Mathare Demographic

This post was cross-posted from Spatial Collective’s blog.

Informal settlements are often missing from geographic and statistical representation of their countries, and Nairobi’s informal settlements are no exception.

With so few household surveys, high-quality data with specific focus on informal settlements are very hard to come by.  For this reason, little information is available on the quality and quantity of public and private institutions, public services, or on the wants and needs of the people living in informal settlements.

In November 2013, Spatial Collective conducted a household survey in four of the six wards in Mathare.  This was a first-step in the launching of the Mtaa Safi (Clean Neighborhood)campaign.

As already noted in previous blog posts, the purpose of the survey was to create a basic demographic profile of Mathare and, in greater detail, look into how people use information and communication technologies (ICTs) and acquire deeper understanding of the habits and behavior concerning solid waste management.

This blog post will focus on demographic characteristics of Mathare that emerged from our sample (N=980) and take a closer look at how they compare to other countrywide statistics.



The ratio of respondents in our survey is equally divided between male (49.7 percent) and female (50.3 percent).

This mirrors the nationwide gender distribution for Kenya, which, according to the United Nations Population Division, is equally divided, with 49.8 percent male and 50.1 percent female.[1]



The United Nations Population Division reports that Kenya’s population grew twofold since 1990, from 23 million to an estimated 45.5 million in 2014.[2] Further, in 2009, Kenya Population and Housing Census reports that 78.3 percent of people in the country were below 35 years old (35 years is the threshold between the youth and adulthood in Kenya).[3]

Again, our survey results reveal a similar pattern in Mathare. Approximately 41 percent of the people in the sample are below 25 years old. Additionally, 38 percent are younger than 35 years of age. In other words, the majority of the people in the sample (almost 80 percent) are younger than 35 years old.

Our results also illustrate what is often referred to as Africa’s youth bulge. In Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, significant percentages of the population are young. The youth bulge exists because the country reduced infant mortality rate but still has high fertility rate which results in the fact that a large share of the population is comprised of children and young adults.[4] The youth population (15–24 year as measured by the World Bank) is growing faster in Africa than in any other region of the world.  According to World Bank statistics, 200 million people in Africa are between 15 and 24 years of age. This means that 20 percent of the population, 40 percent of the workforce, and 60 percent of the unemployed on the continent are youth.[5]



Education provides many benefits to improving lives of the people, especially for the poor and the marginalized. Some of these benefits can be found in reducing poverty and improving livelihoodshealth and general wellbeing, as well as in promoting democracy.

Primary school enrollment levels have grown significantly since Kenya introduced free primary education in 2003.

According the World Bank data, in 2009, Kenya had 81.8 percent net enrolment in primary schools[6] and 50 percent net secondary school enrolment[7] (net enrolment is the ratio of children of the official primary/secondary school age who are enrolled in primary/secondary school to the total population of the official primary/secondary school age).

Approximately 3/4 of the people in our survey – 71 percent – have either primary or secondary school education. Less than 17 percent of the interviewees have either college degree or university degree, and only 4 people out of the sample of 980 (or less than 1 percent) have advanced post-undergraduate degree.

The fact that very few people continue schooling past secondary school can be attributed to the poor economic situation of residents in the slums as well as to the poor quality of educational facilities in the slums.

According to research conducted in Nairobi’s slums, education costs amount to up to 10% of the total household expenditures. Child education expenditure can amount almost as high as that of food or rent. Because people aren’t able to afford to send children to school, many children from the slums do not benefit from free primary education.[8]

Girls tend to attend school in higher rates than boys until up to the secondary school but fall behind after the secondary school. According to the survey, there are more males from Mathare in colleges and universities.



Africa and many parts of the developing world are experiencing significant unemployment problem. Unemployment is remarkably high among the youth; and especially high among women. Youth employment is oftentimes several times lower than that of adults; female employment is even worse.

According to previous studies, the informal sector in Nairobi employs up to two-thirds of the city’s labor force.[9] Our survey shows that almost half or 45 percent of the people interviewed are reportedly self-employed, and 32 percent are unemployed.

It seems that unemployment decreases with age, mostly due to self-employment in the informal sector.

Gender wise, more men are employed and more women unemployed; self-employment is equal between both genders.


Transient nature of the settlement

It is widely believed that populations in the slums are transient. Many people living in the slums believe that their stay is only temporary, lasting only until they find somewhere more appropriate to live.

Our data shows that more than half of the people interviewed (54 percent) have lived in Mathare for ten or less years. This number points to a modestly transient nature of the informal settlement.

Academics contend that the reasons for the lack of basic services, lack of investment, and lack of interest by the state can be attributed to the transient nature of the settlements which may lead tenants to not voice demands for improved services.[10]



Many of the people in Kenya’s informal settlements live in houses made out of tin and wood and mud. According to UN-Habitat, Nairobi’s slums have some of the most deprived conditions in the world (UN-Habitat 2006).

