Designing and Building in Central and East Africa


Visioning the Modern: The Challenges and Risks Surrounding Kenya’s Proposed Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor



.                 1. The World is Coming

.                 2. Lines of Territory Upon Strata of History

.                 3. Visioning

.                 4. Shifting Alliances

.                 5. Entangled Priorities

.                 6. Reliance: South Sudan

.                 7. The Kenyan Frontier

.                 8. Lamu – A City on the Edge

.                 9. East African Resolve

.                 10. References


“The world is coming…”

– Deputy Secretary of the Kililana Farmers Association
Lamu Town, April 2015


.     The Lamu South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor is the largest project currently being planned in the East Africa region. With an estimated budget of $23 Billion, this decade-long process of regional transformation is expected to create numerous opportunities for international investment, while coaxing regional social and political fissures to the surface of this contested landscape.

The first step of the project (currently underway) will be to transform the Kenyan fishing city of Lamu into an enormous port, accommodating as many as 32 oil tankers, supporting infrastructure, and projects of urban expansion. This phase is expected to boost the city’s population from 100,000 to 1,000,000 within a matter of years. The second phase will see the construction of a road and railway line from Lamu through Kenya and into Ethiopia and South Sudan. Previous iterations of this project saw avenues into neighboring Uganda, and speculated an extension into the Central African Republic. The final stage will be the installation of a pipeline from the oil fields of Northern South Sudan and Kenya’s Lokichar oil basin, back through Kenya, to Ethiopia, and to Lamu (Herbert).

Considerations at the Kenyan regional and local levels have grown in ambition with the size of the corridor to incorporate airstrips, resort cities, water systems, agricultural initiatives, and projects of civic infrastructure. Some discussions have begun regarding integration with the Standard Gauge Railway project; connecting Nairobi with Mombasa and nearly completed by the Chinese. Funding for the LAPSSET Corridor project is still in speculation. This project has come to dominate Kenyan local and regional planning discussions, Kenya’s foreign policy priorities, and makes up a substantial portion of the nationally acclaimed Vision 2030.

Throughout East Africa and across Kenya, this project represents a shift in regional prioritization from past efforts to simply control and contain the vast ‘uncharted hinterlands’ on the periphery, to a future in which these landscapes are transformed. Tribalism, territorialization, frontierism, cultural prioritization and anticipated economic displacement put this already contentious initiative in a constant state of flux. In order for the project to succeed however, the complex – yet delicate – framework of international agreements and political hierarchies must remain in place.

lines of territory upon strata of history

“The railway is the beginning of all history of Kenya… and it is the railway which created Kenya as a colony of the crown.”
 – Sir Edward Grigg, Governor of Kenya, 1928


.     The history of the East African region, dating back to pre-history, consists of a diverse and heterogeneous mixture of cultures, religions and models of habitation.  In the 1870’s however, foreign powers from Europe began to lay claim upon vast tracts of East African land, homogenizing diverse aggregations of tribes, communities, and identities into the territorial constructs of European colonialist governance. The emergent colonializing strategies for development of these claimed regions were established upon plans for the economic benefit of the colonizing nations. Though the boundaries and limits of territory were established in agreement between European powers, few of the development initiatives were coordinated – reflecting a euro-centric competition that further fragmented the East African landscape.

One of the most well-known infrastructure projects from the era is the British financed Kenya-Uganda railway – the so called ‘Lunatic Express’.  Remembered for the logistical challenges of construction that were presented by the difficult and ‘wild’ Kenyan landscape, the turn-of-the-century railway was established as a single line corridor from the African coast to the interior of the African continent. Similar yet independent projects of varying standards were built by the Germans in Tanzania and the French in Ethiopia. As a wave of independence swept across the African continent in the mid-20th century however, the newly recognized nation-states were left with an assemblage of fragmented islands of infrastructure (Graham, 40), limiting both regional integration of markets and cultural communication. The vast regions of land in between the developed ‘modern’ corridors remained for decades as contained, yet neglected ‘hinterlands’. To date, this remanence of colonialist development strategy has meant that the cost of inland transportation throughout East Africa remains the highest in the world (UNHabitat, 155).

