workers together with the potential of loss of livelihood, especially with the introduction of the Bus Rapid Transit system which is being promoted by the World Bank, Matatu Owners Association and others.

NPI: What is your vision for transportation for Nairobi?

My vision for Nairobi’s transportation is a mass transport system, because the city is developing so fast and has become the hub for doing business in the region. Many international organizations are setting their regional offices in Nairobi, and our transport will need to accommodate the middle/working class. There should be a public transport system to accommodate this class and encourage the use of public transport alongside other modes of transport e.g. Non Motorized Transport. Otherwise if P.S.V/matatus don’t change with time, then there might be a death knell in the industry (e.g. like the current case of taxis and UBER), just the same way the telephone booth died with the introduction of cellphones in Kenya.


Is the National Youth Service Slums Improvement Initiative a ‘Development Gone Wrong Project’?

By Simon Kokoyo

The inhuman condition of poor neighborhoods in Nairobi has attracted government attention since the Jubilee administration came to power in 2013. The Ministry of Devolution and Planning through the National Youth Service (NYS) initiated a slum infrastructure improvement project targeting Mathare, Korogocho, Mukuru and Kibera. Unfortunately, the initiative has been on hold for sometime due to corruption and poor planning. Regrettably the project seems to be moving in the direction of all the ‘DEVELOPMENT GONE WRONG’ projects in the world.

The slum improvement project by the National Youth Service was started on the premise that slums do not have essential and adequate services such as water, health, sanitation, security or electricity. Youth unemployment is rife in poor neighborhoods which is partly true depending with how one understands the real situation in such neighbourhoods. Of course, poor people must work hard in creative ways, often in the informal economy. Otherwise, they would not survive.


A man works extra hard to earn money to feed his family on a daily basis” Photographer: Joseph Kinyua (13 year old, Mathare Resident) See the Julius Mwelu Foundation, Mathare.

When the NYS initiative was launched in Mathare, President Uhuru said the government will construct 12 police posts, 12 ablution blocks, posh mills, sack garden, dispensaries and also create jobs for the local youth. This process was to be replicated in Kibera, Mukuru and Korogocho neighbourhoods.

The first mistake was to assume that there is ‘free or open space’ within such neighbourhoods which will give way to infrastructure improvement. A series of evictions and conflict between hired NYS cohorts and local community members ensued. In some cases the scene turned ugly since the NYS surprisingly did not have a relocation or compensation plan for affected families.


Many NYS projects like the road project in Kibera displaced businesses and families without relocation or compensation

On the other hand, the designers of the NYS project failed to acknowledge that when government falls short of providing basic services people will organize themselves and offer alternatives services which in most cases end up being expensive and of low quality. This situation is a direct result of  governance failures within such settings as highlighted in the 2003 UN-HABITAT report on ‘The Challenges of Slums’ (See also NPI’s Interview with Dr. David Nilsson on Water and Inequality)


A keen look at the Open Street Map for Kibera and Mathare Valley before the NYS initiative started reveals the existence of services such as education, health, water and sanitation points. In Korogocho, Mukuru, Mathare and Kibera self help groups had emerged even before the NYS Initiative started to earn daily income from activities such as urban farming, garbage collection and water delivery services. It is a fact that most toilets are not connected to the main sewer and private clinics are either not registered or managed by quacks, while illegal power connections abound.

The NYS Initiative would have scored big by establishing connections with already existing services providers in poor neighbourhoods by either improving their capacity to offer quality and affordable services to the urban poor or by trying to create an enabling environment for slum entrepreneurs to be part of formal and legal business entities. It is a mistake to assume that  there are no service providers within poor neighborhoods. Poverty and lack of basic services is an urban reality which has motivated the establishment of civil society groups to initiate health, education and income generating activities for women and youths as a supplement to government efforts in meeting its obligations. No government in the world can be able to solve the complex community problems of the poor by itself.

Experience from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and the Urban Poverty and Slum Upgrading Project funded by the World Bank might be instructive. The project has some similarities with the NYS project in terms of targeting poor neighborhoods but was able to achieve more success because it worked more closely with local communities and partnered with Dar es Salaam Municipal Council officials from conception to implementation and monitoring stages, a situation which is totally lacking with the National Youth Service projects. The NYS Initiative seems to be a duplication and competition with the mandate of Nairobi City County.

Most people in poor neighborhoods agree that the project needs to continue, and they welcome an intensification of government efforts to provide better services, but a few issues need to be addressed. Employing local youth for the NYS project as laborers does not necessarily amount to community participation but rather can be viewed as tokenism youth development, which is meant to appease or cool down anxiety among the high number of unemployed youths in poor neighbourhoods. It  is not empowering or sustainable either since it ends abruptly with the project.

Stalled NYS Project_Kosovo

Broken promises: A stalled community library and hall in the process of being built by the NYS in Kosovo village, Mathare

Currently the NYS project has stalled, and because the NYS raised expectations and also displaced existing service providers, the situation has now degenerated into increased incidences of crime, a breakdown of a once vibrant garbage collection system established by youth groups and the presence of unfinished structures that are symbols of broken promises. This disarray leaves behind a vacuum that can be easily exploited negatively by politicians as we head towards the general elections. It would be very tragic if a project which was to improve conditions for Nairobi’s citizens in poor neighborhoods, in fact, makes life much worse for them in the end.

