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Nairobi Informal Settlement Study


Nairobi is the capital city and administrative headquarter of the republic of Kenya, in East Africa. The city is situated 10 South and 360 East, 87 miles off the Equator. The city is at an altitude of 5,512 feet about sea level and has an area of 266 square miles (Anyamba, 2011, p. 22). Like numerous other cities in the third world economies, Nairobi has witnessed a massive population explosion in the last 4 decades. The city’s population grew from less than 20000 people in the early 60s to about 4 million at the moment (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2001, p. 10).

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At a population growth rate of over 6% per annum, Nairobi ranks among the cities with the highest population growth rate in the world. The population growth rate in the city is exceedingly high compared to an average of 3 percent per annum for cities in less developed economies and 2 percent for the global urban growth rate (Ooi & Phua, 2007, p. 27). More than 60 percent of the city’s population lives in low income and informal settlements. According to a UN report, Nairobi’s urban poor lives on less than $1.5 a day with an average monthly income of $ 78. The income is undeniably low bearing in mind the per capita poverty line of one dollar a day (UN-HABITAT, 2006, p. 6).

The city is a paradox. It is among the most significant economic hubs in Africa and contributes nearly three-quarters of the GDP to the economy (Anyamba, 2011, p. 23). Nairobi is also the headquarters of three principal UN organs-UNDP, UNEP and UN-HABITAT. The latter is a human settlement program, which is obligated to promote sustainable cities with enough housing facilities (Anyamba, 2011, p. 25). The city has met several conditions for transparency and good governance; For instance, it has well-recognized institutions, leaders are elected through a democratic process and promotes media freedom. Yet, the majority of the city residents (over 60 percent) lives in informal settlements or slums. The incongruity in the city about shelter and delivery of fundamental service makes it an excellent study area. The study aims to explore the problem of informal settlements in the city of Nairobi from the socio-economic and political points of view (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2002, p. 13).

Informal settlements in the city

The city’s informal settlement is among the most congested, unsafe and filthy in the continent. There are about 200 slums in the city but the worst of the worst is the Kibera slums situated 4 miles from the central business district (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2001, p. 12). According to Anyamba (2011, p. 22), Kibera is probably the worst informal settlement in the world in terms of sanitation, insecurity and population. The slum houses nearly a quarter of the city population (1.2 million people) in less than 650 acres of land. The living condition in Nairobi slums is extremely harsh and overwhelmingly intolerant.

Besides Kibera other prominent city informal settlements include Mukuru, Mathare, Dandora, Soweto and Kawangware (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2001, p. 13). The deprivations faced in these informal settlements are tremendous: extreme congestion, dreadful hygiene, chronic illnesses, undernourishment, and permanent insecurity (Makachia, 2010, p. 3). Most of the residents in these slums are tenants with only 10% of the residents owning the houses they reside in. Life in the informal settlement is extremely hard. The population density is as high as 1500 people per square hectare. A number of them live in shacks that are very small in size.

Basic amenities are extremely scarce or do not even exist (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2002, p. 13). As many as 500 individuals normally share basic facilities, for instance, toilets and bathrooms. Besides wearing down human dignity and a sense of worth, sharing these facilities also causes health and environmental problems (Ooi & Phua, 2007, p. 29). Social amenities/services such as water, power, fuel, schools, hospitals, inadequate housing, and credit facilities are scarce, and the available ones are charged exorbitantly. Cash flow among slum residents is tight; average monthly expenditure hardly ever surpasses $40, of which three quarter is allocated to paying rent. Employment opportunities necessary to sustain such high expenditure are hardly available (UN-HABITAT, 2006, p. 9).

The population density in Nairobi city slums is estimated to be approximately 1500 people per square hectare compared to 270 people in Manhattan, New York. Something important to note is that residents in Manhattan live in large story buildings with ample space, whereas structures in Nairobi slums consist mainly of single or two stories made of iron sheets (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira-Gitau, 2001, p. 14). The structures and the population density sometimes are not the problem, but the unplanned nature of the buildings (Davis, 2006, p. 3).

