The Power of Community Mapping and Community Data

In June 2016, ten youth from Mathare digitized more than a thousand structures in Kayole Soweto, creating a building footprint of the area. At the same time, twenty community members from Soweto, mapped several hundreds of amenities including hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, schools, security lights, religious institutions, bars, government offices, etc. In just one week, under the mentorship of Spatial Collective, both teams created a base map of Kayole Soweto which was later used during focus group discussions addressing perceptions of safety of people in the area. More about that project coming up soon in the upcoming blogs. This initial mapping showcased the power of community mapping and community data collection and its potential to fill in the gap of missing data in development.

Press on the image below!



Community Land Mapping – Post Fieldwork Data Management and Map Creation

The final step in community land mapping in Tana River County was to design the maps of the two targeted communities. Previous steps are described here, here and here.

To complete the two maps we used data collected from the field, including GPS files of points and tracks, two drawings made by community members of their community land, notes, and photographs. Additionally, we used DigitalGlobe’s satellite imagery to digitize relevant land features.

Specifically, the final step can be broken down into the following activities:

  • Review of data collected through fieldwork
  • Selection and purchase of relevant satellite imagery: DigitalGlobe
  • Digitization of natural features identified by the communities
  • Design of the two maps using QuantumGIS

These were also the final activities of the training process that we offered to Kenya Land Alliance and Namati on how to collect and manage community land data.

Natural resources and amenities that were either gathered in the field or digitized in post-processing and included on the maps were: rivers, brooks and streams; forests; swamps; ocean; sand dunes; grazing areas; farm lands; village locations; schools; hospitals and dispensaries; mosques and churches; water points; roads; air strip; hotels; bridges; and cattle dips.

Finally, maps that resemble Topo Sheets in Kenya were designed. We chose this style because it offers a sense of familiarity to the citizens and government agencies to whom they will be presented.

To simply indicate the amount of data gathered by our field teams, we compared it to openly available OpenStreetMap data in the area.

Comparison between existing points in OSM and points collected during field work
Comparison between existing points in OSM (left) and points collected during fieldwork (right)

Number of points in OSM: 6

Number of points collected during fieldwork: 126

Comparison between existing rivers in OSM and data generated through and post fieldwork
Comparison between existing rivers in OSM (left) and data generated through and post-fieldwork (right)

Length of rivers in OSM: 91 km

Length of rivers digitized: 381 km

Comparison between existing roads in OSM and data generated through and post fieldwork
Comparison between existing roads in OSM (left) and data generated through and post-fieldwork (right)

Length of roads in OSM: 103 km

Length of roads digitized: 110 km

Comparison between existing data in OSM (left) and data generated through and post fieldwork (right)
Comparison between existing data in OSM (left) and data generated through and post-fieldwork (right)

Areas in OSM: 17 km2

Areas digitized: 590 km2

Images below compare what was first input into the mapping process – community’s drawings of their land – and what was the final output of the process – final georeferenced maps.

Map drawn by the community members
This map was drawn by the community members
Same area as above georeferenced
Same area as above – georeferenced

Field work in Tana River

After the initial three day hands-on training and a community forum, it was time to hit the field. As noted in the previous blog posts (here and here), the targeted communities were Chana and Handaraku in Tana River County.

We had very little knowledge of the area prior to going to the field, so we relied on our partners – Kenya Land Alliance and their community facilitators and land rights mobilizers – to lead the way. Because these community lands have never before been captured, we didn’t know what to expect. We anticipated the community lands to be large but we didn’t expect them to be quite as large. The territories of the two communities encompass villages, rivers, forests, marshlands, grazing areas or grasslands, catchment areas, and savannah.

Our car in front of a village
Our car in front of a village

In order to capture as many features as possible and to cover greater distances we divided ourselves into four groups, each group consisting of a Spatial Collective member (well, at least three out of four groups), one or two community facilitators and land rights mobilizers, and one or two community members. Two groups covered Chara community and two Handaraku. It soon became apparent that we are dealing with a difficult terrain. Tana River delta is traversed with streams and rivers (Tana River itself is the longest river in Kenya), marshes, bushes, impregnable forests, and dry areas. It has an astonishing array of flora and fauna – in just a couple of days we saw hypos, crocodiles, numerous primates, birds, insects, and even a leopard; we even saw lion and hyena tracks. The roads in the area are few and far in between so the teams often had to leave the vehicles and switch to motorcycles or walk; and let me tell you, walking in 38 and 39 Degrees Celsius is not fun.

