Use slum population figures to improve livelihoods

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020 00:00 | By
Informal settlements. Photo/Courtesy

Conrad Onyango 

Kibera is arguably the largest slum in Kenya and Africa. Population figures to assert this position have been thrown around by different actors for close to two decades  with concurrence.

Most of us have embraced this narrative because it comes from believable actors, including non-governmental organisations and the media.

While we have enjoyed leveraging on Kibera’s squalor to attract foreign investments and donor funds, we have been oblivious to question whether all marketing efforts and funds pulled have actually had an impact on the lives of the slum dwellers. 

However, last year’s census data shows that Kibera’s perceived pole position has been shifting over the years, with a slow or flat growth in its population.

Its touted one million residents narrative was burst when the census put the figure at 170,070.

Instead, Embakasi is the most populous sub-county in Nairobi, with a population of 988,808.

With a 40 per cent growth in capital city’s population over the review period, it could mean most people settled in this populous neighbourhood. 

A majority could have headed to Mukuru, another slum in eastern Nairobi. While the slum’s official population figures remain unclear, the 2019 census data and unofficial estimates point to a figure higher than Kibera’s official numbers.

Media reports estimate the slum to have a population of between 200,000 and 492,000, with approximately over 100,000 households, while Reuben Centre, a non-profit organisation that serves Mukuru slum dwellers shows on its website a population of over 600,000.

 But could the false figures be part of an agenda pushed by some actors for selfish gain? 

In a similar fashion, I have observed over the years the misrepresentation of Kibera population, without question or correction from government.

Kibera’s population numbers started skyrocketing when government and UN Habitat launched a slum upgrading programme some 16 years ago.

During this period, the population figures were estimated to be between 500,000 and a million.

Everyone seemed to believe the numbers— and the slum attracted researchers, photographers and film makers as well as tourist who wanted to marvel at arguably the biggest slum in Africa.

However, in 2009 French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA) Nairobi and Keyobs, a Belgian company decided to challenge these estimates leveraging on Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology and ground survey. 

Their joint survey found the slum was inhabited by 200,000 residents, a figure closer to 170,777 captured in the 2009 census. But the one million population tag refuses to go away.

With the latest Embakasi population data as the base, Mukuru’s closer proximity than Kibra to Nairobi’s industrial district could probably explain high number in Mukuru slum. 

People are always looking to work closer to their home to ease logistical costs. Mukuru is strategic and has been a home to many casual labourers in manufacturing companies.

Other aspects that make it ideal for population explosion could be its suitability for small vendor businesses that thrive on a high foot traffic that offers alternative source of income to dwellers.

It is now time, we got official slum population statistics in the country— not to peddle them as bragging rights, but as a resource to improve development and uplift livelihoods in line with the country’s Vision 2030 goals. —The writer is a data journalist

More on News