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The general lack of planning in the informal settlement has created numerous challenges for the residents. For instance, the random position of the structures, lack of investment in the infrastructure, and the lack of municipal services have led to countless structures being cut off from electricity, water pipes and roads (UN-HABITAT, 2006, p. 8). The connectivity problem poses service delivery challenges, for instance, waste disposal, management of security matters, emergency response and access to other fundamental services. In other words, whereas high structure density can explain the lack of infrastructure within the informal settlement, high population density within the slums does not validate inadequately or lack of infrastructure (Makachia, 2010, p. 22).

Socioeconomic and Political Factors Behind the Informal Settlement

According to K’Akumu and Olima (2007, p. 91), the preconditions for an informal settlement began even before Kenya attained its independence. Before independence, the colonial government limited the number of natives moving into the city. However, after independence, the ban was lifted but the settlement patterns were reclassified. These settlement patterns created a divide between the rich (mostly whites) and the poor (mostly Africans). Low-income earners were located in the East while the rest of the city was preserved for the rich. These settlement patterns have virtually remained the same up to date (K’Akumu &Olima, 2007, p. 92).

Before the ban was lifted on the number of Africans migrating into Nairobi, the city’s population was less than 300000. However, this number has increased to almost 4 million since then (K’Akumu &Olima, 2007, p. 94). The rising demand for housing units due to the high number of people moving into the city has not been equalled by a sound approach of providing enough houses (Majale & Payne, 2004, p. 2).

As a result, the increase in the number of people migrating into the city gave rise to informal settlements (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2001, p. 45). Syagga, Mitulla and Karira (2001, p. 46) attribute this to a lack of sufficient financial resources and poor management. However, corruption in the city council, spatial segregation within the city and the probability to focus on land, housing and basic services imply that insufficient financial resources and poor management are products of political manipulations (Kanyinga, 2006, p. 5).

The country’s constitution requires that before any land is allocated, it should be advertised and sold to the highest bidder. However, due to Kenya’s system of political patronage, the ability to acquire land does not depend on the constitutional process but political consideration (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2001, p. 47). As a result, land allocation procedures in most parts of the country including the city of Nairobi have characteristically been circumvented to benefit a small group of elites at the expense of the general public (Kanyinga, 2006, p. 6).

Transparency International refers to the distorted allocation of land in the country as land grabbing (Transparency International, 2003, p. 2). Ndung’u land commission set up in 2003 found that more than 200000 illegal land title deeds had been created since independence and the reason behind the illegal allocation of land was political (Ndung’u, 2006, P. 3). The illegal allocation of land in Nairobi city has impacted the real estate market. It has led to skyrocketing land prices and an increase in illegal structures (Kanyinga, 2006, p. 8). The problem of land grabbing and the spiralling land prices have resulted in nearly three-quarters of the city residents living in very congested areas with no access or inadequate services (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2002, p. 15).

The provincial administration is mandated to supervise informal settlements (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2001, p. 78). With no jurisdiction, they are reported to allocate land to individuals in the informal settlement through bribery. Slums in Nairobi city are also known as informal settlements not only because of poor housing structures but also because of the illegal allocation of land (Ndung’u, 2006, P. 3). Due to the illegal allocation of land, most of the residents in the informal settlement are rent paying tenants (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2002, p. 15). Therefore, the city’s informal settlement operates like the official real estate market.

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The best example is the Kibera slum which is currently the largest slum in Africa (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2002, p. 15). Most of the people who own houses in this slum are wealthy absentee landlords (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2002, p. 80).

Kanya argued that profitability has also contributed to the spiralling of informal settlements in the city of Nairobi (Kanyinga, 2006, p. 9). He stresses that most of the housing units in Nairobi slums are owned by a few wealthy individuals. For instance, less than five percent of the landlords own more than 25 percent of the houses in Kibera slums. This shows a high level of ownership concentration (Kanyinga, 2006, p. 5).

In addition, the increasing population in Nairobi’s informal settlement imply that landlords, circumventing official laws, take full advantage of their income by developing more housing units. As a result, the number of housing units in the informal settlements have gone up to as high as 300 units per hectare. Furthermore, the widespread building of illegal extensions in the formerly planned estates is nearly turning the whole city into an informal settlement (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2002, p. 80).