Broken bridge
Broken bridge

Apart from a punctured tire and one of the team’s car stuck in the mud, most of field work went without any major incidences. During the exercise we collected approximately 150 points and more than two hundred kilometers of tracks. The points consisted of boundary points of the two communities, their amenities and natural resources, and other points with which the communities identified themselves with.

Some of the points representing the two communities
Some of the points representing the two communities

All in all, the field work was relatively successful. We collected around half of the points required to adequately capture the area (a generous estimate) in just two days, which for the areas this size is pretty good. Since this project revolved around testing some of the technologies – GPS, satellite imagery, BRCK etc. – for the purpose of community land mapping, and KLA staff training, we didn’t focus on capturing every single point, but mostly on lessons learnt.

The next blog will describe some of the lessons and questions put forth by the community members in regards to mapping community lands. More pictures from the field work can be found below.

One of the field teams
One of the field teams
Elders testing the GPS
Elders testing the GPS

Start of Community Land Mapping in Tana River: Forum

This is a follow up on the previous post.

We began our field work on mapping community land by holding a large forum with the representatives of Chana and Handaraku communities, the two communities in Tana River County targeted in this mapping exercise. Community Land Rights Mobilizers and other selected community representatives were invited to participate in the forum to receive updates on the activities completed by Kenya Land Alliance thus far, learn about the GPS and mapping technology and how it relates to land rights, and help us with logistics of subsequent field work.

Participants of the forum were community lands mobilizers and other community representatives
Participants of the forum were community land mobilizers and other community representatives

After introductions and updates we used sketch maps that were drawn by the community members to help us plan the mapping activities in the two communities. These maps helped us select areas and points of interest which were to be mapped such as roads, rivers, forests, grazing fields, catchment areas, water sources, schools, administrative infrastructure, cultural monuments, and any other areas with which the communities identify with.

Drawing sketch maps to identify community boundary and resources and to plan mapping activities
Drawing sketch maps to identify community boundary and resources and to plan mapping activities

After the workshop we walked away with a detailed plan of mapping activities for the next two days. More photographs of the forum can be found below.

Active participation
Active participation
Drawing a sketch map
Drawing a sketch map
Community elder participating in the forum
Community elder participating in the forum

Mapping Community Land in Tana River

We are currently in Tana River supporting the work of Kenya Land Alliance (KLA) and their partners Namati and Oxfam in using mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools in their efforts to help communities protect their customary and indigenous land.

We are building on the work that these organizations have already completed in Tana River, namely, laying the ground work, capacity building, boundary harmonization between communities, and sketch mapping.

Training session with Kenya Land Alliance, Namati and Oxfam in Malindi
Training session with Kenya Land Alliance, Namati and Oxfam in Malindi

Concern, as put forth by Namati and partners, is that sketch mapping, as conducted in the past exercises, does not create sufficiently strong evidence for use in negotiations and legal proceedings by the government officials dealing with land-rights. One of the important lessons learnt by Namati in their previous projects was that a low-cost, yet more accurate solution, to capturing geographic data is required. The mapping should be accurate enough to satisfy legal requirements as posed by individual countries.

Sketch map
Sketch map

We were hired to do just that: develop a scalable and replicable community mapping model for capturing community land. We started our training by conducting a three day workshop in Malindi where we covered topics such as:

  • What is community land and how can we use mapping tools to capture it?
  • How to plan a mapping project?
  • Practical exercises in GPS data collection and basic GIS training.
  • How to turn a sketch map into a geo-referenced map?
  • Basic data management.

After the training we left for Tana River where we conducted hands on field work. This is the first post describing the training and subsequent mapping of community land in Tana River written during field work. More will follow.

Training session
Training session
Hands on training using satellite imagery
Hands on training using satellite imagery
Training in GPS data collection
Training in GPS data collection

#HarlemFirst Community Mapping Workshop

In late January, I was invited by Leetha Filderman of PopTech and Cheryl Heller of the School of Visual Arts, MFA Design for Social Innovation (DSI) program, to run a masterclass on community mapping for Harlem First initiative. The initiative is a collaboration between DSI, PopTech, Arnhold Institute for Global Health, and Strive, and its aim is to

“bring together designers, community leaders, data scientists and health care professionals to conceive a new future of wellness care.”