Seeking to improve their capacity for economic growth and regional connectivity within the community, the governments of East Africa have initiated standardized reconstructions of their national railway infrastructures. With nearly completed projects in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda; and contracts for construction recently awarded in Tanzania and Rwanda (Templeton), the East African community is poised for the first time to establish an interconnected, cross-cultural railway transportation network. These monumental achievements have begun to give rise to grand, ambitious visions of further economic integration, development, and modernization.


“The commencement of this project reinforces the Government’s resolve to make infrastructure a key facilitator of our social and economic development. It is a major milestone in delivering the LAPSSET corridor programme as well as achieving Kenya’s Vision 2030,”
 – Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Speaking of the New Standard Gauge Railway, August 2014


.     The nationalist construct of Vision 2030 lays out a future in which Kenya will have been transformed “into a newly industrializing middle-income country providing high quality life to all its citizens by the year 2030.” Through media campaigns that promote ‘The Kenya We Want…” alongside images of impressive seaside resort cities and sleek transportation infrastructure, references to high modernist ideals can be seen within the country’s relentless pursuit towards a technological sublime (Graham, 45).

Described as neo-liberal in substance by economists (Mosely, 457), Kenya’s aspirations are echoed in Uganda’s Vision 2040, Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan, and Tanzania’s Vision 2025. It is only in the past 10 years has this trend of longer term planning and ‘visioning’ has taken hold in East Africa. As these nations have witnessed from afar the incredible economic growth in South East Asia and the alluring transformations of cities like Dubai, the strategic direction of East African countries has begun to shift away from the aid-based model presented by the west, to one of foreign direct investment that allows for a scale of planning that involves massive infrastructural upgrades, economic deregulation, and seeks a new era of interconnection and extension (Graham, 41).

Vision 2030 and the flagship LAPSSET project will cut cross the Northern Kenyan territories, drawing static lines of fluid commerce across the vast, semi-arid landscape. As Jason Mosley, a research associate at the Oxford University African Studies Centre points out, this ‘visioning’ marks a reversal in approach on the part of national leadership, “as these frontier regions were formerly seen as unproductive and of little interest; now they are seen as the site of unexploited resources.” The ability to capitalize on such vast, untapped resources of territory however, will fall primarily to the national leadership and wealthy elite within the capital cities. Mosley carries on to clarify that “these plans, articulated and promulgated first at the center, have huge implications for the peoples and landscapes at the margins”(453), indicating that those who will benefit the most from these projects will be those who will sacrifice the least. With the majority of the length of the corridor passing through not only the poorest regions of the country but also across traditional pastoralist territories, these hard lines of development will only be helpful to those communities that drastically change their traditional way of life.

In Kenya, Mosley’s observations have already begun to register upon the semi-arid, former ‘hinterlands’ of the Northern Kenya. The importance of the other nations involved in the LAPSSET corridor project however, cannot be understated. While the economic potential of Kenya’s development is substantial, this progress is both reliant upon and a precursor to the extensions of the corridor into its neighboring countries. This coordination and inter-reliance was recently tested to a breaking point with Kenya’s Western neighbor, Uganda.

shifting alliances

“Africa is wealthy in natural resources; the problem is they are not optimally utilized.”
– Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, September, 2005


.     Venerated by the international community as ‘The Pearl of Africa’ for its incredibly bio-diversity, Uganda’s economic potential began to emerge in the 1990s and 2000s after decades of stalled and contracted growth. Even at a time when conflict was raging in Rwanda to the South and in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the West, Uganda was able to maintain a remarkable average growth rate of approximately 7%. While some of the growth could perhaps be attributed to the conflicts themselves, Uganda’s geography and railway link with Nairobi facilitated a fruitful and essential connection to the international market for its main exports of coffee, tea and tobacco. Over the past 5 years however, Uganda’s growth rate has begun to decline to an average 4.5% per annum. Analysts project a resurgent growth in the coming months to 5.1% in 2018, and 5.6% in 2019 (World Bank); due primarily to accelerated development of energy resources and the construction of public infrastructures. These investments however will not be initiated under the LAPSSET partnership.