Mathare is an area where both more permanent dwellings, such as high-rise buildings (usually between three and eight floors), and more temporary dwellings, such as mud-huts and tin-shacks, intertwine. Two-thirds of the people interviewed in our survey live in tin-shacks or mud-huts while approximately one third live in semi-permanent, permanent or high-rise buildings.

The map below shows the types of households divided into more permanent structures (high-rise, semi-permanent and permanent) and more temporary structures (mud huts and iron sheet buildings).

These high-rise and permanent buildings differ from tin-shacks in that they are usually units with multiple apartments; however, the apartment size is similar to that of tin-shacks (approximately 9 square meters). High-rise buildings have better access to services, such as electricity, water and sewerage, however, the provision of these services is still very infrequent.

The survey further shows that the average household size in Mathare is around 3.5 people per household.


This concludes our demographic analysis of Mathare. As we can see, the information gathered compares relatively well to other studies conducted in Kenya and in other comparable informal settlements in the country. We can conclude that our sample is representative.


[1] See: World population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, Available at

[2] See: World population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, Available at:

[3] See: Kenya Population Situation Analysis, Available at:

[4] See: World Bank Blog: Youth Bulge: A Demographic Divident or a Demographic Bomb in Developing Countries? Available at:

[5] Foresight Africa, Top Priorities for the Continent in 2012, Available at:

[6] See: World Bank Open Data, Available at:

[7] See: World Bank Open Data, Available at:

[8] Amendah D. Djesika et al, “Coping Strategies Among Urban Poor: Evidence from Nairobi Kenya,” Available at:

[9] See: UN-Habitat, Nairobi Urban Sector Profile, Available at:

[10] See: Socio-Economic Aspects of Improved Sanitation in Slums: A Review, Available at:

Waste Management Stakeholder Survey

This post was cross-posted from Spatial Collective’s blog.

In March and April 2014, following the household survey, Spatial Collective continued their research into informal waste management activities and other community-led hazard mitigation practices in Mathare. The focus of the research was on various groups and individuals dealing with environmental and waste management in the four wards in Mathare: Mlango Kubwa, Hospital, Mabatini, and Ngei.

Following months of field work and community meetings, forty three groups and individuals were identified dealing with waste management in these four wards. These included youth groups, self-help groups, and individual garbage pickers, sorters and recyclers. Their activities range from household garbage collection, sorting, recycling and reusing of waste, to community cleanups and other community hazard mitigation activities.

Stakeholder forum

The survey was designed to show who the main actors in waste management in Mathare were, what were their modes of operation, and how they interacted with each other and with the city council. In detail, we looked at the groups’ official statuses, their memberships and their activities. We were specifically interested to see whether groups use ICTs for the purpose of coordinating their activities and communicating between group members and to the city council. We further examined how the groups conduct financial transactions between their members and with their customers. Our research also encompassed a more qualitative assessment of the groups’ experiences with the city council and other government officials that are responsible for environmental and waste management in Nairobi. We concluded the survey with collecting groups’ opinions on how to improve waste management in the slums.

Similarly to the household survey conducted months before, we recorded the answers using android phones and GPS units. Locations of each of the group and locations of dump sites, sorting, recycling and selling sites and locations of other relevant stakeholders and facilities were collected. The survey data and the GPS points were then sent to the designated database where they were analyzed.

Data collection


Household Survey

This post was cross-posted from Spatial Collective‘s blog.

In November 2013 Spatial Collective conducted a household survey of 1000 randomly-selected households in Mathare. The focus of the research was to explore the existing and available information systems in Mathare, mainly to gather information on availability, accessibility, and use of mobile telephony and the Internet, as well as to gain a deeper understanding of waste management activities in the area. We were interested to see whether some sort of technological (ICT) solution could be possible to raise awareness and address the issue of waste management in Mathare and broader in Nairobi.

Conducting an Interview

During the initial planning phase, Spatial Collective organized a series of consultative meetings and interviews with the selected citizens and opinion leaders. Through careful considerations of local realities we then designed a public opinion survey targeting 1000 households in Mahtare (completing 980 interviews). The first section of the survey focused on the basic demographic information of the interviewees, such as, age and gender, education, number of people in the households, their employment and location of residence within the slum together with the number of years spent living in Mathare. The second section of the survey consisted of ICT-related questions including information on ownership, accessibility and use of mobile phones, computers, and the Internet. The third and final section of the survey contained questions about people’s perceptions and habits concerning waste handling and waste management.

The survey was conducted in four of the six wards in Mathare: Hospital, Mabatini, Ngei, and Mlango Kubwa. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, there are approximately 123,345 people living in these six wards. The wards were selected because of their representativeness of the broader Mathare constituency in the greater Eastlands area of Nairobi.

