By Alfred Nyakinda

The way in which affordable housing for the urban poor is delivered in Kenya and across sub-Saharan Africa will set much of the context for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), revealed experts at a United Kingdom (UK)-Kenya research symposium on housing and infrastructure in Nairobi this week.

A technical report produced at the meeting states that the integration of affordable housing with programmes for essential services and sustainable infrastructures are critical. Without such investments, it warns, housing alone can become a burden for residents forced to travel long distances to access services or who are forced to live in unhealthy or unsafe environments

Prof Ratemo Micihieka at the UK-Kenya symposium


“We’re talking about uplifting human life through a lot of issues: health, access to essential services, protection of our environment in the slums, protection of women and children, obtaining economic advancement and then security alongside climate change,” said Professor Ratemo Michieka, Honourable Secretary of the Kenya National Academy of Sciences (KNAS).

The symposium, organised by the UK government through UKaid and Kenyan government through the Ministry of Education and the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI), hosted technical discussions that concluded housing affordability is a critical issue in Kenya and must be a key focus of policy discussions.

The report states that while urban areas occupy two percent of the world’s land, they are home to 55 percent of the global population and account for 70 percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It also estimated that less than 30 percent of developing countries are covered by some form of land registration, meaning 70 percent of land in these countries are outside a register.

“We see that Nairobi has not had a comprehensive review of shelter provision probably in the last 10 years. The health of the informal settlements and the city changes and needs to be captured in time,” said Jack Makau Director, Slum Dwellers International (SDI) Kenya.

The report also stated that entry-level housing in Kenya is expensive, with the cheapest newly built, private developed units still only affordable to a minority of urban residents.

“We are also observing a transformation of how poverty manifests in the city. We see that the footprint of urban tenements [in Mathare North, Githurai, Kayole] is as big as the footprint of informal settlements. These are an actual slum footprint going up. Going seven, eight stories up,” said Makau, “we are multiplying what is already a complex situation in Kibera and Mathare and Korogocho and Mukuru; and we’re taking it eight stories up.”

In smaller towns in Kenya, most of the damages caused by natural hazards are experienced as everyday erosive pressure rather than one-off shocks according to Prof Mark Spelling, Challenge Leader, Resilience, Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF). He added that there are opportunities in risk data sharing among towns and collaboration between community groups and local governments.

Prof Mark Spelling addresses participants at the meeting

“I tend to think about sustainable development goals around three terms, inclusive, resilient and sustainable development,” said Prof Spelling, “sustainable housing would be housing ideally that is derived through inclusive processes and planning, but is designed in a way that is resilient to shocks- and you can include any shocks there, not just physical.”

Dr Alex Jachnow of the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies stated that cities should be designed to be more climate-proof, resilient and adaptive to what may come up in the future.

“We know at this moment there is no sustainable urbanisation- nowhere at all,” said Dr Jachnow, “most of the cities which in fact are built today essentially are not based on nature-based solutions but are destroying nature’s systems, destroying ecosystems, as we speak.”

One key area the report cites as needing improvement is the availability of real time data representing the everyday conditions of at-risk groups.This will aid in making the provision of housing and essential services responsive to the real rather than the perceived needs of different groups within communities.