In the early stages of planning for the LAPSSET project, Uganda was an immediate and enthusiastic partner. Having recently announced the discovery of substantial oil deposits in September of 2009 in its Lake Albert Basin, the nation found itself sitting upon an estimated 1.7 billion barrels of oil (Tillow). These resources were ‘visioned’ not only to help support the growth of Uganda, but as an opportunity for Uganda to further connect with the global economy. With resource extraction and conveyance to the international market growing as a common goal among numerous members of the East African community, the economy of anticipation was ripe for large scale planning. It was this fortuitous discovery of oil that brought Uganda into initial discussions to craft the new and additional transport corridor into Northern Kenya. In 2013, the LAPSSET partnership of four interconnection nations was recognized, formalized and inaugurated.

As Kenya crafted detailed plans for resort cities, urban expansions, and infrastructural upgrades over the following years, Uganda’s economy began to slow, and the patience on the part of the Museveni administration began to wane. The increasing scale of Kenyan ambition along with the complexity of quadri-national agreements, slowly began to extend the project’s timeline. Most pressing however, was that foreign investments into the region were desperately needed in order to realize the project; and the financial successes of the project were hanging upon an extremely volatile, unpredictable, and potentially escalating conflict in South Sudan. Add to this a series of high profile terror attacks in Kenya and growing resistance to initial construction phases in coastal Lamu communities; the concerns in Uganda grew over the immediate viability of the LAPSSET project. In order to achieve and maintain the goals of its own Vision 2025, Uganda began to explore an alternate corridor that would export its newly found oil wealth through Rwanda and Tanzania.

While not part of the LAPPSET corridor framework, the nation of Tanzania has been no less ambitious in the scale of its long term regional and international pursuits. As recently as February of 2017, Tanzanian President Magufuli’s administration awarded the contract for construction of the nation’s contribution to the growing East African standard gauge railway network (Templeton). Coordinated with Rwanda and Burundi, the colonial era railways will be upgraded and ultimately unify a circle of commerce through the urban centers of Dar Es-Salaam, Bujumbura, Kigali, Kampala, Nairobi, and Mombasa. Internationally, the Tanzanian agenda has coalesced around the “Mwambani Economic Corridor”, which will connect the Tanzanian port of Tanga (currently under construction) with Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (TanzaniaInvest).

When Uganda began investigating an alternative alignment of its exports through Tanzania, not only was the project able to be incorporated in the logistical planning of an already established partnership, but the relative security of the more southern nation proved greater potential for the timely completion of an oil pipeline. In November of 2016, the two nations signed an agreement to rapidly design and construct the line through numerous concurrent contracts, fast-tracking the project in order to expedite Uganda’s oil extraction and export (Reuters).

Faced with the withdrawal of Uganda’s key partnership, President Kenyatta emphatically stated to journalists that “the LAPSSET project is continuing one way or another. As you know, we have already started. The Lamu port as we stand and talk here is already being constructed. It is moving ahead.”  With the number of partnering countries reduced from four to three, the value and importance of Kenya’s remaining partnerships have grown to be indispensable.  It is in Ethiopia however, that competing avenues of economic priority have established a complex and politically precarious partnership.

entangled priorities

“Whatever they say or do, [they] can’t stop us from the path of development we are taking.”
 – Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Jinka 2011


.     In October of 2016 the first trains began to move along the newly constructed Addis-Ababa – Djibouti Railway.  The recently completed standard heavy-gauge railway replaced an aging line build by foreign powers in 1917, and further bound the two nations together in operational management and economic development. While the new increased capacity railway was funded and constructed by the Chinese, a second component of energy infrastructure, the Horn of Africa Pipeline, was signed into construction with American funding in September of 2016. Upon expected completion in 2018, the combined trio of road, rail, and pipe will constitute an economic corridor that currently conveys 95% of Ethiopia’s trade.

