UN-Habitat Turns Kibera's Mud Huts into Apartment Towers


It is not often that we come across major stories about large housing development being built for urban slum residents. When we heard about the advances being made by the UN-Habitat in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, we were, rightfully, intrigued.

An 822-unit complex is  being built that aims to house many former slum residents that earn an average of $1.25 per day. The simple fact that this project is being undertaken is already an accomplishment. There are currently no known models that have successfully allowed the particularly poor segment of the BoP to fully finance their own homes (some microfinance institutions offer this segment small loans for home renovations, but never large enough loans to own a decent home). The UN-Habitat's Kenya Slum Upgrading Program (KENSUP) has managed to find a next best option, however.

KENSUP is financing most of the costs of the new construction, but they have created ways for future residents to have a financial stake in the project. Future residents are issued ID cards, granting them first rights to the new apartments. In exchange, cardholders agree to pay a daily deposit of 20 U.S. cents into a savings account managed by a cooperative. So far, the cooperative has collected $990,000. Along with giving future residents an ownership stake in the new project, this scheme also develops valuable savings skills. 

These projects that target the world's pooreset populations are bound to run into difficulties and this particular project has experienced its fair share. The conception of the project to the beginning of construction took 12 years. This period was filled with legal battles with previous landlords who are notorious for being predatory and corrupt. The landlords eventually lost in court, but if these kinds of projects consistently experience delays due to legal battles, future projects will fail and the landlords will have won the war. This is up to the government to put in place standardized procedures that could expedite the legal process, but we also cannot diminish the challenge of enforcing the law in these informal settings.

The new developments have also been criticized for failing to deliver on promised retail kiosks that would bring commerce to the neighborhood and create a sense of community. Meanwhile, there is a ban on informal shops (which is only partially enforced), and there is a legitimate frustration the community could have if developers do not deliver on promised kiosks and also ban informal commerce. This leaves residents with no means to create livelihoods for themselves. You can have one and not the other, but you certainly cannot leave the community with neither.

Overall the project has yielded positive results. UN-Habitat project leaders have used the Kibera project as an opportunity to work with governments to sensitize them to the needs of the previously ignored slum populations. KENSUP has transferred ownership of the Kibera project to the government, which is seen as a success. Hopefully, this will increase the government's participation in the project and translate into the facilitation of future housing initiatives.

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