Battling Sexual Harassment in Kenyan Public Transport: The Flone Initiative: An Interview with Co-Founder Naomi Mwaura

Sexual harassment in public transport is a global problem.  Kenya is no exception. Every day tens of thousands of women making trips in Public Service Vehicles (matatus) face unacceptable behavior from their fellow male passengers making mobility a dangerous and uncomfortable experience.

In an effort to make travel safer and more comfortable for women, one Kenyan organization, the FLONE Initiative, is combating sexual harassment on public transportation in Kenya . NPI bloggers Seth  Kerr and Jacqueline Klopp conducted an extended interview with Naomi Mwaura, a co-founder of The FLONE Initiative. Naomi not only helps combat sexual harassment through this Initiative but is also committed to helping all people in Kenya have access to equitable transportation as a dedicated staff member for the Institute for Transportation Development Policy (ITDP) which recently set up shop in Nairobi.


Women rely on pubic transport and often face harassment Photo: courtesy Digital Matatus

NPI: How did the FLONE Initiative get started ?

I grew up watching my uncles’ work as public vehicle drivers, conductors and cleaners. From this upbringing, I did not see the matatu industry as a lost cause but as a misunderstood and neglected industry. My family grew financially through the industry. At one time, I was physically assaulted by public vehicle conductors while the rest of the public transport operators stood by and watched. How could I reconcile the two realities? As a result FLONE initiative came into being. For several years, through FLONE Initiative, I have been working with the main aim of improving the lives of public transport operators, creating safe spaces for women in the public transport network and changing the matatu industry for the better.

NPI: What are the overall goals of the FLONE Initiative?

a. To be the premier workforce development organization for public transport workers.

b. To Prevent sexual harassment and violence in the Kenyan public transport industry

c. To be the leading authority on the status of women in transportation

NPI:  What are the details of the FLONE Initiative’s Public Safety Certification Program?

The public safety certification program trains public transport providers on prevention of sexual violence, gender equality, customer service and on personal and professional development. Another focus area is increasing reporting of sexual violence through the use of a crowd mapping platform and SMS reporting platforms. We also strive overall to create awareness on the prevalence of sexual violence meted against women in the Kenyan public transport network.

NPI: How many people working in the public transportation sector has your initiative trained so far?

The FLONE Initiative has so far trained 312 public transport workers in Bungoma, Githurai 45, Kisumu, Nyeri and Nakuru. These are public transport networks with most recurring incidences of violence.

NPI: What are the biggest challenges facing women who use public transport in Kenya?

Transportation influences access to education, jobs, health services and social activities. Men are more likely to have access to private means of transport than women. Thus, making public transport safe for the women and girls will enable women to easily get access to services whenever they need to. For instance a woman can attend evening classes without fear of victimization while using public transport.

NPI: What has the response been from the transportation sector?

Many have embraced the initiative and are very much willing to work with us while others feel it a lost battle.

NPI: How have women responded to your organization’s efforts?

Response so far is very positive since many view the program as a solution to a problem that has been affecting them for such a long time.


Kenyan women protest against violent sexual harassment See the story by Esther Wanjiku here

NPI:  How can women report the sexual harassment they face? 

By alerting the Initiative website on the Ushahidi platform or by simply calling the helpline No.1195

NPI:  How effective has the police system and judicial system been in combating sexual harassment? Do perpetrators face justice in Kenya?

There are currently 6 public transport operators in jail for stripping a lady in Kayole. The victim forgave the perpetrators and made a formal request to withdraw the case but the DPP intervened stating that the case was a matter of public state hence, could not be withdrawn by the victim. There are 5 perpetrators in court for sexually assaulting a lady by inserting a bottle in a matatu. In both of these cases, bail was denied. Sadly most of these incidences go unreported, and those that are reported lack enough evidence and/or follow-up to persecute perpetrators.

NPI: What are the main challenges the FLONE Initiative faces in combating sexual harassment in the public transportation sector?

Funding to implement and upscale the public safety certification program is the FLONE Initiative’s main challenge.

NPI: What would you like to see improved overall in the matatu sector from the perspective of women passengers and workers and what do you think the government needs to do to make these improvements?

That women and girls feel safe while using the matatus as well as more women venturing in the public transport industry for career opportunities. We commend the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) efforts to ensure women’s safety and security in public transport by suspending SACCOs (matatu cooperatives) found guilty of harassing women. The government needs to ensure that matatu workers who are perpetrators of violence are seriously punished in accordance to the law. The perpetrators of uncouth habits should also be severely punished by denying them licenses to operate. Additionally, those doing well should be rewarded and used as models for the other.