The enormous territory of Ethiopia, like many countries in the region, has a history of uneven development. The impressive growth of the capital, Addis-Ababa, has been largely serviced by the country’s main conduit to the Gulf of Aden via the coastal nation of Djibouti. This has led to a North-Easterly focus from the capital, with the West and Southern regions of the country following in secondary priority. The Northern province of Tigray, often referred to as the cradle of Ethiopian civilization, has seen a largely disproportionate amount of investment over the past two decades. While culturally valuable, this mountainous region is one of the most arid regions of the country and provides relatively little with regards to the import or export activity (Abebe). The construction of a national railway from Addis-Ababa to Mek’ele, the provincial capital of Tigray, called bias and financially unwise by critics, is exactly what the national government did in 2012. This preferential misallocation of financial resources to the Northern region for political and ethnic motivations has left the country with substantial debt to international investors; and has made pressing initiatives in other parts of the nation difficult to fulfill (Akloweg).

The South West provinces of Ethiopia are host to the most agriculturally rich regions in the country, producing world-renown coffee and host to a substantial sugar industry. Unfortunately, these products are still confronted with substantial transport costs towards Addis-Ababa, hampering the economic viability of the produce. It is here that an improved transport corridor, namely the LAPSSET corridor project that is being promoted by Kenya, would have potentially great effect upon these isolated regions of Southern Ethiopia. Agreements towards the realization of the project however are hampered by a financially over extended government in Addis-Ababa. Not only has this made it difficult for the country to secure further international investment, but the projected financial models are increasingly demanding rapid returns. As a result, the promises of Kenya’s development and improved economy are a necessary precursor towards investment on the corridor in Ethiopia (Akloweg). It is here that the two countries find themselves interlocked in a mutually dependent – yet precarious – agreement towards development.

In the West of Ethiopia, the nation has constructed a pair of paved roadways into the agriculturally rich regions of the Country; but these arteries terminate before extending on to their true destinations: Malakal and Juba. The situation in South Sudan is as delicate as it is chaotic, and the conflict contained within its borders makes effective trade with Ethiopia dangerous and complex.  Kenya however, is uniquely positioned – both geographically and politically – to open South Sudanese markets to the world.

reliance: south sudan

“… we’re just waiting for the whole thing to collapse, really.”
– Country Director of South Sudan, the International Rescue Committee. Juba, May, 2017


.     In July of 2011, the world watched in amazement as Africa added a new nation to the global community. After decades of horrifying reports of intractable civil war, coupled with international media campaigns seeking to raise awareness of the ongoing atrocities, the South Sudanese themselves had taken an incredible step towards peace: they declared their independence and seceded from the Sudan. Celebrations erupted on the streets of the South as anticipation of a new era of peace and prosperity swept across the infant country.  In Juba, a signing of the declaration of independence was held to great fanfare. In attendance, were the presidents of Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya (Gettleman).

The civil war that raged in the Sudan for decades had its roots in both political maneuvering and ethnic and tribal conflicts. From 1999 however, the vast resources of oil wealth found beneath the territories of Darfur and the Nuba Mountains became a resource that began to fuel conflict to horrific levels. The Greater Nile Pipeline, built to extract the vast resources, was aligned to the North through Khartoum and on to Port Sudan at the Red Sea. From there, profits from the sale of the oil were used to purchase weapons and further the fight against the Southern People’s Liberation Army (Nuba). In 2011, now that independence had been declared and a peace deal had been signed, it was anticipated that this same source of financing would be made available to fund the prosperous future of the new nation. The complications presented in front of this lofty goal however, were both social as well as physical and geographical.

The leadership of the new South Sudan was a built upon a resistance movement – a guerilla army – with the result of field commanders being placed in positions of political power.  The decommissioning of resistance fighters was slow, leaving heavily armed bands of warriors strewn across a loosely governed landscape. As a result, territorial disputes in the oil rich regions of the North/South border continued. Logistically and spatially, the majority of oil resources that continued to be extracted from South Sudanese territory had to be transferred through the Sudan via its existing pipeline infrastructure. With the North levying heavy tariffs upon these transactions (Veilleux), the meager profits gained by the South not only reopened hostilities between the nations, but prevented the new administration from securing the needed capital it needed to rebuild its war-ravaged country.

