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The informal settlement: MUKURU

Laura Marano
Laura Marano
Marano has received the University of Oslo's sustainability award for the best master's thesis in 2022 about the Mukuru slum.
NAIROBI / What role can social movements have in the struggle for better living conditions for residents of informal settlements?


"Inclusive development" is defined as a process that strengthens marginalized groups' social and political influence on their own quality of life and ability to take control of their own lives. In this article, based on my master's thesis (2022), I base a case study on the informal settlement Mukuru in Kenya's capital Nairobi. The purpose is to understand the role social movements can have in the struggle for better living conditions for residents in informal settlements.

The analysis of a seven-year negotiation process led by local authorities in Nairobi provides insight into alternative ways of promoting inclusive development on a scale never attempted before. The objective was to understand how Kenya's largest social movement for informal settlements – the Muungano Alliance – in dialogue with local authorities, achieved to provide more than 300 residents with access to basic services.


Initially, I investigated how data collection and mapping of informal settlements carried out by the inhabitants themselves can lead to better living conditions with access to services for people living in slums. It involves understanding what structural obstacles informal settlements face. I used their Mukuru Special Planning Area (SPA) to gain insight into how the challenges were being met. According to Kenyan law, an SPA gives an area a legal status that shields it from development for a given period. First, a "user-led process to create a physical development plan" must be carried out (Authority of the Republic of Kenya 2017). In August 2017, the Government of Kenya declared three informal settlements in Mukuru as SPAs: Kwa Njenga, Mukuru Kwa Ruben and Viwandani.

With this starting point, an integrated development plan (IDP) was drawn up for Mukuru. It is included in the annual budget of the local authorities (Nairobi City Council). The plan is also part of Nairobi County's ten-year IDP and is thus part of a larger whole. The site is located in the south of the city on private property next to Nairobi's industrial area, i.e. close to the airport and the new railway. The area consists of 100 households and covers 000 square kilometers. That makes Mukuru SPA the largest in Kenya.

Available residential plots?

Around the world, informal settlements are growing at an uncontrolled pace. Here, the majority of the city's population lives in poor conditions. The reasons are high housing and living costs as well as long travel distances to work (UN Habitat, 2016). The informal market is the most important provider of housing in a city with a lot of private property. In Nairobi, as in many other capitals, the situation is very difficult when it comes to available residential plots in central areas with the necessary infrastructure. Those that exist are very expensive. The price level of housing is consequently far above the ability to pay of the majority of middle- and low-income households (Kreti, Rukwaro and Olima, 2020).

Plots available for development lack infrastructure and public services. Security with respect to land rights is absent. It provides faster returns for investors to bet on temporary buildings and informal housing (Mwau, Sverdlik and Makau, 2020). It is "big business". The return on such buildings is four times greater than in the formal housing market (Sverdlik et al. 2020). In addition, rental income is not taxed. The demand is only growing.

43 percent of the residents of Mukuru own a piece of land in the countryside.

Researchers (Kimani et al. 2021) have highlighted that the majority who live informally do not want to own a home. They want a decent home that they can rent. This is due to the fluid identity between rural and urban belonging and what is associated as "home". A survey shows that 43 per cent of the inhabitants of Mukuru own a piece of land in the countryside. This suggests that many residents only live there temporarily to work. That the rent is kept at a reasonable level in order to reduce the cost of living is of decisive importance for the majority of the inhabitants.

A democratic process for the production of knowledge

Consequently, the number of affordable housing in Nairobi is a drop in the ocean compared to the demand. In August 2020, the Government of Kenya approved a US$135 million grant for a 13-unit social housing project in Mukuru. It will probably remain a political ploy. But regardless of the change of government this autumn, the government will only be held responsible for such promises – by movements such as the Muungano Alliance. However, such an investment will only support commercial housing construction models with prices well above the purchasing power of 000 percent of the population.

Slum Dwellers International

Mukuru SPA is managed by the Nairobi City Council, but its roots stem from years of mobilisation, struggle and research-driven advocacy under the auspices of Muungano wa Wanavijiji (MwW, Swahili for 'united slum dwellers') – the largest social movement for the urban poor in Kenya. MwM is a national federation within the global network Slum Dwellers International (SDI). It uses well-tested strategies for mobilization based on savings, loan and exchange groups in addition to mapping and analysis of residential areas. The purpose is to organize a larger mass of the poor in order to influence local and national authorities through dialogue rather than confrontation. MwW works with SDI Kenya as technical advisor and Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT) as financial partner. Together they make up the Muungano Alliance.

The period until Mukuru was declared as SPA was characterized by a long struggle on the part of the alliance. Much of the basis for it was based on new data, information and knowledge from extensive research. It was made possible through foreign contributions, particularly from the Canadian International Development Research Council (IDRC). A condition for funding from IDRC and other similar institutions was transparency of data. All data is made available on the internet without financial, legal or technical reservations. It has facilitated a democratic process for knowledge production. It has also helped to change the narrative of Mukuru's population: from being perceived as illegal squatters, they now appear as residents with rights and resources.

In an attempt to create new models for slum upgrading, the planners prioritized providing increased access to services and facilities. In order to build trust and cooperation with the citizens, divisive issues – such as property rights – were left out of the mobilization and lobbying activities.

Cells and groups

To ensure the participation of more than 300 residents, the Muungano Alliance has developed two key measures in addition to traditional organization in savings groups. The first was the establishment of a structure for citizen representation. The starting point is celler with ten households. Ten such cells make up one group, while eighty groups make up a top forum. From this, representatives are appointed to the planning meetings with the authorities. The second measure was to provide training to 450 "mobilisers". These are mainly young people and women who, among other things, were taught methods for data collection and conflict management. The "mobilisers" also became important in the work to limit covid-19.

Today's government is turning to the private sector to solve the challenge of affordable housing

Now two new SPA processes have also been initiated in the Mathare and Kibera slums in Nairobi respectively. It remains to be seen whether one learns from the experiences of Mukuru. The lessons learned will also have a direct impact on the living conditions of millions of people in informal settlements worldwide.

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