NPI: Will Nairobi’s new Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (NaMATA) have any initiatives or resources to combat sexual harassment?

NaMATA through its partnership with the County Government of Nairobi hopes to improve and manage the transport systems to make it efficient, safe, reliable and sustainable. In regards to resources or initiatives to combat sexual harassment so far we are not aware of any.


NPI: What are some of your activities and how can people get involved?

Currently, we are implementing the Usalama wa Uma Program. The program engages public transport operators by offering trainings on gender equality and prevention of sexual violence, customer service, and in personal and professional development. Individuals and organizations can support us both in kind and financially. Moreover, by working together to stop perpetration of harassment as it occurs on the streets and matatu terminals will be of such great help. We are also implementing the Women In Transportation Program (WITrans). WITrans aims to identify and bridge workforce gap in the transportation industry by promoting careers for women in the transportation industry. WITrans ultimately aims to attract, retain and advance women in the transportation industry.

NPI:  Is the Flone Initiative partnering with any other organizations attempting to combat sexual harassment too?

Yes. Flone Initiative has partnered with Men Engage Kenya Network (MENKEN) to train public transport operators on gender and sexuality and on prevention of sexual harassment.

With sexual harassment of women happening across so many differentiating factors like nationality, ethnicity, race, religion and age, what do you believe the root causes of this behavior are? When men are taught to be dominant and aggressive, this often leads to negative masculinity as a result they tend to prove their prowess by harassing women and girls who are viewed as the weaker sex.

NPI: Are there other methods Kenyans should be utilizing to combat sexual harassment too?

Yes, by promoting men’s positive roles in preventing violence against women. Work with men and boys will need to be scaled up. To truly transform gender inequalities, we must go beyond scattered, small-scale interventions and efforts (no matter how effective), towards systematic, large-scale, and coordinated efforts.


Matatus and city streets should be safe for men, women and children. Courtesy: Reality Tested Youth Programme

NPI: What message do you have for the men reading this interview?

Don’t watch as a woman is being harassed and do nothing. Instead stand out and bring sanity to the situation. Remember this could be your sister, mother, wife or daughter. Together we can make the difference.

NPI:What message do you have for the women reading this interview?

Let us work together to ensure that the streets are safe for us and our daughters. Condemn the undressing vice whenever you see it happen. The public transport offers careers as any other sector, and it is high it we ventured into it boldly and fearlessly .

NPI: What does the future look like for the FLONE Initiative; what are the organizations goals for the coming years?

FLONE’s future is very bright,In the coming years, we hope to see the following: public transport certification  incorporated in driving school curriculums, behavioral change in the power dynamics between men and women, more women venturing into the public transport workforce, structures  in place to increase reporting and prosecution of sexual harassment cases, and finally that the success of Flone Initiative programs is replicated in other African countries.

For more information on the FLONE Initiative visit their website or join their facebook page

Naomi Wwaura can also be contacted at

Outer Ring Road: Beyond Compensation for “Project Affected Persons”

By Simon Kokoyo

Open air traders or street vendors have become a common feature along busy roads of Nairobi.  Their welfare is of concern when it comes to road or railway expansion which often affects these hard working people trying to survive. After all, we know the informal economy employs a high number of people who would otherwise be in desperate straits. Unfortunately, the major infrastructure development taking place in Nairobi is slowly creating displacements and destruction of small scale businesses thus increasing vulnerability levels in Nairobi.


Displaced small businessman trying to continue with work in a new location

This is despite some traders being lucky enough to access relocation or disturbance allowance as with case of Outer Ring Open Air Traders. The journey towards compensation is a story in and of itself. Mr. Maina an open air trader along Outer Ring road says this story is one that he would wish to forget. Mr. Maina once owned a vibrant tree nursery and a thriving shoeshine business, but he only managed to relocate his shoeshine business while the tree seedlings were all vandalized.

It all started with a 2014 petition by the open air traders addressed to Kenya Urban Roads Authority and African Development Bank after realizing that both project appraisal and EIA study reports had not fully captured their plight as open air traders. According a study conducted by AfDB, 445 informal traders (hawkers and petty traders) were identified as working along the 13km road a figure which open air traders thought was on the lower side considering Mtindwa Market alone had more than 300 such traders.

Accessing formal employment is not easy for most residents from poor neighborhoods bordering the road corridor. This has led to people starting small businesses next to the road since many residents walk to work and thus they can attract customers on the roadside. The road plays an important link to three industrial zones namely; Kariobangi Light Industries, Baba Dogo and Industrial Area. This has created an opportunity for open air traders to sell their wares easily. Nairobi County markets along the road corridor have been full for the last five years and no new markets have been constructed. Both the national and county governments have not invested in the construction of new markets or spaces for open air traders. This has made it difficult to accommodate the ever increasing number of open air traders and consequently resulted in traders invading walk paths.