It was here that the LAPSSET corridor project was presented not only as a solution the financial obstructions to the South’s development, but as a strategy towards conflict mediation in the Darfur region. Transporting the oil and its profits through the South however presents navigational challenges that must be considered at the tribal level, thereby acknowledging the different forms of habitation exhibited in the country. With 64 ethnic tribes in South Sudan, each of which practice different customs and speak different languages, the diverse population can be divided into three categories: the farmers in the West, the nomads in the East, and the pastoralists in the interior. President Salva Kiir is an ethnic Dinka and pastoralist whose home region is in the center of the country. Since taking office, his administration has shown clear lack of interest in development initiatives that would assist the farmers to the west. Most notable is a road project through the South’s fertile “Bread Basket” (via Yei, Maridi, Yambio, and Tambura, to Wau). Such a project would greatly improve the welfare of the communities in the west, while facilitating food distribution throughout the country. Political rivals however, in the mind of the president, are apparently a greater threat than national hunger. The administration’s relations with the Nomads to the East of the country “are even worse” (Tata).  As a result of the spatial distribution of South Sudan’s tribal differences, President Kiir’s preferred options for development projects have been to look to the international community; to look South. With the complex tribal and political distribution across the country, it remains unclear if the connection that the LAPSSET corridor would provide would help or only further entangle the delicate nation in conflict.

Kenya has been a strong supporter of President Kiir’s administration. Initially expressing unwavering support at the inauguration of the newest African nation, Nairobi’s relations with Juba have grown in preparations towards realization of the corridor project. Juba’s desire to see South Sudan linked to the Indian Ocean has grown to a pressuring stance, such that the two leaders now speak not only of the challenges preventing progress into South Sudan, but also of the territorial conflicts plaguing the vast ‘frontier’ of Northern Kenya (Capital News).

the kenyan frontier

“Our founder fought bravely to have the right to make choices free of external influence. Today the world is full of wars driven by the desires of some to exploit the resources of independent nations.”
– Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, December 2016


.     Hailed as a beacon of opportunity in an otherwise unpredictable region, the World Bank has pointed to Kenya as having “the potential to be one of Africa’s great success stories.” Sighting a vibrant services sector, a stable currency, and figures indicating recurrent quarters of economic growth, the World Bank’s assessment of Kenya’s economy complements its global cultural image as a progressive nation that is located within a landscape of magnificent wildlife. As the primary force behind the LAPSSET initiative, it is precisely this image that is being pushed forward in pursuit of both regional and international partnerships. A review of even the most recent history however, reveals a nation that is replete with territorial conflict.

It was only a decade ago that the world witnessed a momentary lapse of this idyllic facade as the country descended into what is commonly referred to as the ‘election violence’ of 2007. On the surface, this month long destabilizing period during which over 1000 citizens were killed was the result of the disputed presidential election. Underpinning much of the conflict however, were disputes of land and territory in both the capital in the fertile regions of the western province.  In the aftermath of the violence, entire communities found themselves reshuffled and displaced. Territorial divisions were drawn along ethnic lines, and Kenya’s complex history of tribalism was revealed to the world.  To date, these fissures remain as a muted topic, yet are regarded by many to remain just as real as the image of prosperity that the nation hopes to obtain.