Prior to starting the survey we were faced with a challenge of how to randomly select 1000 households in an area which does not have street addresses. Professor Steven Livingston from the School of Media and Public Affairs proposed that we superimpose a grid layer, or a fishnet, on top of the satellite imagery of Mathare and then randomly select 1000 of these grid points. These points would then act as randomly selected households. Following Steven’s advice, we created a grid layer where each cell of the fishnet was 9 square meters (or 3×3 meters) large. This is consistent with the size of an average room in both the high-rise and the tin-shack or mud-houses in Mathare. Once the grid was superimposed over the satellite imagery we used a random selection function in Quantum GIS in order to randomly assigning 1000 grid cell locations. Selected grid cell locations were then transformed into coordinates with latitude and longitude information, uploaded into GPS units, and used to navigate to the randomly selected households.

The interviews were conducted by our field team. If the person at a particular location did not want to participate in the survey or if the location of a randomly selected point represented anything else but the household, the surveyor simply moved to the nearest household and conducted the interview there. The surveyors used the android phones to record the interviews using Open Data Kit software. Finally, the location of each completed interview was recorded with the GPS unit and the survey immediately sent into the database through the mobile-Internet connection. In total, 980 interviews were completed, meaning that approximately 0.8% of the population in the area was surveyed.

Locations of the Interviews


Mtaa Safi (Clean Neighborhood)

Spatial Collective in its aim to understand various ways groups organize themselves for the purpose of providing public goods in informal settlements initiated Mtaa Safi (Clean Neighborhood) campaign.

It’s widely known that in informal settlements, lack of basic services and missing state institutions sometimes create a governance vacuum that is often filled by the informal sector. According to some estimations, informal sector in Nairobi employs two thirds of the city’s labor force as cleaners, sellers, teachers, security guards, waste collectors, etc.[1] This is a complicated system through which many of the services are provided. In our focus to understand the complexity of informal waste management in Eastlands, Spatial Collective initiated Mtaa Safi (Clean Neighborhood) campaign.

Mtaa Safi is first and foremost an environmental campaign. Its aim is to address the issues of waste management and at the same time raise awareness, capacity, and legitimacy of various initiatives dealing with environmental issues in informal settlements. Specifically, our aims is to build a network of community environmentalists and provide them with a platform to exchange information about best practices; further, we seek to improve environmental management through innovative use of available technology; and finally, we strive to legitimize the contribution of these groups towards the more sustainable development of Nairobi. In recent months Spatial Collective conducted a public opinion survey; organized a series of stakeholder meetings and target group interviews; collected information on hundreds of environmentally relevant locations; and set up a social media campaign in order to support and promote our on-the-ground activities. Our final goal is to build an open and widely accessible environmentally oriented communication channel for the purpose of providing relevant and timely information to the communities concerning environmental issues, and at the same time, allow citizens to participate and contribute their ideas and views on how to build a more sustainable and cleaner environment for the future generations.

Join the conversation herehere, or here.

[1] Nairobi Urban Sector Profi le, 2005, page 14,


Anacostia, The Death and Life of an American River (A book review)


Recent homicides in Southwest Washington D.C.; Source: Washington Post

This recent article on the spike of violence in Southeast Washington D.C. made me think of the book I recently read, Anacostia, The Death and Life of an American River. The book chronologically depicts the emergence of Washington D.C. and how power politics and irresponsible urban planning can create disparities among populations in the same locality. Below is my attempt at the book review.

Urbanization, population growth, and the “demographic transition from rural to urban, is associated with shifts from an agriculture-based economy to one of mass industry, technology, and service.”[1] For the first time ever, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and this proportion continues to grow. Cities around the world are having a difficult time coping with the influx of people arriving every day and governments are struggling to provide even the most fundamental services, such as access to clean water and adequate sanitation to their urban populations. As we are rethinking the way we live, John R. Wennersten’s Anacostia, The Death and Life of an American River, echoes its story of urban development spanning through the past and present and into the future. It is a warning of how misguided urban efforts and policies can lead to a degradation of both the natural and the social environment and how grandiose and exclusive plans for our cities can brand people and the environment for generations to come.

Anacostia is first and foremost a historical overview of Washington D.C. and its surrounding areas. It is a study of environmental and social relations that have shaped the natural and human environments. It is often a story of degradation, of the ruined environment, and of the river’s relationship to the capital and the disenfranchised communities that live and have lived on its shores.[2] Throughout the pages, the author successfully juxtaposes the promise of development and progress with the realities of social deterioration, squalor, and urban decay. In the middle runs the river, the ever silent observer who endures the impact of forces shaping the world around it.

The book is a chronologically constructed narrative. The chapters build on one another and their stories are by no means isolated ones. While focused on a specific case study, the narrative could easily depict most cities around the world today.