The Case for More Urban Farming in Nairobi

By Lorraine Amollo Ambole

I have always wanted to grow my own food. But I live in the city of Nairobi, which is a concrete, dust, smog jungle. Would anything grow here? Well, apparently yes. According to the Mazingira Institute many people in Nairobi have been growing their own food in the city for decades. Not in the postmodern, allotment-garden, locavore kind of way. These urban farmers in Nairobi simply take advantage of any available space to grow food because it’s cheaper. It is the kind of urban farming that takes on from traditional subsistence farming, which is fairly common in rural areas of Kenya.


 Nairobi’s many urban farmers  use available space to grow food

Until the recent past, most Kenyans could lay claim to at least a small piece of ancestral land, which was then used to grow food. Following colonial rule by the British, some communities were removed from their ancestral land and thus denied their livelihoods as subsistence farmers. The country is now industrialising and many people pursue other livelihoods, although farming still remains a major occupation in rural and peri-urban areas.

As Nairobi expands, urban farming has become more and more difficult within the city. The urban population therefore largely depends on commercially produced food that is highly sensitive to international price shocks. Poor households are particularly vulnerable to maize price shocks as they spend about 20% of their food expenditure on maize. It is therefore not uncommon to find slum dwellers in Nairobi who can only afford one meal per day, if at all.

In answer to this glaring food insecurity problem, there are recent government supported initiatives in slums such as Kibera vertical farms. In such initiatives, slum dwellers learn how to grow vegetables in sacks, thus making use of the available spaces within the densely populated Kibera. In one area, a dumpsite has been converted into a thriving garden that provides cheaper vegetables for the locals and a decent income for the farmers. According to Real Impact, an NGO that offers training in urban farming, vertical bag gardening not only uses less space but also requires less water, less labour and is cheaper than conventional farming.


Women from Kibera sack farming

One major concern of having urban farms in poorly serviced slums like Kibera is the possibility of environmental contamination in the food. Studies already show that food grown in some of Nairobi’s slum areas are contaminated with heavy metals such as lead. Such revelations could scare off middle and high income earners who want to eat locally-produced organic food and to support urban farmers from slums.

In my case, this concern brings me back to the point that I should be growing my own food in my own sack that I can monitor closely. And there are already so many empty spaces around my neighbourhood, where I can place such sacks. I have even contemplated growing the food inside my own apartment though I don’t know how that would work. Everything I have tried to grow so far has died, including a cactus plant. I have a black thumb for sure. My poor horticultural skills aside, I think I’m onto something. I could perhaps start a social media campaign for people in my neighbourhood to become urban farmers.

Being the largest of its kind in Kenya, my neighbourhood: Nyayo Estate Embakasi, consists of over 2500 units that are currently occupied, and more than 2000 others that will be occupied in the near future. These units are mostly organised in blocks of 8 apartments that are clustered around shared spaces. Undoubtedly, there are excellent opportunities for community gardens within this vast estate. The residents in Nyayo Embakasi are more or less in the middle class, which means they can afford to buy their groceries, and might therefore worry little over food insecurity.


Nyayo Estate, Embakasi could be an excellent place for community gardens

But like anyone else in Nairobi, they too would be interested in community engagement initiatives that promote sustainable lifestyles. Urban gardening in Nyayo would offer great opportunities for such engagement. The residents are already organised around issues of security and home ownership, and so it would not be a stretch for them to have community gardens. The estate guidelines however clearly stipulate that gardening is professionally managed by a designated firm, whose idea of gardening is flowers and grass that should not be stepped on. So my erecting sacks around the neighbourhood could be seen as a nuisance if not downright illegal.

It’s an idea worth considering though, and maybe other middle and high income areas would pick up on it, and green Nairobi and get their food while they are at it. As for the urban farming that’s ongoing in Nairobi slums, there is need to mitigate environmental contamination and ensure the produce is fit for consumption. The urban farmers in slums could also link up with organic food outlets outside of the slums so as to provide a steady market for their produce. Perhaps even the rooftops of commercial buildings in Nairobi can be used to grow food, if Nairobi County can pass a Paris-style legislation for greening rooftops in new commercial buildings. Nairobi, after all, has one of the highest growth rates per annum in Africa, and so sustainable food production should be at the top of our planning agenda.

Lorraine Amollo Ambole is a tutorial fellow at the School of the Arts and Design at University of Nairobi, Kenya. She is also a PhD candidate at the School of Public Leadership at University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. Her current research interests are: social design, community participation and transdisciplinarity. She also enjoys writing about Nairobi, her hometown. You can contact her about urban gardening in Nairobi at: or  



Access to Water in Nairobi: An Interview with Dr. David Nilsson

Nairobi Planning Innovations is very pleased to interview Dr. David Nilsson, an urban environmentalist who has been working with long-term change and development issues in sub-Saharan Africa for the last 16 years. Now based in Sweden, he works as a consultant and as a researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. David previously lived in Nairobi for many years and was involved in an important study by UN-Habitat and the Institut Francais de Recherche en Afrique (IFRA) on  Access to Water in Nairobi” . The project started in 2011 and generated important insights into equity issues as regards to water and sanitation access in the city. It will be the focus of our interview.