The profitability of the formal settlement has also prompted the wealthy landlords to build structures that are below architectural standards to reduce costs and increase rents. Thus, greed for money has also acted as an incentive to offer poor quality housing with inadequate or no basic faculties (UN-HABITAT, 2006, p. 6). Despite the poor conditions of the informal settlement structures, their rents are relatively high (UNDP, 2007, p. 12).

According to the (UN-HABITAT, 2006, p. 7), tenants in the informal settlement normally spend roughly a quarter of their monthly income on rent. Rent comes second to food in the informal settlement. If the country’s law governing rents was applied in the informal settlement, the rates will go down by more than 70 percent. This means that the high cost of low-quality housing in the informal settlement allows the landlords to make 100 profits without tax (UNDP, 2007, p. 12).

The relationship between the structure owners and the provincial administration is cordial; however relationship between the tenants and the structure owners is usually contradictory and is marred by supremacy battle. This is caused by large disparity in the social class. As already been mentioned in the study, most landlords are wealthy and politically connected; while the tenants are poor and can hardly make the ends meet (Gulyani, Talukdar & Porter, 2006, p. 14). To strengthen their economic power the structure owners generally use to approaches: First, is collecting rents through agents. Second, is the use of ethnic mismatch among tenants to minimise preferential treatment on rent payment and to extort exorbitant rent prices (Gulyani, Talukdar & Porter, 2006, p. 14).

In overall, the study shows that the continued existence of informal settlement in the city of Nairobi is mainly attributed to a lack of government intervention on the subject of land, housing and fundamental services, through provision or enacting crucial laws. Although the spiralling of informal settlement has been tackled by slum upgrading programs, the initiative is not enough. The most significant approach is transformation of the prevailing power structures through a political process (Syagga, Mitulla & Karira, 2002, p. 85).


The issue of housing is one of the greatest challenges in the city of Nairobi. Nairobi has some of the worst informal settlements/slums in the continent and probably in the world. The city’s informal settlement holds more than 60 percent of Nairobi’s population. Housing problems in the city of Nairobi started way back even before Kenya attained its independence. The colonialists introduced segregation in terms of social class and race which has persisted up to date. The conditions in the informal settlements are regarded as extremely deplorable and deprives the residents some of their fundamental needs and services. The continued persistence of informal settlement is attributed to distorted allocation of land and housing to a few elite groups by the political class at the expense of the general public.

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The illegal allocation of land has not only concentrated land in hands of a few but also led to the increase in the value of land. The exorbitant prices of land have kept it out of reach from the general public who are poor. Therefore, most of the residents in Nairobi’s informal settlements do not own houses/ structures they live in. On the contrary, the houses in the informal settlements are owned by absentee landlords who are rich and have a political connection. The absentee landlords will do anything to strengthen and retain their economic power. For this reason, the main solution to the current spiralling of the informal sector is the transformation of the prevailing power structures through a political process.


Anyamba, T J 2011, ‘Informal Urbanism in Nairobi’, Built Environment’, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 22-43.

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K’Akumu, OA & Olima, WHA 2007, ‘The dynamics and implications of residential segregation in Nairobi’, Habitat International, vol. 31, pp. 87-99.

Kanyinga, K 2006, Governance, Institutions and Inequality in Kenya, In Readings on Inequality in Kenya: Sectoral Dynamics and Perspectives, Society for International Development, Nairobi.

Majale, M & Payne, G 2004, The Urban Housing Manual: Making Regulatory Frameworks Work for the Poor, Earthscan, London.

Makachia, P A 2010, Transformation of Housing in Nairobi – Dweller-Initiated Transformations in Formal Housing in Nairobi Estates with Case Studies of Kaloleni and Buru-Buru Estates, Architecture and Building Science, Nairobi.

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Ooi, G L & Phua, K H 2007, ‘Urbanization and Slum Formation’, Journal of Urban Health, vol. 1, pp. 27-33.

Syagga, P M, Mitulla, W & Karira, G S 2001, Nairobi Slum Upgrading Initiatives: Nairobi Situation Analysis, GOK/UNCHS (Habitat), Nairobi.

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UNDP 2007, Human Development Report, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

UN-HABITAT 2006, State of the world’s cities 2006/7: The Millennium Development Goals and urban sustainability, Earthscan, London.

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