The open air traders or street vendors are disadvantaged when negotiating for compensation as “Project Affected People” (PAPs) as they are called in reports  because of the informal nature of their operation and contentious issues related to the space occupied. Seventy five open air traders selling different wares along Outer Ring Road who were not included in the initial RAP discovered it was not a walk in park to face Kenya Roads Authority . Even accessing the final list of PAPs was a challenge. Formal and legally registered entities had their businesses valuation exercises fairly conducted and paid accordingly but open air traders were paid a blanket fee of Kshs. 15,000 (150 USD) as relocation allowance.

The World Bank and AfDB seem to have a clear policies on how issue of PAPs should be handled given that both have fully fledge departments to handle emerging complaints and conflicts on projects being funded by their institutions. This contrasts with how our road agencies such as KenHa, KURA and Kerra operate, even though we have a strong constitution that protects rights and also a new law, the  Prevention, Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons and Community Affected Persons Act 2012 to give this life. Usually, civil servants in these institutions are more concerned with building the road regardless of the consequences and generally are very slow in responding to concerns raised by PAPs. The government as well as development partners such as European Union, World Bank and AfDB need to play a more critical role in ensuring economic rights of PAPs are fully guaranteed in these projects as is required by Kenyan law.

Compensating project affected persons does not always lead to improved socio-economic status. This is the case with Outer Ring Road. Now, we have a small population of former open air traders who have been impoverished despite being compensated relocation allowance since they lost access to their customers and relocation is not actually a simple process. The Outer Ring Road experience is showing  that paying PAPs an allowance is not enough.

Mega road projects cutting through densely populated areas disrupt existing social networks. Loans advanced to the government will do better if they could be inclusive of expanding existing social amenities such markets and construction of modern market instead of assuming the government will take its responsibility seriously. This process should be concurrent with the project being undertaken. It is now over four years since the Thika Superhighway was constructed and accessing Githurai market near the roundabout has become more chaotic and dangerous for the pedestrians as the newly constructed walk path and bicycle track have been invaded by open air traders since the market was never relocated, expanded or even constructed. Often, the road agencies pass this responsibility onto counties when they should be working together to mitigate these negative impacts of roads. It is also very poor design on the part of the  road agencies if they do not accommodate all users  of streets in a reasonable way. Githurai market and its activities have obvious high economic value to society.


Small bike rental company operating  in the spaces soon to be a major highway-will cyclists  be safe when the road is finished?

In general, the road sector has more than a dozen agencies and regulations focusing on traffic, road construction, maintenance among others but none that properly addresses open air traders / street vendors working along the road corridor. This is unfortunate considering that compensating PAPs and acquiring land for projects expansion usually takes a big budget. Often large compensation is paid to land speculators who drive up the prices of these projects while the poor are not compensated and supported adequately. The financing agencies seem to have a fairly well documented involuntary resettlement policy which also reinforces Kenyan law- the government agencies involved in infrastructure development need to follow these policies and law. The open air traders help create much needed jobs . Roads are supposed to support productivity not destroy it so maybe it is high time the government takes a more holistic approach to protecting this economic activity when it is building needed infrastructure.

See also A Look at the Social impacts of the Outer Ring Road Project

 Simon Kokoyo grew up in Mathare. He has worked for the Spatial Collective and is a board member of the Reality Tested Youth Programme, a community organization that serves the youth in Huruma, Kaimaiko and Mathare areas. He has a blog about Mathare

Nairobi: Innovative Technologies for a More Sustainable Future

By Seth Kerr

As Nairobi works towards implementing its mass rapid transit system and boosting its non motorised transport infrastructure, additional options are available to move towards a more sustainable city. These options include recycling tyres for pedestrians, energy generating sidewalks, solar powered bicycles lanes, water absorbing concrete and energy generating roadways.

Tyres for Pedestrians

Cities across the United States like Santa Monica, Seattle and Washington D.C. are using recycled tyres, and even recycled plastic, to build rubberized sidewalks. The idea came to fruition primarily in order to save trees from the damaging affects of concrete sidewalks. Small sections of rubber sidewalk are used near trees in order to save both the tree and the sidewalk from damage. Recycled tyre based sidewalks have a number of other benefits too:

  1. Flexibility to move not only with tree roots but also with shifting soil
  2. Safety by providing softer, smoother surfaces for pedestrians
  3. Porous material which allows rain water to reach the soil beneath the sidewalk
  4. Low maintenance requirements and often times low maintenance costs
  5. Reduced impact on peoples’ joints
  6. Environmentally friendly alternative to landfills and/or burning of discarded tyres

Now is an excellent time for Kenyan officials to look into how discarded tyres could help Kenyans instead of harm them. Kenya, as a whole, faces a significant problem from discarded tyres. In a report published in 2014 by the German company GIZ ‘34,000 tons of tyres were burnt haphazardly, dumped, destroyed or re-used by methods that pollute air, soils and ground water in 2010’. It is likely that these numbers have only increased since 2010.