The initiative is a mixed method approach consisting of student-designed maps of selected Harlem neighborhoods, an interactive project room to share ideas, and a symposium on state of health care in Harlem and broader USA.

My role was to run two workshops on community mapping, one at the School of Visual Arts and one in Harlem. The first workshop was with the students from the Design for Social Innovation master program, at the School of Visual Arts in New York. It covered topics of network mapping, spatial interpretation of issues such as security, access to healthy food and health services, gentrification, gender equality, and also, participatory map drawing. The class was designed to prompt students into thinking spatially about social problems, specifically, in this instance, public health.

Worskhop at the School of Visual Arts, New York
Worskhop at the School of Visual Arts, New York

The second workshop, held in East Harlem at the Strive offices, was with community members and community health workers from Harlem. At the beginning of the workshop I presented community mapping done by Spatial Collective in Kenya and talked about governance, service delivery and community data. The rest of the workshop consisted of hands on network mapping and participatory map drawing/urban planning exercises. By juxtaposing actors and issues, the network map gave us an insight into the potential gaps between health issues, as identified by the community members, and health services provided by health workers and other institutions. Participatory map drawing defined some of the spatial locations within Harlem that were important to the participants, as well as spatial relations between issues ranging from community’s perceptions of their neighborhoods, gentrification, security, and potential solutions to health problems of Harlem.

2016-01-27 03.38.06 2_
Workshop in East Harlem at Strive office, New York

The main purpose of these workshops was to introduce the methodologies that were developed through the years in the informal settlements in Kenya and test their applicability in an area such as Harlem. In my opinion, the methods are easily transferable between places due to the universality of the problems at hand – in this case the health of a marginalized community. I’m excited to see where we can go from here.

Here’s more pictures from the workshop (all of the pictures were taken by Aubrey Hays of the DSI):

Network map of issues and service providers
Network map of issues and service providers in public health in Harlem, New York
Workshop in East Harlem
Workshop in East Harlem
Workshop in East Harlem
Workshop in East Harlem

PopTech Talk

I was recently honored by being selected as a 2015 PopTech Social-Innovation Fellow. I had the pleasure to participate in a week long training program with eight other amazing fellows, organized on the beautiful island of North Haven, in Maine. The training program was led by a variety of astonishing faculty and it consisted of issues as diverse as communication, branding, business, organizational development, and networking. Our gathering culminated at an annual three day PopTech conference, held in Camden, Maine, where each of the fellows gave a talk about their respected work. My talk was titled “Development is Personal” and it focused on the importance of community and small data for development and how community knowledge can be utilized in development initiatives. You can find my talk below.

Documenting potential impact of development projects on communities in Lamu County

The “World is coming,” said the deputy secretary of Kililana Farmers Association during our LAPSSET conflict risk mapping exercise in old Lamu Town on Kenya’s coast. The secretary was referring to the massive infrastructural development project which will traverse most of northern Kenya. It is called the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor. The aim of the corridor is to incorporate the north of Kenya – which is synonymous with the lack of development – into the country’s national economy and to deepen East African economic integration.

Spatial Collective is working with the Danish Demining Group to map potential conflict and public security risks stemming from the construction of the LAPSSET corridor, with specific focus on Lamu County, and particularly on Lamu Port. Lamu Port is one of the components of the LAPSSET corridor. The port will be built in Manda Bay, close to old Lamu Town, and will consist of an oil refinery, transport system, resort cities, airport, coal plant, the port itself and other infrastructure. Due to the development of the port, the population of Lamu County is predicted to swell five to ten times its current size, according to some estimation. This is what the secretary of Kililana Farmers Association meant when he said that “The world is coming.” The construction of the port is bound to have major impact on a relatively unspoiled environment of Lamu County, and on UNESCO’s World Heritage Site – Lamu Old Town.

Lamu Old Town

Spatial Collective was asked to produce a set of visualizations to depict how the development of Lamu Port will impact the population and the environment. A number of stakeholders and groups have concerns that, if not handled properly, the project will lead to conflict among already marginalized communities in the area, or between the communities and the authorities. The ultimate aim of our work is to create and inform multi-stakeholder dialogue and to strengthen efforts to prevent, mitigate, and manage conflict and public security risks associated with the LAPSSET corridor.