In the North, the indigenous pastoralist and hunter-gatherer communities largely endured the conflicts of 2007 without incident. In 2011 however, when Tillow oil discovered massive oil deposits in the arid Lokichar basin, new value was ascribed to these former hinterlands. Numerous communities inhabit these sparsely populated territories, including the Sanye, Samburi and iconic Turkana tribes. These communities “are some of the most excluded from the socio-economic and political fabric of Kenya and are least equipped to respond to the new set of challenges that the LAPSSET transport corridor portends” (Sena, 3).  When asked in March of 2017 about the prospect of oil wealth and promises of prosperity, Asekon Ekai, a 56 year old Turkana woman, stated flatly that “the oil is ours and we will not leave Turkana if there is no money for us” (Muiruri).  While Tillow has established a number of amenities in the region, including a handful of schools and water projects, it is unclear if the company will be following through on its apparent promises of financial compensation.  It is further unclear or if the surrounding communities will remain permissive of Tillow’s operations if these promises are not met. This remote region of Kenya has rarely found its way into the national discourse however, as terrifying – and highly visible – attacks have drawn the nation’s gaze to the East.

Kenya’s relationship with Somalia was once one of refuge. As Somalia descended into civil war the 1990s, Kenya opened its borders for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war and famine. The past decade however has seen the relations between the Kenyan diaspora and ethnic Somalis deteriorate significantly. After two high profile terrorist attacks in Nairobi and Garissa at the hands of the Al-Shabaab, the Somali based militant terrorist organization, the Kenyan government launched a series of retaliation attacks into Somali territory. While the government and national media pointed to concerns of ‘national security’ as reasons for the intervention, Jason Mosley’s research identified an alternative motivation: “The salience of LAPSSET for the centralized economic vision … has been underscored by Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia. [The terror attacks] triggered a Kenyan security intervention in Somalia to protect the LAPSSET agenda in Northern Kenya and Lamu. Subsequently, Kenya became more (not less) tightly tied to Somalia’s security troubles” (462).  This increased complexity of the ‘security’ situation along the Somali border has been met with hard-lined responses by the Kenyan administration in order to support an image of strength and determination. Principal among these actions are numerous efforts to dismantle Dadaab Refugee camp and forcibly relocate the hundreds of refugees. Such a drastic measure, while clearly an intention to pacify the region just north of the LAPSSET corridor, will likely destabilize the Somali border region even further; and sow the seeds of religious and ideological conflict upon a territory that is already socially and economically contested on Kenya’s coast…

lamu: a city on edge

“Lamu will not be denied the opportunity to be heard.”
– Save Lamu, public statement, December 2016


.     The town of Lamu boasts a rich history of Islamic and Swahili culture, and is recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as “the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa.” Known for its beautiful characteristic architecture, vibrant traditional fishing industry, and pristine beaches and coral reefs, the town has existed for centuries as a destination for merchants and tourists alike. Ominous interventions of development however, have revealed Lamu to be on the front line of Kenya’s vision to transform its economy at the compromise of its cultural heritage.

Over the summer of 2016, the Government of Kenya awarded a contract of $480 million to the China Communication Construction Company for the construction of the first three of 32 births, and the first steps towards the Lamu Port transformation. Currently under way, the contractor has begun dredging avenues through Manda Bay in anticipation of the heavy construction to come.  Already built are a handful of placeholder buildings and field offices to coordinate the ongoing works, along with lengths of wall to enclose and define the effort. Within these boundaries, plans of resort cities and golf courses are shared and discussed with headquarters in Nairobi (Mwende).

Beyond these walls, the effects of rapidly rising property values, and an evolving physical and political landscape are exacerbated by rumors and miscommunication. Primoz Kovacic, a regional cartographer who has attended community activist meetings and conducted inclusive mapping exercises with Lamu citizens, explained that “Nairobi is so removed.  It’s their only interest to enrich themselves, and none of them give a shit about the people here. One fifth of this county is going to be gone, and the reason there is so much conflict is that no maps are being shared, and no one tells people when or where things are going to be built.”

The implications of this confusion make the looming economic and demographic (and therefore political) transformations more ominous and potentially volatile. The ongoing dredging is cutting a decisive slice through the local fishing economy. The Mkanda Channel has existed for generations to connect local fishermen from Amu Island to the inland fishing sites of Pate Island.  Essential during the monsoon seasons, the traditional boats, or Dhows, cannot contend with the rough seas of the Indian Ocean on the other side of Manda Island. The proposed port development area will consume this channel along with the livelihoods of the local fishermen. While it is argued that the massive developments will bring different and more lucrative jobs to the community, the impending demographic shift resulting from Kenyans arriving in search of employment is expected to offset and further silence the voices of indigenous Lamu community.