Kenya generates tonnes of waste in the form of tyres that cause pollution Photo courtesy

GIZ partnered with Bamburi Cement LTD and other businesses to form Waste Tyre Management Kenya. The main aim of the partnership is to implement a sustainable waste tyre management system and to help the Kenyan government adopt an updated waste tyre regulation. The report states that ‘The cement industry is expected to be the main user for waste tyres in Kenya’ but why can’t pedestrians benefit from the re-use of discarded tyres too by turning them into sidewalks?

Problems to Overcome:

  1. For rubber sidewalks to be successful in Kenya, there would obviously have to be a market for them. City governments would have to be interested in purchasing them for installation. To date, there is no record of any Kenyan city using rubber sidewalks. With city governments becoming increasingly more cognizant of the need to provide quality infrastructure to pedestrians, this hurdle could likely be overcome with the right marketing especially with pedestrian oriented projects like in Ruiru, Kenya.
  1. Kenyan companies would have to produce these rubber sidewalks. Globally, there are many companies like Terrecon, KBI Flexi-Pave and Rubberway who make and sell rubber sidewalk materials but to import these to Kenya would be cost-prohibitive. Kenya has a burgeoning formal recycling industry and Kenyan companies like Eco-Sandals and Eco-Post  are already keen on ways to capitalize off of recycling. Why not add rubber sidewalks as one of many possible recycled-rubber or recycled-tyre product lines?
  1. The cost of rubber sidewalks is usually more expensive than brick or concrete sidewalks in the USA. This would likely be true in Kenya too. Many cities are investing in rubber sidewalks in small quantities because they are being marketed to have lower maintenance needs as well as to be more cost effective alternatives to traditional sidewalks. Evidence is showing that rubber sidewalks may not be as cost effective from a maintenance perspective in all cases.
  1. The main impetus for rubber sidewalks in the USA is the protection of trees. It is unclear how significant of a problem this is in Kenya especially outside of central business districts. Surely, the application of rubberized sidewalks can be up-scaled beyond just protecting trees especially in a larger scale effort to protect Kenya’s environment and people from improper tyre dumping and burning.

Recycling tyres generates business (Photo courtesy

Electric Generating Sidewalks

The company Pavegen produces flooring material capable of generating electrical energy through the footsteps of pedestrians. The technology has been used in plazas, train stations, shopping centers, airports and a variety of other locations across the world, including a project in Lagos, Nigeria. The technology can also be used to gather data on pedestrian or consumer behavior. In Nairobi, where nearly 50% of citizens walk and electricity is not always consistent, this technology could be incredibly useful in areas with high volumes of foot traffic or even in making shopping centers like WestGate mall more sustainable.

Solar Powered Bicycle Lanes

The Dutch town of Krommenie opened a bicycle lane constructed out of solar panels in 2014. In 2015, after a year of existence, the results came back positive showing the bicycle lane produced more power than originally anticipated; enough to power three households for one year.

Being so close to the equator, Kenya receives significant amounts of sunshine. Clearly, this technology could find fruitful application here. The real hindrance for this technology is that the construction costs are very high. As Nairobi and other Kenyan cities start to expand their bicycle lanes, this technology’s initial construction cost could be outweighed by the long term power-savings.


Cycle lanes and sidewalks can generate energy

Water Absorbing Concrete

Flooding is a serious nemesis to communities across Kenya. It causes significant amounts of damage, disruption, injuries and deaths every single rainy season. The company Tarmac, based in the UK, has developed a product that could significantly reduce the negative effects of storm water. The company’s product called Topmix Permeable Concrete can absorb 880 gallons of water (36,000 millimeters) every minute. This concept is relatively new and comes with some limitations. Applied with other well designed storm water management techniques, the system could help Kenyan communities combat the rainy season.

Solar Powered Roads                                                                                

Kenya shows no signs of slowing down on adding more roads and expanding existing roads. Why not make these roads more than just a way to get from point A to point B? Some countries like France are making their roads more sustainable and productive by turning them into solar panels to collect energy. France has an ambitious plan to install 1,100 kilometers of solar paneled roadways during the next five years with hopes of generating significant electrical power.