As one can imagine, this is by no means a small task. To explore the interactions between the proposed development project and its impact on the livelihoods of communities, we had to start almost from scratch. First, we identified and geographically located all of the communities living in Lamu County. Second, we visualized their livelihoods, migratory patterns, and inspected their relationships to natural resources and heritage sites. And, third, we collected information on how their lives will be affected by the construction of the port.

To draft maps of communities in areas that lie in the periphery of the country’s development initiatives, we had to first determine what data were already available. Working with a DDG consultant, we plunged immediately into a lengthy search for secondary datasets, only to discover a lack of relevant geographic data. It is important to note that the type of data that we required was somewhat different from the datasets which can be found in the government departments and on open data portals. We were interested in more than just knowing spatial locations of amenities or understanding county wide indicators. Our aim was to depict the often-invisible societal relationships and community specific patterns, such as, migratory movement patterns of pastoralists, main market sites, transport routes, fishing routes, relationship to natural resource, and personal opinions. The data that were available often didn’t fit our needs. Another problem we faced was that many of the datasets that do exist, especially government data, are sometimes hard to acquire, old, and inaccurate. For example, even something as straight forward as the locations of the settlements in the county were hard to come by, and the data that were available were not particularly accurate. Many villages featured in the Shapefiles – available for free online and on old topographic maps – were already deserted, and locations of some of them were highly inaccurate.

All of this called for considerable improvisation. The challenge was made greater by significant political challenges. The majority of the county was still under curfew due to recent security concerns. This meant that any in-depth on-the-ground data collection was pretty much out of the question.

To complete this project – which is still ongoing at the time of this writing – we used a series of methodologies. The central piece of our methodological approach was participatory mapping, supported by focus group discussions, interviews, and a mobile household survey. Each of these deserves a blog post on its own but, for now, we want to talk about the initial steps we undertook in order to prepare a series of base maps which were later used as base layers in the interviews with stakeholders.

Ngala during a meeting

We designed a plan that would help us generate as much relevant information as possible prior going to the field. First, we gather-up what we could, including Shapefiles, old topographic maps, surveys, publications, and other studies. Second, we crosschecked various geographic datasets – Shapefiles, old topographic maps and satellite imagery – to determine the relative locational accuracy of some of these datasets. Third, we read through hundreds of pages of reports, publications and studies, in order to extract any geographic reference concerning Lamu County and its inhabitants. Fourth, we then digitized all of the geographic references that we could pinpoint with certainty. Locations which we couldn’t identify we stored in a list for further inspection through consultations with stakeholders on Lamu. Finally, these initial steps helped us to prepare a series of drafted maps which we then used as a base layer for further on-site data collection through interviews, focus group discussions, and participatory mapping. We used these final, more qualitative methods to add additional data to the maps in order to produce the final products: a series of maps depicting communities in Lamu County, their livelihoods, resources, land use, migratory paths and transport routes, as well as their opinions, impressions, and assessments of the potential benefits and hazards surrounding the port.

Our experience in working on this project was significant in showing us that no matter how remote an area is, with little imagination and problem-solving skills, there’s always a way to acquire geographic data. By using a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods we were able to produce a comprehensive geographic dataset about the communities of Lamu County. We are currently in the process of finalizing the maps so more about this project is coming up in the future blog posts.

Bellow are some of the screenshots of initial visualizations.

Land Use
Land Use


Geography of Service Delivery

Nairobi’s population has increased more than tenfold in the last 50 years.[1] This rapid urbanization brought with it a two-tier development process where some areas are rapidly modernizing while others lag behind. The provision of basic services often follows the split. Different geographic areas of Nairobi enjoy different levels of development and access to public services. Delivery of clean water and sanitation, waste management, access to electricity, emergency services, and law enforcement, to name a few, vary throughout the city. Some areas enjoy uninterrupted coverage while other have scarce or no coverage at all. The difference in quantity and quality of service delivery can be, among other things, attributed to the difference in the income levels of the residents, their ability or willingness to pay for services, and the government’s commitment to serve some and underserve other areas.

Anyone familiar with Nairobi can attest that there are significant differences between areas such as Kileleshwa, Westlands and Kilimani on one side and Eastleigh, Mathare or Kibera on the other. The former areas enjoy almost full coverage of public services while the latter have few services. Areas that are denied access to basic public services – intentionally or unintentionally – face unequal economic opportunities, and, subsequently, economic exclusion. Some scholars argue, that “market- and non-market-related forms of discrimination directly affect poverty but also exacerbate it indirectly by reducing economic growth.”[2] Further, income inequality can have significant impact on economic growth of the countries.[3] Unequal access to services fuels the inequalities within the city, empowering some, and preventing others to escape the perpetuating cycle of poverty.