In response to the recent years of swirling rumors and mysterious construction activity, the community leaders of Lamu have assembled and consolidated their efforts in resistance to the activities of development by founding the Save Lamu organization. Interestingly, their voice is not in complete opposition to the Lamu Port project, standing rather as a call to “engage communities and stakeholders to ensure participatory decision-making so as to achieve sustainable and responsible development” ( This mission statement is supported by continued legal efforts to engage the Kenyan government towards transparent and consultative decision making, and protest signs that read “We want a port – only after community consultation!”

This conciliatory tone is perhaps emblematic of the conflicts plaguing the LAPSSET project and the massive development visions that have been established across the East Africa region.  Between cherished cultural traditions and the desires of development and modernization, the resulting challenges provoked point to a future in which identity and a pursuit of happiness will inevitably have to be redefined.

east african resolve

“You cannot enslave a mind that knows itself. That values itself. That understands itself.”
-Wangari Maathai, East African politician, theorist and environmentalist


.     In pursuit of modernization, the nations of East African have been caught within the confines of modernity itself. As the west progressed through the industrial revolution, concerns of environmental stewardship, indigenous rights, and indeed human rights were in their infancy. Now in an age of universal suffrage and an interconnected world of media and communication, modernity has shackled the developing world with physical and civil standards that are rife with intractable contradiction.

With the clear and substantial ambition exhibited by leaders in the East African community, it is likely that East Africa will continue on its path of social, physical and economic transformation via the LAPSSET corridor and its prolific visions of prosperity. Still, the recent policies that have been passed by the Kenyan government that have sought to erode civil liberties (DDG), the intractable conflicts raging in South Sudan, and the broad economic woes effecting the region point in a direction that is fraught with challenges.

This future, ominous as it may seem, remains uncharted.  Having endured and resisted a long history of colonialist rule and generations of economic hardship, the citizens of the region have emerged to address global obstacles with unique and novel African solutions. Such problems that are increasingly encountered in the developed world are repeatedly confronted by an Africa that fosters a resilient and resourceful entrepreneurial culture; one with limitless potential. As dredging of the Lamu port continues and the planning for a regional prosperity makes its way across the East African landscape, the physical and social challenges uprooted by the forces a globalized world will be confronted by an adaptive and enduring African resolve.



Abebe, Muse; Mekele-Woldia 1.6 Billion Dollar Rail Construction, Ethiopia News and Opinions. June, 2012:

Capital News; Kenya, South Sudan Move to Fast-Track LAPSSET Project, Capital Business, May 2013:

Gettleman, Jefferey; After Years of Struggle, South Sudan Becomes a New Nation, New York Times. July, 2011:

Kenyatta, Uhuru; President Uhuru Kenyatta Statement on LAPSSET. Jamhuri Magazine, undated:

Okoth, Jackson; President Uhuru Kenyatta Endorses Sh42b Lapsset deal amid unease in Lamu. The Standard. August, 2014:

Kenyatta, Uhuru; Youtube: Uhuru Says LAPSSET Must Proceed Even Without Uganda, April 2016.

Kovacic, Primoz; Documenting Potential Impact of Development Projects on communities in Lamu County, Spatial Collective Blog. April, 2015:

Muiruri, Peter; Lokichar Oil: A Blessing or a Curse for Turkana?, Standard Media, March 2017 :

Mwende, Judy, Kenya Sets Up Agency For Lamu Port Project, Construction Kenya. April, 2013:

Nuba Reports;

Reuters Africa; Tanzania, Uganda Agree to Speed Up Oil Pipeline Project, November, 2016.