The company behind the technology, Colas, states that one kilometer of solar powered road is enough to power public city lighting for a city of 5,000 people. Again, with Kenya’s frequent sunshine, this technology could make a dent in Kenya’s growing power requirements. Construction costs are high with this technology too but over a number of years the power-savings could justify the business case.

So What?

Rubber sidewalks and other emerging technologies will not be a panacea for Kenya in creating more sustainable, equitable and safe cities. The difficulties in marketing, manufacturing and pricing of these different options may mean none of these technologies ever finds a home in Kenya.

Public awareness and research into these different technologies, however, could have a number of benefits:

1.) Business opportunities for Kenyan companies, investors and entrepreneurs

2.) Providing additional electricity

3.) Reducing the negative effects of flooding

4.) Improving non motorised transport infrastructure

5.) Protecting the environment and air quality

6.) Improving peoples’ health

Even if these technologies are implemented in Kenya, there is no substitute for applying the smart urban planning principles that make cities successful. It is true that Nairobi, and African cities as a whole, face unique challenges like informal settlements that require solutions designed and implemented by the local populace. However, many of the smart urban planning principles such as limiting sprawl and providing a number of quality transportation options fit Nairobi’s needs regardless of their western planning origins; these sustainable technology ideas could fit too.

Kenya has the opportunity to be a leader on the African continent; an opportunity to make Nairobi the example other cities strive to replicate. These technologies, and infrastructure as a whole, could help Kenya become a paragon of sustainability if the politicians, engineers and urban planners are willing to challenge the status quo and demand more for the health and vitality of cities and the people who inhabit them.

Seth Kerr currently works in the medical research field in Nairobi. He is an aspiring urban planner. He has written about Nairobi’s Non Motorized Transport Policy for The Global Urbanist. 



How elites and corruption have played havoc with Nairobi’s housing

By Jacqueline Klopp and Jeffrey Paller


Building collapse in Daily Nation 2 May 2016

Following a heavy downpour and severe flooding, a building collapsed in the crowded Huruma neighbourhood of Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 52 tenants. Sixteen months earlier, a building in the very same neighbourhood collapsed and killed at least two people. In both instances, many more were injured.

Nairobi is rapidly urbanising, as the city is poised to grow to six million people by 2030. But its growth is driven in part by rural push factors rather than urban industrial growth, contributing to a large informal sector and stark inequalities between neighbourhoods.

After the first building collapse, Nairobi city county responded by fast-tracking a bill to fix the problem. The second was marked by a blame game. The public and the national government pointed fingers at the county government for failing to demolish the structure as planned. Others scorned the public for littering and building unauthorised structures on flood plains.

In addition, many pinpointed corruption as at least partly at fault for the crumbling infrastructure. Officers in the county government are accused of taking bribes to overlook building code violations. However, others have argued, these codes and penalties make no sense. The Architectural Association of Kenya has been drawing attention to poor development control frameworks for many years.

At root then is a complex set of failures that must be understood within the context of politics in historical perspective. Many current problems emerged at the very beginning of Nairobi’s birth as a colonial town: flooding, poor infrastructure, marginal “housing” for the majority that served as labour reserves, lack of development control, rampant “land grabbing” and speculation. Added to this has been the presence of a privileged elite who could not or would not conceive of a broader public interest.

As the insightful blogger and cartoonist Peter Gathara points out, many of these speculative land and real estate dynamics persist, distorting prices in the housing market and creating high rents, gluts on the high-income end and shortages on the middle- to low-income end.

The ‘low-quality, high-cost trap’

Nairobi’s long-term urban governance “failures” are symptoms of deeper problems. “Failures” are economic opportunities for others. Recently, Africa Uncensored’s investigative series, “Kanjo Kingdom”, revealed the way cartels operate to extract money from poor traders in Nairobi. Many of these traders have no space to operate because of the theft over time of public utility spaces meant for markets.

Low incomes and limited jobs in the formal sector, much as in colonial times, means that to survive people must rely on running small businesses in marginal spaces in the city that are not officially designated as commercial. The failure to allocate space to vulnerable people means they become prey to cartels linked to the City Inspectorate. This is the very antithesis of service provision – it is poverty production through perverse “planning”.

A similar dynamic is at work when we come to the problem of slums and affordable housing. Slums, which were founded as colonial labour reserves, still persist in their informal status and use as labour “reserves”. Many slums are on government or former government land that was misallocated. Instead of using Nairobi’s once ample public land as a way to subsidise affordable housing (or industry and commercial activities), cartels and government officials extract from the poor who are in search of housing and livelihoods.

In the film “Living with Corruption” journalist Sorious Samura shows, for example, how he had to pay at least US$300, much of that in payments to officials, to build a shack in Nairobi’s Kibera slum with insecure rights.