The book starts with the arrival of the settlers and their immediate impact on the environment, which quickly becomes strained. The days of plantation culture and its ability to alter the regional’s natural cycles through extraction and human misery (slavery), significantly changed the regional social ecology and deteriorated the natural environment. The author’s initial description of the early plantation culture offers us a paradigm for understanding the subsequent history of the river’s area and its rippling effects into the present day: “linked transformations in environment and social processes created unsettled, contradictory, and unjust relations between the people and the natural and built environment (p 35).”

The narrative then moves from plantations to the grand dreams and schemes of L’Enfant, the crafty world of land speculators, and subsequently towards total urban squalor. War, disease, refugees and reconstruction descend upon the city. Anacostia River became caught up in the matrix of urban development and human misery.

Industrialization springs the expansion of the city and introduces new lessons and warnings for present day developers. The industrial revolution brought with it a two tier development process, increasing the problems of environmental degradation and social split. As the city developed, the wealthier citizens moved one way, while the poorer moved the other. Delivery of basic services followed the split. When inequalities between the two finally came into the public limelight, the leaders responded by re-designing the environment in a way which only exaggerated the social differences. The so-called Monumentalist period is a striking lesson in irresponsible urban design. It completely disconnected the citizens and vitality of their communities from urban planning. One can see the legacy of the Monumentalist period in the center of Washington D.C.: “an area of monumental buildings and plazas that in design and execution contradict the very idea of revitalized communities and flourishing neighborhoods (p 141).” Prestige, appearances, business, and profits drove the forceful removal of the working class populations from certain parts of the city, replacing them with an authoritative design of the public space. The city became a “grotesque paradox” of city planning with poor and disenfranchised people living separate from the wealthy (p 160). The Anacostia River was again set as a boundary.

The promise of the American Dream was literally cut in half due to urban planning and power politics; as well as physically by the river. Environmental justice, as a new civil rights battleground, emerged out of necessity in Washington D.C. The location of one’s birthplace determined one’s future (and as we see from the article in Washington Post to some extent it still does). The river once again takes the center stage in the struggle as people realize that their socio-economic situation is tied to the fate of the river and the environment. Activists believe that a cleaner river and healthier environment could lead to improved communities, and that the river should be seen as an asset, a connecting factor, and not as a barrier to civic improvement.

Later in the book, the author introduces an interesting observation about the unique position and identity of the capital city. Washington D.C. is an artificially constructed city. The fact that Washington never had a well organized political community; that it was regarded as nothing more than an arena for politics; that it had and has a vast transient community; and that the majority of its local population are poor minorities, poses diverse and significant challenges even today, when the city tries to reinvent itself.

Today the river stands changed and with it the city. Waterfronts, new urbanities, and gentrification (or the fear of it) are the new urban realities of Washington D.C. and the surrounding areas. Today, between 70 and 80 percent of the entire Anacostia River watershed is developed.

The author ends his book with currents of hope and an “Anacostia prayer” but he doesn’t offer us solace. While the grand schemes of Washington D.C. might not have died yet, and perhaps even the urban watersheds can still be restored and communities revitalized many questions about the future remain unanswered.

From Anacostia in Washington D.C. to Mathare and Kibera in Nairobi, certain populations remain excluded from the grand developments of their city. When we conducted a survey in Nairobi’s slums, asking people what the biggest problems of their city were, they replied: “Population growth, inequality, the illegal construction of infrastructure, and the degradation of the natural and social environments. Locally, the environmental problems range from lack of dumping sites, lack of drainage systems, deforestation, and the use of rivers as dumping sites and toilet outlets.”[3] The social problems run much deeper. The story of today’s Nairobi is the story of past and present Anacostia. It is the story that many cities in the developing and the developed world are currently experiencing. In the end, Anacostia tells us that there is still hope but only if we radically change the way we live. Can we? Will we?

John R. Wennersten: Anacostia, The Death and Life of an American River

[1] World Health Organization, Accessed:

[2] Chesapeake Quarterly, Accessed:

[3] Mapping: (No) Big Deal,


Coding Scheme to Document Dumping and Management of Waste

This post was cross-posted from Spatial Collective’s blog.

Removal and management of waste and human excreta are two of the most vital environmental services provided by a city. Failing to manage waste properly has a direct impact on public health, length of life, and the environment.[1] The United States Environmental Protection Agency has identified 22 human diseases linked to improper waste management.[2] Research shows that “diarrhea and acute respiratory infections are significantly higher with children living in households where solid waste is dumped, or burned in the yard, compared to households in the same cities that receive a regular waste collection services.”[3]

There are significant geographical disparities in production, composition and management of waste in the world, and even within cities. Informal settlements all over the world lack proper waste management systems, leaving people to live, literally, in waste. Waste management in Mathare, an informal settlement in Nairobi, is problematic to say the least.  Waste is everywhere, and so are the efforts to clean it up, as I have discussed in previous posts. Informal dump sites and waste management initiatives come in all shapes and sizes.