We are specifically interested in how are services distributed in informal settlements. Does provision of public services vary within an individual informal settlement? Using Spatial Collective’s household survey and GPS data we tried to answer this question by looking at geographic distribution of waste management and ICT services within a single locality – informal settlement of Mathare.

We find that there are significant disparities in waste collection and ICT coverage even within an individual informal settlement. For example, in areas of Mathare that are relatively prosperous, residents enjoy mostly reliable trash collection, while other economically challenged areas have no trash collection at all. More specifically, most people who live in high-rise and brick buildings, which are associated with higher quality housing, pay for trash collection, while most people who live in tin-shack and mud-hut structures don’t. The type of housing can be thought of as a proxy for the family’s income because higher quality housing also means higher rents and improved access to – mostly payable – services.

The map below displays the distribution of people who either pay or don’t pay for trash collection. Green color of the rectangular parallelepiped (let’s call it cubicle) represents a household that pays for trash collection while the red color represents a household that doesn’t. At the same time, the size of the cubicle represents either more (larger cubicle) or less permanent (smaller cubicle) buildings. We can see that majority of people who live in more permanent buildings pay for trash collection while majority of people who live in less permanent don’t (Maps at the end of the blog post depict access to services for more and less permanent buildings separately).

Household that pay and don’t pay for trash removal

Next, let’s consider what at first seems like a totally unrelated variable: levels of access to ICTs in Mathare, more specifically, Internet and smart-phone penetrations.

In 2014, the International Telecommunication Union issued a report stating that by the end of the year there will be almost as many mobile-cellular telephone subscriptions as people in the world. At the same time there will be almost 3 billion Internet users with mobile-broadband subscriptions reaching 2.3 billion globally. This increase in growth is mostly due to growth in the developing world.[4] Safaricom, Kenya’s leading mobile operator, reports that 67 percent of mobile phones sold in 2014 were smart-phones. Our survey shows the smart-phone penetration in Mahtare close to 40%. Additionally, there are nearly 3 billion Internet users around the World (40% penetration rate).[5] According to some estimation, Internet access in Kenya is 37% and according to our survey, 38% of the people surveyed in Mathare had access to the Internet.

However, despite these relatively high numbers, our research reveals that there are significant disparities in Internet access and smart-phone ownership between the areas of higher and lower quality housing in Mathare. This of course parallels our findings concerning waste management.  As we can see on the map below, 52% of the households associated with higher income of residents (more permanent housing) had access to the Internet and 51% owned a smart-phone. At the same time only 33% of the households associated with lower incomes of residents (less permanent housing) had access to the Internet and only 32% owned a smart-phone. The data points to the correlation between the type of housing (level of income) and accessibility of ICTs. Interestingly, the data also points to the correlation between smart-phone ownership and Internet access (this is a topic for a different blog).

House type and smart-phone and Internet access

How can we interpret these numbers? The differences seem to depict the disparity in terms of access to services between different income areas of the slum and the city. Households with greater income have greater access to services as compared to households with lower income. Some might say that from an economic perspective, this phenomenon points to the basic free market ideology where people who pay for services receive them while people who don’t pay for services (mostly because they can’t) don’t. Others might argue that this is a failure of governance capacity by the state, that when the government fails to provide even the most basic services, the ill-equipped informal sector takes over and creates a sort of informal free market with disastrous results for some people. Whatever the case the poorest and the most marginalized seem to be on the losing end.

Why do we think this is important in the first place? We believe that this is important because when we consider development policies which target marginalized communities we have to take into account their social and economic differences. Failure to do so can amplify those differences. Our research underscores the necessity of sound social research in slum communities. Too often an outsiders come into these marginalized communities and start implementing programs that fail to differentiate resident’s status and means. Poorly prepared development initiatives can lead to an increase in inequality and greater disparity between people. For example, the fact that people in certain areas cannot afford to pay for trash removal means that we need to show a certain level of pragmatism when it comes to solving the problems of waste management in those areas. Policies which cut across populations of different economic or social backgrounds might result in excluding some and empowering others, increasing disparities between people. Additionally, if we consider access to ICTs, the fact that not all of the people have equal access to information can mean different levels of public participation, meaning, thatthe potential effects of ICT enabled collective action must recognize that while mobile phones are common, smart phones are less so (though rapidly rising). Acknowledging that these differences exist and identifying the underlying causes should help inform our future policy decisions in order to create a more inclusive society.