These transactions signify a larger problem with corruption in Kenya’s political economy. According to the 2013/2014 Auditor General’s report, 98.8% of the money spent by Kenya’s ministries could not be clearly and lawfully accounted for, contributing to significant barriers to economic development.

As Sumila Gulyani and Debabrata Talukdar argue, Kenyan slum residents – the same types of people who were victims of the Huruma building collapse – are stuck in a “low-quality, high-cost trap.” Housing is not affordable in Nairobi’s slums, infrastructure does not improve and people are stuck with poor and insecure living conditions. All because this is quite lucrative for many who get high rental returns for providing next to no services, including safe shelter.

Owning property in Kenyan slums requires political connections and payment of significant fees (and often bribes) to get a building permit. Coupled with that is willingness to bear the risk of loss of capital if the structure is demolished. But once the investment is made, landlords benefit from informality and ambiguous land tenure rights, and work very hard to maintain the status quo. Politicians use tenure insecurity as a way to mobilise voters, promising private goods in exchange for electoral returns.

The housing challenge across Africa

The housing and flooding “crisis” of over 100 years is not unique to Kenya. Flooding is one of the most deadly disasters that periodically hits African cities. Rapidly growing cities Kampala, in Uganda, and Lagos, in Nigeria, have experienced significant flooding in the past year, and Ghana’s Accra has recently been in the midst of terrible flooding. This is likely to get worse with climate change and rapid urbanisation.

As in colonial times, the urban poor often become scapegoats for broader structural and political problems. Slum dwellers get blamed for poor infrastructure and lack of sanitation, while politicians and municipal authorities fail to deliver the public services needed to keep cities safe. Municipal authorities often advance demolition and displacement as solutions, rather than in situ and creative upgrading strategies and increasing housing stocks by freeing up land on a citywide scale.

In Accra, poor urban residents face eviction threats every rainy season. When elections occur every four years, these threats are tabled until after the voting takes place. Politicians, their intermediaries and community leaders often take advantage of this insecurity to bolster their own personal power.

While many African cities are trying to deal with the urbanisation challenge by improving infrastructure, fixing drains and investing in sanitation, perverse incentives continue to hamper progress in addressing the deep causes of poor housing and services.

Secure and safe affordable housing is still very difficult to find in most African cities. Simplistic slum upgrading schemes are not enough. As Dr Joan Cloas, Executive Director of UN-Habitat recently said,

You need to build cities – not houses.

Building better, inclusive cities involves creating a politics that enables using public land, land value and taxes wisely to ensure more and lower-cost, high-quality housing and amenities for all.

This article is reproduced with permission from The Conversation.

Smart Air Quality Monitoring for Nairobi

by Priyanka de Souza

In 2014, the World Health Organization released a report stating that in 2012, exposure to air pollution was responsible for an estimated 7 million premature deaths. (3.7 million deaths due to outdoor air pollution, and 3.3 deaths due to indoor air pollution). This finding confirmed the fact that air quality is the world’s single largest environmental health risk. Addressing the issue of exposure to air pollution thus has the potential to save millions of lives. So- how do we go about this?

Many countries have recognized the importance of improving air quality and have put in place measures to reduce air pollution. These measures include instituting national air quality standards (South Africa has even defined the right to an environment that is not detrimental to health or well-being to be a constitutional right). However, despite the setting of standards, and the putting in place of policies, the prohibitive cost of reference air quality monitoring systems ($150,000 -$200,000) has prevented some countries from measuring air quality to ensure compliance with these standards. Further, even when monitors are put in place, they are usually located in relatively clean areas.


Currently Air Quality Monitoring is Missing in Many Cities Like Nairobi

Low cost sensors (costing a few $ to a few $1000) have the potential to help us move from a paradigm of high cost, highly accurate, sparsely located reference air quality monitors, to a dense, low cost, reasonably accurate air quality monitoring paradigm. However, when such sensors are brought up in meetings- especially those in which public officials are present, they are usually decried. Opponents say that there are currently no standards or certification criteria defined for such sensors. Further- the flood of low cost sensors in the market, make it very hard to determine the reliability of each model.

This is indeed a problem. In fact the deluge of data from uncertified sensors such as these, have been used to cast aspersions on initiatives such as the ‘odd-even’ Delhi car scheme, as data from some of these devices actually showed a rise in air pollution despite the reduction of cars on the road. Complicating the challenge of certification, cheap sensors from the same manufacturer often have different characteristics. The US Environmental Protection Agency has released a report that looks at some of the low cost sensors on the market. The EPA, however, has calibrated these sensors in the clean environment in North Carolina, and not much is known about how these sensors will perform in polluted, hot, humid environments in the developing world. Temperature and humidity affects the stability of such sensors dramatically. More work is definitely needed to quantify the accuracy of such sensors in different conditions.