As a part of Spatial Collective’s waste management campaign we aim to document the extent of waste dumping and other waste related activities in Mathare. While mapping stakeholders (youth groups, local administration, and middlemen) and amenities (toilets and water points) is relatively easy, a problem arises when we try to document the extent of waste dumping in the community. Waste is only marginally space bound (meaning left at a certain location) and is more often scattered around – people either throw it wherever they want or wind and rain move it around the community. Despite these challenges, we designed a coding scheme to help us determine the extent of waste lying around in the community.

Various locations of waste

We believe that the coding scheme can help us address some of the challenges that come with trying to document community’s dumping of waste. One of the main challenges we face is how to document the size and content of all the various dumps sites; how do we decide which pile of waste is important enough to be mapped? We believed that if we were to leave it to community members to map whatever each decided to map we would end up with an unequal representation of the distribution of garbage (health hazards). Because each person perceives his or her environment in different ways, what is important to one person might not be to the other. If we want to monitor and document the effects of interventions, variance of this sort is not acceptable. We realized we needed a clear and well-structured categorization of waste, one that captured related issues that cut across communities. Only then could we perform comparisons and, hopefully, detect changes over time.

Our initial coding scheme consisted of about a dozen categories, ranging from different types of illegal dump sites to official collection points, toilets and water points, and various stakeholders – youth groups, government officials, and business entrepreneurs. We tried to make the categories mutually exclusive, with each capturing some essential quality to particular waste types.

After completing the coding scheme, we conducted an inter-coder (mapper) reliability test. Inter-coder reliability refers to the extent to which two or more independent coders – in our case mappers – agree on the coding of the content of interest with an application of the same coding scheme.[4] For the purpose of testing our coding scheme we determined the footpath that each mapper would take at a different time intervals (about 15 minutes apart). The mappers followed the assigned path and mapped according to the coding scheme.

Inner-mapper reliability test

The results were more or less surprising.

Mappers Points
1 14
2 6
3 1
4 4
5 3
6 4
7 2
8 4

Only 4 out of 38 unique points mapped were mapped by all eight mappers (coders). At the same time 14 out of 38 points were mapped by only one mapper. Both sides of the spectrum tell us a story that will be told in a future blog post. Yet if we draw a couple of quick conclusions, what do these results tell us? I believe there could be a couple of reasons why we got these results:

  1. The coding scheme was inadequate to the task: it is very difficult to capture a problem as great and diverse in a set of limited categories which means that the categories were not mutually exclusive enough – distinguishing between piles of trash is really hard
  2. People have different perceptions of what problems are: some mappers might not think that a certain pile of trash is relevant
  3. Coders weren’t focused enough on the task

We believe that a combination of a bad coding scheme together with (our) lack of awareness of what the actual hazards of waste are and ubiquitous nature of the problem contributed to these results. We drastically improved and simplified the coding scheme to see whether a new and improved code will give us better results.

Documenting the extent of informal dumping and mapping stakeholders is just one in a series of measurements we executed trying to determine how governance around waste management occurs in the current setting. We hope that additional quantitative and qualitative methodologies we put in place will provide us with a clearer understanding of waste management in Mathare and with a clear way forward towards various hazard mitigation initiatives.

In the end, we need to consider the following:  Managing solid waste well and in the most economically, socially, and environmentally optimal manner possible is one of the key challenges of the 21st century. Waste management is primarily a public health and an environmental issue. In a place like Mathare, where waste is everywhere, and where a single item lying on the ground can be harmful to a child or a human, we raise an important question: how much can we actually rely on the citizens to provide us with an exact picture of the hazards within their community? Our survey shows that 98% of the people surveyed believe that waste lying around is harmful to the community members. And while they know that waste and human feces are dangerous, do they know exactly how dangerous they are? When a small, and in the eye of a community member, insignificant pile of very toxic trash can be far more dangerous than a huge pile of paper and plastic, can we rely on the citizens to provide us with a good representation of the hazards within the community? How well are they actually equipped to understand and document the extent of these hazards? These are some of the questions that we will have to think about and work on in the near future in order to validate our datasets.


[1] Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities, Waste and Sanitation in the Worlds Cities, United Nations Human Settlement Programme (2010): xx

[2] Lisa Benton-Short, John Rennie-Short, Cities and Nature (New York: Rutledge, 2013): 382

[3] Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities, xx

[4] Sage, Research Methods, accessed November 25, 2013,




Garbage Composition, Path and Process Mapping

This post is cross-posted from Spatial Collective’s blog.

Spatial Collective recently undertook a campaign of tackling solid waste management in Mathare. Solid waste (waste) comes in various shapes and sizes and materials and has various life-cycles. In order to understand what some of the processes undertaken while handling waste are we looked closely at the composition and the life-cycle of waste.

First, we looked at the composition of waste in Mathare. Solid waste, which is deposited in Mathare’s communities (excluding raw sewerage), usually consists of biological, recyclable, electrical and electronic, and hazardous material, and other waste such as sanitary towels, medical waste and human excrement.

