By Alfred Nyakinda

Greater community participation and lowering of construction costs are key in the provision of affordable housing for Kenya’s low-income urban population in the opinion of experts, innovators and stakeholders at a research symposium in Nairobi in May.

Discussions at the meeting, organised by the Kenyan Ministry of Education and the United Kingdom government through UKaid, emphasized importance of involving those living in low-income housing in the upgrading of slums and building of new housing for the growing population.

A panel of experts during a session at the research symposium

“At the moment we’re focusing on SME’s [small and medium enterprises] to produce doors and windows such that as the houses are being constructed, the local communities, and these are largely the jua cali, will also benefit from it,” said Oliver Okello of the Kenya Building Research Institute (KBRI).

He added, “Affordable houses will need components, so we’re asking if this program can span the development of manufacturing of items to be used within the affordable houses.”

Dealing with the affordable housing issue, however, will be a burden for other sectors. Research by the KBRI indicates that sourcing materials for houses will have major consequences on the environment, such as the need for timber for 7 million doors threatening the preservation of forests.

“Measures to try deal with climate change, both mitigation and adaptation, are in danger of harming vulnerable groups rather than assisting them,” said Dr. Gordon McGranahan of the University of Sussex, “Reports are written that make it sound like automatically if you make cities more climate resilient and more climate mitigating that’s going to help everyone in the city.

“In order to change that relationship without harming people’s well being, part of what we have to deal with is that housing in the broad sense that we can find it here, in an inclusive way, is very central to improving well-being.”

Discussions at the meeting further highlighted the lack of political support in the country for financing the planning of urban projects, which is a pressing need given that the World Bank-funded Kenya Urban Support Program, established to improve urban infrastructure and services, is currently not giving money for development without a spatial plan.

Due to the fact that high mortgage rates and lack of land ownership hinder the acquisition of decent, affordable housing by the poor, co-operative societies were commended for stepping in to become the largest source of funding for planned low-income housing in the country, with examples being given of successful community-led efforts at slum upgrading.

Projects that take into consideration the financial capacity of slum dwellers and encourage their input were encouraged by the experts, including building simple one-room structures with the basic essentials which are suitable for habitation, but allow for expansion and improvements to be added as time progresses.

“Housing is actually a process, housing is not just a commodity that you just give and sell, and exploit people with,” said Dr. Susan Kibuye of the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), “the problem is not those people who you’re seeing living in the slums, but they’re some people who are behind it who are causing those slums and they don’t care about sanitation, they don’t care about electricity.”

Recognising that people living in slum conditions consider it a transitional state in life, Dr. Kibuye stressed the importance of supporting their efforts to improve their welfare because they are vulnerable, desperate and living in poverty.

“In a small little village called Kambi Moto it’s amazing what those people did for themselves, they turned around everything. All these issues we are talking about: SDG 1, SDG 3, SDG 11 [no poverty, good health and well-being, sustainable cities and communities], they sort them out themselves,” she said, “They don’t have problems of security because they came together as a group of families and they put up houses for themselves. They are living in dignity.”

The technical gathering also called for government stakeholders to take ownership of the process and greater public participation from the elites in society who can raise awareness and mobilise people towards action.