Given this limitation, do low-cost sensors have a place in today’s world? I would argue that they are extremely important. This is because of three reasons: One- Low cost sensors can be used to further citizen science by providing citizens with tools to measure real-time air quality in their homes and work places. Thus, these sensors can be used as important awareness raising and advocacy tools. The European Environmental Bureau, for example, recruited influential members of the EU Parliament in Brussels to carry these sensors around with them for a day and report the data. The high particulate matter counts were widely reported on and galvanized action.

Two- by comparing data generated by different nodes in a dense, low-cost sensor network, pollution hot-spots and sources of pollution can be identified. This allows the development of pollution management plans. It allows us to move beyond compliance and litigation into a conversation about so what can we do/what should we do? This is important as the debate in most countries has moved beyond ‘Is air quality an issue’ to: ‘What do we need to do, and how much?’

If we had such devices at work-places, next to construction sites, near power plants, close to mines, management plans, emergency action plans could be developed in case pollution levels rose to levels that could have a serious impact on health. As air quality is an issue that impacts everyone: rich and poor, it has a lot of traction and can be a powerful tool to obtain changes in policy. These devices can thus be used to identify air quality baselines and to track the impact on air quality of various measures implemented by the government such as the promotion of non-motorized transport, the setting of fuel standards. The improvement of air quality can be a powerful catalyst for action.

Three- Air pollution is not the problem. Exposure to air pollution is. Maps of air quality generated from such networks can be overlaid on population density maps, and exposure maps can be created. Mobile low cost sensors can be used for integrated monitoring (both indoor and outdoor) air pollution to track the real air qualities that people are exposed to as they move about their daily life. Stationary air quality reference monitors cannot do this. Such an integrated approach can truly allow for the measurement of quality of air that is actually breathed in by people as they go about their daily lives, and can thus be used to pinpoint health effects.

The use of these sensors in measuring indoor air pollution is an important point, because indoor air pollution is responsible for roughly half of the total premature deaths estimated to be caused by air pollution. In addition, household air pollution is a major source of ambient air pollution, but the measurement of the same is focused on far less. A study in India conclusively links the health of babies with the quality of air breathed in by mothers during pregnancy (sensors were attached to the expectant mothers during their pregnancy).


Outdoor and Indoor Pollution are linked to adverse health impacts 

Another innovative and promising air quality monitoring technique involves estimating pollution via satellite imagerSatellite data can be used to estimate aerosol optical depths (AOD) over the entire globe. Particulate matter concentrations can be inferred from the AOD. In theory the resolution of such measurements can be done in areas of a few square kilometers, however, at such resolutions the error margins can be quite high. A limitation of such an approach is that such data is only collected once a day when the satellite orbits above a location. It is believed that the use of geostationary satellites will allow data to be collected whenever sunlight is present, and the location is not obscured by cloud cover, but this is yet to be seen. Data from satellites, however, can be used to identify districts in which air pollution is high and thus inform the placement of low cost sensors. Data from these low cost sensors can also be fed back into satellite driven models that can thus improve the model, and enable the generation of forecasts.

Thus low cost air quality monitoring solutions offer the developing world a wonderful opportunity to leap-frog the stationary, expensive air quality monitoring stations of the developed world, and help inform the making of policies to reduce air pollution. In 2014, Resolution 7 was passed at the UN Environment Assembly which set UNEP a mandate to help countries tackle air quality. UNEP noted that the first step in doing so was collecting data on air quality. It thus developed a DIY air quality monitoring unit costing ~ USD 1500. The unit makes use of low cost sensors manufactured by Alphasense to measures harmful gas (NOx, SOx, VOCs, CO, O3) concentrations as well as particulate matter count.

It made the blue prints public (The circuit diagrams +code can be found here) so that governments/citizens could assemble, use the unit and even modify it, as they see fit. The unit attracted a lot of attention in the press. Several countries contacted UNEP asking for help to deploy a network of such units. If the units are networked (i.e. calibrated against each other), and are deployed in a wide array of sites, then using machine learning, it is possible to filter out ‘noise’ in the data produced by the network resulting from interfering gases, changes in temperature and humidity. This would thus increase the accuracy of the whole network. Further research needs to be carried out on how many units need to be deployed to gain an ‘acceptable’ accuracy.