Community designated dump site

Secondly, we looked at the life-cycle of waste by looking at the locations, paths and the processes through which it travels on its way to the final drop-off point. Looking at Mathare, waste is usually generated at a household or a local business level, where it is also stored, accumulated, thrown away, burned, buried, and sometimes separated into different recyclable or reusable materials. Waste then travels from the household to the drop-off site which can be either some predetermined collection point or a community designated dump site (some people call these illegal dump sites). Waste is either collected by the youth groups at a household level or it is disposed off by the residents themselves. Youths, individuals dealing with waste management or the residents dispose of waste by burning it; they throw it into the river or just anywhere; sometimes they sell valuable pieces of waste to the middleman for some cash; or they prepare it for the proper collection by the city council at the predesignated collection points. Last part in the life-cycle of solid waste in Mathare is its transport to the “official” dump site, Dandora (obviously waste which is thrown into the river or burned etc. doesn’t end there), where waste is once more sorted and recycled by the numerous “garbage-pickers.” Nairobi City Council has plans for the future to turn waste into energy at the recycling plants.

Path, Location and Process

Knowing the composition of waste and understanding its life-cycles can make us more informed regarding the processes, the people involved, their organization and behaviors around solid waste management. These informed decisions will hopefully guide us towards more sustainable solutions regarding solid waste management in Mathare.


Spatial Collective tackles waste management in Mathare

This blog post is cross-posted from Spatial Collective’s blog.

Mathare river

Garbage collection is a major problem in Mathare, a conclusion easily confirmed by even the most casual observation (Mathare river pictured above). The problem of inadequate waste management in Mathare is no less than an environmental and humanitarian disaster. Waste is everywhere. Food waste, paper, broken bottles, batteries, metal, plastic, electrical material, building material, raw sewerage, paint and other chemicals, even human feces litter walking paths, open spaces, roads, and even people’s houses.  These are the things one can see.  Then there are the unseen — though usually smelled — toxins created by open-pit burning and the overflowing waste from the open-drainage.  A waste management system appears to be non-existent. There seems to be little question that the health implications for the people living in these conditions are disastrous.

The team at Spatial Collective is trying to get a better understanding of waste management challenges in Mathare so that we can work with residents to find appropriate solutions. We are determined to implement a campaign to clean Mathare and improve the existing waste management systems found in the community. The inspiration largely comes from Isaac Mutisya, also known as Kaka, and his youth group Mathare Environmental. Kaka was recently featured in a story on NPR about his role as an “activist cartographer” at Spatial Collective. His group managed to take over an open space in the middle of Mlango Kubwa, which was being used before as an uncontrolled dump site. He and his team transformed it into a community center equipped with a small football pitch (picture below).

Community center in Mlango Kubwa

Improving waste management is not just about cleaning dumps sites. Apart from being a health hazard, waste represents an important source of income for many groups and individuals. According to Kaka, due to lack of employment, many youths took on waste management as an opportunity to earn much needed cash.  Recycling plastics, for example, earns a bit of money for cash-strapped youth.

Waste management tends to be political as well. Tatiana Thieme, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge, states that when the state fails to deliver basic services, such as garbage collection, grassroots waste management initiatives take over. Groups dealing with garbage collection and waste management become productive entry points of youth ‘mobilization,’ ‘livelihood creation’ and a ‘mode of resistance’ and “hence a political platform for low-income urban youth to reclaim their rights to the city.”1

The waste management system in Mathare might be broken but it does exist. One might not agree with the way things are done but it has to be taken into account that some sort of a system exists. That is why, in order to avoid the potential conflicts and to propose the best solutions possible, we need to first understand the problem.

Why waste management? Out of all the problems that the people of Mathare face day to day, solving a problem of accumulating waste seems the least complicated to solve. The problem is right there, in-your-face, visible, out in the open. At the same time the effects of the intervention should be quickly visible making them easier (but by no means easy) to measure – there are either less, more or the same number of uncontrolled dump sites in the community.

The campaign has three parts: problem definition, designing of proposed solutions (offline and technological), and campaign implementation.

We will start with defining the problem and setting of our goals. Our work will commence by conducting a preliminary public opinion survey. Professor Steven Livingson of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University is advising us on the design of the survey questionnaire and in setting up the initial strategy. We will continue by categorizing waste management issues for the purpose of documenting and mapping them. In the end we will conduct the mapping of stakeholders and power relations between them which are currently present in waste management in Mathare.

We hope that these steps will give us better insights into waste management in Mathare. These insights will lead us in our next two steps: designing solutions (including introducing potential technological solutions) and actual campaign implementation.

This campaign will serve as a testing ground for all the future campaigns that Spatial Collective wants to undertake in informal settlements. As we learn what works, we will incorporate the lessons learned in our other project designs. We are hope to identify the most effective strategies for promoting development, in this case waste management.