The maps below show households who pay for trash removal for more and less permanent buildings separately. We can see that majority of people in more permanent buildings pay for trash removal while most people in less permanent buildings don’t.

More permanent buildings that pay (green) and don’t pay (red) for trash removal
Less permanent buildings that pay (green) and don’t pay (red) for trash removal

[1] See: Economic Growth In African Cities Like Lagos, Nairobi And Addis Ababa Paints The Urban Poor Into A Desperate Corner, Available at

[2] See: Economic Exclusion and Poverty Linkages: A Reflection on Concept, Consequences, and Remedies, in an Asian Context, Available at

[3] See: Inequality ‘significantly’ curbs economic growth – OECD, Available at

[4]See: ITU releases 2014 ICT figures, Available at

[5] See: Internet live stats, Internet users, Available at

Rethinking waste management in Nairobi’s informal settlements

Community-based organizations are in the forefront of dealing with waste management in Nairobi’s informal settlements, however, their interventions often fall short of becoming sustainable and profitable on the long run. Research shows that there is ample opportunity in alternative material recovery, recycling, and sorting of trash in the informal settlements, as well as, in establishing long term partnerships between community-based groups and the city council.

Meeting of groups dealing with waste management in Mathare

Nairobi is experiencing rapid urbanization which brings with it several challenges. Insufficient and poor infrastructure, environmental degradation, overburdened public services, lack of security and corruption are only some of the problems that citizens face every day. Various self-help groups have responded to the lack of public services, including waste management. These groups fill the gap left by the absence of the state or other private institutions. Their work has profound impact on the lives of the citizens, however, due to the age-old practices, and complicated, in some cases non-existing, relationship with the city council, they often fall short of developing their full potential.

Waste is largely an urban problem which carries with it global consequences. It is a by-product of civilization and consumer-based lifestyles, linked to progress, urbanization, and economic development.[1] Managing solid waste well is one of the key challenges of the cities and governments. Failing to manage waste properly has direct impact on public health, length of life, and the environment.[2] It is widely accepted that removal and management of waste together with human excreta are two of the most vital environmental services provided by the city.[3]

Additionally, waste is closely tied to income, therefore, distribution of waste is not equal in all parts of the world. There are significant geographical disparities in production, composition, and management of waste in the world, and even within cities.[4] Generation of waste as well as successful management of waste involves an interaction of social, economic, governance, environmental, cultural, and technological processes.[5]

According to the UN-Habitat’s report, Nairobi generates 876.000 tonnes of waste per year (or 219 kg per capita per year). The city reports 60-70% collection coverage rates – 100% in the downtown business district – with 54% of waste generated being collected.[6]According to the study conducted by the UN-Habitat, the main driver for solid waste management in Nairobi is public health.[7] Waste collection in Nairobi is conducted mostly by the private sector, which consists of companies, micro and small enterprises, and community based organizations. Despite these efforts, the city continues to struggle to resolve its waste disposal problems.

Informal settlements often bear the brunt of the missing services. Among other things, they lack proper waste management systems leaving people to literally live on, and sometimes off, waste. Waste is often dumped in the informal communities where it accumulates through time and represents a major health hazard to the inhabitants. Government interventions are often missing or are inadequate to solve the problem of waste in informal settlements.

In the absence of government intervention, various self-help groups have formed and responded to the missing provision of public services in Nairobi. The emergence of community-based organizations engaged in waste management within Nairobi’s informal settlements is a case in point. These groups are filling the gap left by the absence of state or private firms. They organize their members to collect trash from the households, sort-out valuable materials and sell them to middlemen and industries, and sometimes coordinate community clean-ups.

One such groups is Juja Road Self-Help Group – one of many dozens dealing with waste management in Mathare. The “business model” of the Group is relatively simple: it collects, sorts, and then disposes of garbage from households; something that – despite the lack of protective gear and any advanced technology – it does relatively well. The group generates modest revenue through trash collection, as well as basic re-selling of mainly plastics and metals. However, faced with the lack of equipment, funding, and sometimes lack of respect from both the city council and the residents, the members struggle to make ends meet. This forces them to expand to the neighboring communities, as Juja Group did when it started operating in Eastleigh. But expansion is no solution on its own.