An estimated 64% of Nairobians have access to an individual or yard tap to access water

NPI: What was the motivation for doing the “Access to Water in Nairobi” project?

Just like so many other cities in developing economies, access to urban infrastructure services in Nairobi is extremely unequal. Reducing inequality is one of the most pressing challenges – perhaps the most pressing – if we are to live up to all nice words about human rights and sustainable development. The fact that huge inequalities persist in Kenya is an insult to the Bill of Rights. This project set out to develop an innovative method to analyse and visualise how large the service segregation is when it comes to water in Nairobi. But we also wanted to explain what is behind this inequality.

NPI: This research effort collected an impressive amount of data on water and household incomes. Can you briefly explain how you collected this data?

The project used a groundbreaking method, developed by IFRA, where open-source satellite images were spatially analysed and combined with a modest household survey sample of some 800 households. First of all, a set of characteristic indicators in the city landscape was identified, such as housing density, percentage of public space, tree cover, roofing material and so on. Using the satellite images, it was then possible to create a typology of different urban settings within the city based on these indicators. Once this ”map” of different urban types had been established, it was used to target the socio-economic survey. Being the first time we did this, a lot of work went into method development. But the method has a great potential for making the mapping of inequalities on the ground so much easier.


Nairobians in poor neighborhoods rely heavily on water kiosks (82%) or communal taps (24%). This means they often pay more for water than people in wealthier neighborhoods.

NPI: What were the most startling findings from this work?

I think that what surprised me most was not the fact that the poorest people in Nairobi pay so much for the little water they consume – this is well known – but that the rich people consume so much and pay so little. In large parts of the city – typically in the upmarket areas to the West and Northwest – consumers use well above 160 litres per capita per day. This is in line with average consumption in well-watered regions of the world, like my home country Sweden. But Kenya is a water scarce country. And now we have the richest 10% of Nairobi’s population using 45% of all the water available for consumption. This made me reinterpret my understanding of Nairobi’s water challenge from one of scarcity and poverty, to a problem of unsustainable consumption by a rich minority.


NPI: What impact do you think your work has had on Nairobi? Do you think the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company will take into account the concerns raised about equity and wastage? Does it have incentives to do so?

The prime concern of the company is to improve economic performance and day-to-day operations, so it makes perfect sense for them to reduce wastage and illegal water use. But they have too few incentives to really focus on equity. It is the County, Athi Water Board, and the national regulator who need to create such incentives for the operator. Today the regulator, the Water Services Regulator Board (WASREB), ranks water operators almost exclusively on their economic performance. If the national regulator doesn’t take service equality seriously, why should the water company care? But I know that Nairobi Water and Sewerage Co is struggling to provide better service also to poor people. In the end, Nairobi’s one million unconnected offers a potential market, although the rich and already connected users of course is a much more lucrative market segment.imgres

NPI: Based on your expertise and experience in Nairobi, including this project work, what are the most pressing interventions that need to happen if the city is “to achieve by 2030, universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all as well as access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all” (SDG 6)?

Several things need to happen as there is no universal cure. First of all, accountability in the sector has to be severely strengthened to root out corruption and to ensure that ordinary people’s voices are heard. Civil society will hence be crucial as watchdogs, but politicians and technocrats also need to show some leadership. Secondly, donor agencies need to put their money where their mouth is and stop funding large-scale supply-oriented solutions while there is still rampant inefficiency, wastage and inequality on the distribution side. Yes, Nairobi has recurrent water shortages. But large-scale bulkwater transfer solutions now advocated by the World Bank and others will first and foremost benefit rich Nairobians and foreign technology suppliers. Thirdly, we need locally engaged and genuinely committed research and development activity on the ground. Innovation actors in Nairobi can – and must – develop solutions that work here. Unfortunately there’s no off-the-shelf solution that can be imported to fix things up quickly.

NPI: What kinds of policies around Water and Sanitation should Nairobians advocate for in your view to achieve SDG6?

None. There is too much emphasis on policy development. I have studied the water policy landscape in Kenya since before the Water Bill of 1929. Nowadays, governments and donors seem to believe that to achieve a societal goal, it always starts with a policy or the passing of a law. At the same time we all know that enforcement and policy effectiveness is a totally different story. I think to achieve SDG 6, Kenyans should not spend another ten years refining policies and legislation, but instead nurture a vivid debate in society about equality, and if the city should be for everyone. A culture of accountability, of hard work and of  “harambee”, is much more crucial than any policy in the world.

NPI: Thank you so much! I hope this interview will contribute to the needed debate on water and inequality in Nairobi. NPI readers can learn more from the Access to Water project here including the recommendations that came out of this work.