This is the first post in a series of many in which we will document our progress. We ask anyone to provide us with feedback or to give us advice in order to ensure that we do this campaign responsibly and effectively.

1 Tatiana Thieme, Youth waste and work in Mathare: whose business and whose politics? Accessed: July 20, 2013,



Two and a half years in Africa, Part 2

Children exploring new technologies

This is the second in a series of blog posts (here’s the first blog) describing my involvement and experiences working in the field of Information Communications Technology in Africa.

At the end of 2010, I became the programs director of Map Kibera, a pioneering collaborative mapping project that engaged local communities to map one of the largest and poorest slums in Africa. My main goal was to develop and implement programs that would serve communities, organizations and the government by addressing relevant issues and stories, providing more targeted data collection and narrowing the gap between service providers and citizens.

Through this work I had the privilege to work at the forefront of the ICT revolution in Africa by mapping urban vulnerability and industrial encroachment in Mukuru slums, setting up social accountability platforms in Kwale county, supporting various organizations in data collection and visualization in Mathare and Kibera slums, initiating a multi-media project focusing on video and storytelling in Mathare and consulting for the World Bank on water, development and ICT issues.

In the first couple of months I realized that ensuring that the programs would have the desired impact was going to be the toughest part of the job. The most important lesson I learned prior to my new position was that the vast amount of data available openly does not necessarily lead to any type of action. People are impressed and at the same time overwhelmed by the amount of data freely available. The platform which we used, OpenStreetMap, is not very intuitive when it comes to extracting data, and oftentimes community based organizations lack the skills and know-how to gain from the data which could be relevant for their work. As I wrote in this blog post apart from a small number of individuals, mostly foreign, that have used the data for their academic research, the data mostly stayed untouched. My colleague Jamie and I took over the responsibility to run the organization and we realized that we had to change the game plan if we were to make any sort of an impact within the communities in which we were working.

We made a plan to focus on community development, outreach and networking, identifying the main state and non-state actors in order to figure out how we could help their cause and at the same time make our cause relevant. We understood that different entities need different types of data. For example, an NGO dealing with water and sanitation needs different data than a City Council employee working on security, or a group of community members collecting trash. I wrote some of my thoughts down in a blog mentioned in the previous paragraph, where I brainstormed possible solutions to this problem.

Our first target was Mathare, the second largest slum in Kenya; I took a personal interest to set up operations there. Mathare is in many ways different from Kibera. It’s an urban jungle situated about 5 km east from the city center, and is notorious for drugs, gangs, lack of services and jobs; it also has much fewer NGOs working in the area.

With the help of my colleagues Jamie Lundine and Simon Kokoyo, I led the creation of a base map of Mathare, which consisted of all the major roads and pathways, and all the major landmarks, such as schools, hospitals, religious institutions, market places, restaurants and businesses, etc. (Here’s the list of relevant blog posts). In a nutshell, we trained the residents in GPS data collection and OpenStreetMap, and created social media and video programs. Our goal was to train Mathare residents in mapping and social media tools so they could relate their stories to an audience outside of the slum, and beyond the borders of the nation. The project succeeded largely due to our approach: we had an open door policy, meaning everybody who was interested in learning about mapping or social media (or anything else we were doing) could join. We kicked off the project with a huge open forum, which was in itself the climax of weeks – even months – of community engagement by Simon and myself. In the months prior to the start of the project we walked all across Mathare, met various youth groups, NGOs, community leaders and government representatives. As part of the open door policy, we decided to rotate the venues of meetings and trainings, so that residents from different parts of the community would feel welcome, be able to participate, ask questions, and give us feedback on a regular basis. This turned out to be a very important step, as we were able to recalibrate the project according to the communities’ needs and wishes. As a result, the community came to own the project more, and organizations, for example our local partner, Community Cleaning Services, immediately used the data for advocacy purposes. This was truly a community mapping initiative!

Mathare Community Forum

From the community feedback we received from Mathare residents, we learned that the community wanted to focus especially on water and sanitation issues. The Map Mathare participants and the community members came up with the plan to tackle these issues. They created a detailed Water and Sanitation map of Mathare, especially four villages in Mathare: Mabatini, Mashimoni, Thayu and No10 (relevant blog posts are here, here, here and here). Since then, the maps have been used repeatedly by different NGO’s and local authorities such as ward managers; one visit to a ward manager or D.O.’s office confirms the map’s significance, as these respected community leaders all have the maps hanging on their walls.

We didn’t just stop at mapping. With the help of Nathaniel Canuel, a freelance Canadian videographer working with the Environmental Youth Alliance and Up With Hope, we formed a video program called Mathare In Motion, where residents could unleash their creativity. Freedom of expression was the major goal of the initiative; as long as the videos were somehow connected to Mathare, they were good enough! The highlight of this initiative was an amazing educational movie: Poa Rowe (see Nathaniel’s blog and the movie below). Written and directed by Jeff Mohammed, the film addressed environmental issues faced by people living in Mathare.

