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Slum Lords among the Greatest Impediment to Informal Settlement Improvement in Nairobi

Land tenure is among the key elements that define slum settlements. The lack of tenure security limits both private and public investments in settlements translating to slum conditions. The form of land tenure also has implications on which settlements get upgraded whether by government, communities or other partners.

In Kenya, slum land tends to have multiple layers of ownership that may consist of renters, structure owners who are not necessarily the legitimate land owners and then the actual owners who may be private or public entities. Over 80% of slum dwellers are renters mainly from absentee landlords. The presence of absentee landlords in Kenya’s slums unlike in some countries where slum residents own the structures they reside in presents a different twist in Kenya’s slum upgrading programs.

Typically slum upgrading programs are conceived with slums residents in mind which tends to ignore absentee landlords who form a key aspect of slum interests in Kenya. It is these interests that show up during upgrading processes to disrupt the process because most of them may not qualify to benefit under such programs. This can be exemplified by past and ongoing slum upgrading processes in Nairobi. 

In Nairobi, majority of slum upgrading processes that have taken place such as KENSUP, KISIP and Kambi Moto have tended to be on publicly owned land. While, settlements located on private land are more difficult to penetrate owing to the multiple interests they represent and the complex process of acquiring such land for upgrading, publicly located settlement do not necessarily guarantee a smooth upgrading processes.  For instance during KENSUP, the government was forced to halt the first phase of housing construction in Soweto East A after landlords went to courtto stop the government from demolishing structures to pave way for construction of new housing. The argument of the landlords centered on their loss of economic and land rights that they had enjoyed for years. They demanded government compensation for loss of incomes from their investments. The government eventually won against the landlords but after a lengthy battle that subsequently delayed project implementation for over a year.

The same challenge is also being experienced in the ongoing KISIP project implemented by the government and co-financed by the World Bank. Case point is Kayole Soweto settlement where a section of road under the KISIP project has never commenced because a landlord got a court injunction to stop the commencement of construction works. Similarly in KCC village in Nairobi, the contractors had to leave some road sections undone because residents refused to relocate in good time demanding compensation from government.  

It is partly these delays that push governments away from investing in slum areas as the disputes take long to resolve thus delaying implementation and accounting of project by relevant ministries. While communities and NGO’s may have the luxury and patience to move back and forth in projects over a long period of time, government ministries lack such luxury. Normally, allocations to government ministries need to be spent and accounted for in each financial year.  Otherwise, such money is reallocated to the same or other projects. Once a project has been in the funding list for a long time, without progress the government requires such a project is left out. As a result most state officials shy away from proposing slum upgrading initiatives in their budgets as they fear they may not be able to implement them within the limits of a financial year.

Further, the lengthy process needed to deal with such hurdles means that slum upgrading projects are not politically attractive as politicians want to invest in areas where they can have quick wins not in projects that will take decades to implement. For instance, the KENSUP project started in 2003 with a goal to end in 15 years, but it is yet to cover ¼ of the works. Similarly, the KISIP project was meant to be completed between 2011 and 2016 but it still ongoing owing to extensions partly occasioned by land disputes by slum lords and reluctance to relocate by residents among other issues.

These delays are not only inconveniencing timewise but can also be costly to the government. Within the KISIP, the government has hired private contractors to carry out infrastructure works within a set period of time and at a certain cost. Once such delays arise, the cost implications associated with such delays are pushed to the government translating to higher project costs.


Keziah M. Mwang’a is currently a PhD candidate at the Gran Sasso Science Institute in Italy with a particular focus on urban politics and governance

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