Their work, and work of other similar groups, has a profound impact on the lives of the settlement’s inhabitants, however, they often fall short of developing their full potential, as their interventions struggle to become truly sustainable and thus fully effective and profitable on the long run. The challenge is significant, since these groups are trying to address what in effect is a large-scale governance failure with limited skills and resources. In a simplistic way, we could think of the problem as dichotomous in nature. On the one hand, the groups, while they possess the man-power, do not have the necessary skill, knowledge, or resources to scale up and expand their activities on their own. On the other hand, the groups lack support from the authorities that could provide the necessary resources. The groups themselves are unlikely to be able to sustain their work over a longer period without a change in their strategy and external support.

Let us first consider what the existing waste management groups could do on their own to improve their performance. It turns out: a lot. Research that we – Spatial Collective – conducted in Mathare shows that there are ample opportunities in alternative material recovery, recycling, and sorting of trash within the informal settlements. There is much more that the groups could do with the trash they collect. Our research shows that the majority of groups engaged in waste management sort and re-sell only plastics and metals. In detail, 98% of the groups sort and re-sell plastics and 77% metals. Competition is thus fierce, the informal market saturated and – not unexpectedly – the revenue generated from re-selling plastics and metals is very limited. But there remain untapped potentials in expanding material recovery and recycling services. Household data shows that apart from plastics (60%) and metals (surprisingly only 1%), the households also discard organic material (98%), paper (87%), polythene (87%), and sanitary towels (33%). By focusing on the recycling and re-selling of materials beyond plastics and metals, the informal waste management groups would not only reduce the amount of residual waste in the communities, but also secure additional revenue.

Juxtaposition of the materials recovered by groups and materials discarded by inhabitants

However, these groups will most likely not succeed on their own and only by improving their waste management practices. A positive relationship with the public authorities is of fundamental importance, on at least three fronts. First, at the most basic level, the city council and the informal groups have to find common ground. While the opponents of informal groups might in theory be right that waste management should be undertaken by public authorities, they fail to recognize that in practice it is precisely because of the failure of these same public authorities that the informal groups have emerged. As long as no credible public alternative is put in place, Juja Road Self-Help Group’s and similar initiatives’ efforts in Nairobi’s informal settlements will remain essential. Second, the allegations that some groups use intimidation and force to enforce the primate over the delivery of public services needs to be addressed. Public goods should not be turned into club goods only enjoyed by some. Finally the informal waste management initiatives do not possess even the basic capabilities to properly dispose of residual trash or to transport it to Nairobi’s main landfill Dandora. Waving this concern away will not solve the problem, dialogue will. In fact, during our interviews many city administrators expressed the willingness to collaborate, yet on the premise that informal groups accept and uphold certain standards – mainly getting themselves officially registered with the city council, and entering in contractual agreements with the city.

A certain level of pragmatism and optimism is needed. Informal governance initiatives within Nairobi’s informal settlements will unquestionably remain key for the provision of certain vital – often life-sustaining – services for the foreseeable future. They will continue to serve their communities in the areas of public health, education, water delivery, security, and many others. We believe that this will remain the case also for waste removal. Yet, there is no reason why improvements should not be sought. On the one hand, the informal groups should seize opportunities in recovery and recycling of alternative materials, thus increasing their revenue and ensuring greater sustainability. On the other hand, the city authorities should do more to support some of their activities and enter a constructive partnership to address governance failures. It is important to keep in mind that, at the end of the day, the goal of both sides is to improve the lives of communities in some of the poorest and most destitute parts of Nairobi. Solving the problem of waste and other public services is a matter of urgency and will serve as an indication whether Kenya can ensure long-term sustainability of its economic model.


[1]What A Waste, A Global Review of Solid Waste Management, Urban Development Series Knowledge Papers, The World Bank (2012): 3

[2] Solid Waste Management in the Worlds Cities, Waste and Sanitation in the Worlds Cities, United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-HABITAT) (2010)


[4]See: What A Waste, A Global Review of Solid Waste Management

[5]The International POPs Elimination Project : A Study on Waste Incineration Activities in Nairobi that Release Dioxin and Furan into the Environment, Kenya, Nairobi (2005)

[6] Solid Waste Management in the Worlds Cities, Waste and Sanitation in the Worlds Cities, United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-HABITAT) (2010): 72

[7]Ibid., 72