We at UNEP thus wanted to deploy a pilot network of air quality monitors to better understand what the process would entail so that we could share our experience with interested citizens and governments. Thus we decided to deploy a six node air quality monitoring network in the city of Nairobi which faces many air quality problems. As we wanted the network to be ready soon, we did not use the UNEP air quality monitors for the network, as the unit is not currently being commercially produced. Instead, we used boxes we bought from the company: Atmospheric Sense. These boxes were the ones deployed by Professor Rod Jones from the University of Cambridge in a Heathrow airport air quality monitoring network study, and employ the same sensors as the UNEP unit.

Deploying Low Cost Air Quality Monitors in Nairobi

The first step in deploying the network was identifying suitable sites for the units. Here the the wonderful NASA GLOBE program helped. NASA has developed a list of protocols for the conducting of measurements of various parameters of the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere. The GLOBE program trains teachers from all over the world in these protocols. These teachers then train their students to conduct measurements. NASA then uses the data from these measurements to validate and calibrate satellites.

I found that the Kenyan GLOBE program is very active. Several GLOBE schools in Kenya had weather stations which the kids work with. I therefore thought that it would be very interesting to co-locate our air quality monitors with the GLOBE weather stations in these schools. In this way, we could get wind speed and wind direction data along with air quality data, AND teach the children in these schools about air quality and about how to use the monitors.

After seeking permission we had to choose optimal sites for the monitors. The units we deploy were designed to be powered from the mains power supply. They had batteries that could last for 3 days. We thus had to ensure that our units were sited close to power sources. We wanted to measure air quality at the height at which people breathe. However, we did not want them to be in reach of anyone who could tamper with the units. We therefore deployed all units at the height of 2-3 m above the ground. We had wanted the units to be pole mounted so that they could have access to pollution from 360 degrees. However, the units were designed to be wall mounted and therefore we had to identify walls on which the units could be mounted so that they would face the general wind direction. Finally, the Atmospheric Boxes do not function well in rain or high temperatures. Although the units came with their own sun shades, we had to make sure that the units would be adequately protected from the elements in order to minimize exposure to the elements.

We finally found sites to deploy the air quality monitors in UNEP: Alliance Girls School, St Scholastica, All Saints Cathedral School, the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy and the Lunga Lunga community center. Alliance Girls School in Kikuyu was our urban background site. St Scholastica is a stone throw’s away from Thika Highway- a road notorious for traffic jams in Nairobi. All Saint’s Cathedral School is close to Mbagathi road and several small shops and industries. Kibera Girls Soccer Academy is situated right near a garbage dump site that we thought would be useful to monitor.

Further, on Saturdays, I teach kids at the school how to use the simple computers called Raspberry Pis, and thought it would be a very wonderful thing to show the children how to play with the air quality data on the Pi. For our last site, we had originally chosen Moi Forces Academy in Eastleigh. However, we later decided that we would learn nothing more by installing a monitor in this location as the schools is situated far away from the main road. We therefore decided to look for a site in the industrial area to get a true picture of air quality in Nairobi.


Low Cost Air Quality Monitor on a School

I was in touch with the community center in the Lunga Lunga slum about installing a Raspberry Pi there. We asked them if we could also install the air quality monitor and they agreed. The Lunga Lunga site is situated close to a factory that manufactures chemicals for the production of tear gas, a factory that produces electrical components, Oshwal Chemicals industry, and an open garbage burning pit. It is also close to to Lunga Lunga main road.

Atmospheric Sense shipped the units to us. We finished the deployment of the units in the first week of May. The data is streaming from these units to Alphasense servers. The first 3 weeks worth of data was presented at the Science Policy Forum of UNEA by Professor Roderic Jones of the University of Cambridge. Even with 3 weeks of data, by plotting the filtered measurements against wind speed and wind direction, potential sources were identified.We are currently working on automating the data collection, post processing and then visualization in order to make the data available on UNEP’s website UNEP Live so that the results are understandable to people. Please do check the website or email me for updates about this.

The last step of the process involves holding workshops in each school to educate the children about the unit and the importance of air quality. We will be doing this in the next few months. We learnt a lot from deploying the network. We learnt that the cost of the units is a small fraction of the total cost of network deployment. This is because maintenance of the network, as well as the analysis of the data is time consuming and  expensive. However, given the valuable insights we obtained from the data, we believe that such low cost networks are important tools for governments to use to collect air quality data in the future.

Priyanka deSouza graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in 2013 with a Bachelor and Master of Technology in Energy Engineering and a minor in Physics. She then went on to study at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and read for an MSc in Environmental Change and Management and an MBA. She is currently a consultant at UNEP and an Energy Research Fellow at Project Drawdown. She will be joining the MIT Senseable Lab as a Research Fellow in September 2016. She can be reached at .

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.