POA ROWE from Nat Can on Vimeo.

During this period I got really attached to Mathare. When the funding for the program ended I still went there mostly in my free time to experiment on different initiatives. I grew close with most of the participants and some community members, which was expected after an intense, almost a year-long personal engagement. We held numerous discussions on life in the slum, brainstormed different ideas of how to highlight community members’ work, and promote themselves better. We realized that if they were to become true advocates of Mathare they had to turn the attention to themselves, and use the technology and time to learn about how they lived their lives. One such initiative was what we called “mobility mapping” described here. We initiated this method of mapping to answer the following questions: how do people negotiate the spaces in which they live? Does poverty influences mobility, and if so, in what ways? While we were in the process of developing this idea, we came across a group of architects and reporters – called Live in Slums – who were at the time working in Mathare. They were building a kitchen and a garden at the Why Not Primary School, and were interested to learn about what we were doing; they decided to help out by tracking some of the local garbage collection and water delivery groups. This project is ongoing and could be expanded to other areas in the future.

Mobility mapping

During this period of time, another architect friend of mine visited Kenya. Thomas Chapman, who was at the time running Backdoors to the City, came to Kenya to do some work and research in Taita Hills. He had an idea to create a 3D map of Mathare. As I wrote in this blog post 3D city models have many purposes ranging from urban planning, simulation, navigation systems, modeling, change detection, etc. They are in general used to visualize reality. The slums especially lie in geographically (and otherwise) challenging areas and a 3D model could help to understand some of the challenges people there face. So one weekend in September some of the Mathare residents and I collected field measurements, such as the heights of structures (shacks, brick buildings, etc.) and the topography of the terrain. The topography of Mathare is unique in a way that the most of the slum actually lies inside a deserted quarry. Mathare itself has two levels, one above the quarry near Juja road (Kosovo village also falls into this category because of the proximity to Thika road) and one inside the quarry. One interesting observation was that this topography influences – amongst other things – the rent that people pay for housing. Inside the quarry – in the valley – the rent ranges from Ksh 500 – 1000 ($6 – $12), along Juja road it’s Ksh 2500 – 5000 ($30 – $60), and in Kosovo Ksh 1500 – 3000 ($18 – $35). April Hiebert, another architect friend of mine from Canada, created a 3D map using this data. This project showed that a collaboration between people working oceans apart is possible, and also that high quality products that combine field measurements taken by community members, GPS data, and photography can be realized with minimum cost. This project is also ongoing.

3D of Mathare and different rent 'zones'

In the midst of all of these activities, I was hired as a consultant for the World Bank to organize a series of community meetings in Kibera and Mathare on water related issues. The World Bank was interested in community driven technological solutions to water related problems. They were interested in organizing community forums to better understand how ICT can provide solutions to water problems in informal settlements. Their initiative fit well with what we did in Mathare, which was water and sanitation mapping, and the things we were doing at that time in Kibera, which was re-mapping of the water and sanitation issues (read here), through supporting Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) and Kenya Water for Health Organization (KWAHO) to do data collection and map creation. This helped them to identify and monitor the state and locations of their facilities. There are many water-related problems in the informal settlements; some of them are described in these two blog posts [1], [2], as are some possible solutions (follow the progress here).

During this time, my colleague Jamie Lundine and I co-led a variety of mapping trainings, like the training of the entire ICT staff of Plan Kenya. For this occasion, we created a series of training manuals. I focused on technical mapping and map creation (some of the manual can be found here), while Jamie focused on participatory community approaches.

The work in Mathare and the reorganization of Kibera activities gave me experience in program management, design and implementation. The interest that some of the projects were generating made it almost necessary to expand to other geographic areas, as the demand for trainings and implementation of projects came pouring in from all over Kenya. As a result, our programming also changed to meet this demand. For example, we got involved in mapping an entire county (Kwale), which was organizationally and logistically very different from mapping an urban center. In retrospect, the most important lessons learned during this period were: to build sustainable and useful programs, you need the involvement and feedback from a broad base of community members and organizations in the area in which you’re working (this way a broad spectrum of ideas is generated and a greater understanding of issues is achieved); let the community and local organizations dictate the type of data to be collected (they know what they will use); encourage people to unleash their creativity (amazing things will happen!); seek support from a well-established organization, which will act as a backbone when dealing with the government (we had a great relationship with Plan Kenya); care about how your programs are perceived in the communities through constant public discussions and presence (there are too many organizations who come with money and big plans for short term projects – people just see them as money bags, meaning they are viewed as a way to get a quick buck, greeted with skepticism and in general not taken seriously – it takes time to build trust); and give the people you work with credit for the work they’re doing and for the work they did, and give them responsibilities to carry out tasks on their own (it will make them come back for more and they’ll feel more ownership, lowering the programs cost in the process). More coming up in blog 3.