Save Lamu, Mission Statement:

Tanzania Invest; Mwambani Economic Corridor Project in Good Course, MWAPORC Director Says, April, 2015:

Templeton, Dan, Tanzania Awards Standard Gauge Contract, International Railway Journal. February, 2017:

Tillow Oil, Uganda Operations. January 2017:

UNESCO, World Heritage Convention, Lamu Old Town, Description:

US Department of State; President Museveni highlights Ugandan Achievements for Americans, September, 2005 :

World Bank; Kenya Overview. March, 2017:

World Bank; Uganda Overview. April, 2017:

Xinhua, Chinese Contractor to Complete First Birth of Lamu Port in Mid 2018, Standard Digital Media, April 2017:


Graham, Stephen and Simon Marvin; Splintering Urbanism, Routledge, New York, 2001.

Hill, Mervyn, Permanent Way: Story of the Kenya Uganda Railway. East Africa Railways and Harbors, Nairobi, Kenya. 1961.

Menkaus, Ken; Danish Demining Group; Conflict Assessment / 2014 – Northern Kenya and Somaliland, March 2015.
Mosley, Jason and Elizabeth Watson; Frontier Transformations:

Development Visions, Spaces and Processes in Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia; Journal of East African Studies, 2016.

Sena, Kanyinke; Lamu Port South Sudan Transport Corridor and Indigenous Peoples in Kenya, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; undated:


Akloweg, Yilak; Transport Planner, Ethiopia Ministry of Transport. Cambridge, MA. April, 2017.

Della Rosa, Flavia; Research Associate, Kimetrica. Nairobi, Kenya. January, 2017.

Herbert, Richard; Chairman and Executive Director, Aeolus Kenya LTD. Nairobi, Kenya. January 2017.

Kovacic, Primoz; Founder and Executive Director, Spatial Collective. Skype (Nairobi). May, 2017.

Tata, Justin; Transport Planner, the Government of South Sudan. Skype (Nairobi). April, 2017.

Veilleux, Ronald-Paul; Country Director of South Sudan, International Rescue Committee. Skype (Juba). May, 2017.


Cover Image: Tillow Lokichar Oil Extraction Site

Figure 1: Protests in Lamu County

Figure 2: Colonial Era Railway Map
Hill, Mervyn, Permanent Way: Story of the Kenya Uganda Railway. East Africa Railways and Harbors, Nairobi, Kenya. 1961.

Figure 3:
Graham, Stephen and Simon Marvin; Splintering Urbanism, Routledge, New York, 2001.

Figure 4:

From Sky to Earth: The Path of Water Through the Global Model Earthship

In my previous post, From Sky to Earth: The Path of Water in the Simple Survival, I brought us through the most basic path of water for a single studio sized “Earthship.” This was the most ‘bare bones’ method of providing sufficient water storage and reuse for a single person or couple living “off the grid.”

earthship-global-modelWhile this may be sufficient for the most resourceful homeowners (or for those of us with tight budgets), it’s important to know that some of off-grid housing projects can supply all of the amenities required for modern living. The Earthship team has developed such a design which they have titled “The Global Model”, named with the intention that such a design can be built anywhere in the world. While alternative designs should be considered for extreme climates, the path of water employed in the Global Model represents a top-of-the-line strategy to both provide filtered, potable drinking water, reuse grey water for the growth of crops, and incorporate standard septic details to ensure code compliance in formal building areas.

afritekt-earthship-gm-00The global model is designed almost purely in section. The slope of the front “greenhouse” glass and solar panel facades are designed to
maximum efficiency according to geographic latitude. The roof is also designed to a minimum, consistent slope in response to the winter solstice. This ensure that the roof receives sunlight at all times of the year, enabling snow to melt more rapidly. With the exception of operable skylights to assist in warm weather ventilation, the single surface roof also minimizes the potential for leaks.

afritekt-earthship-gm-01The path of water harvesting from the roof is much the same as the Simple Survival. While any standard gutter system could be used, on-site cut and formed gutters allow for a custom transition from gutter to scupper to storage. The current Earthship strategy includes a small dam at the end of the scupper, and gravel within a perforated industrial sized salad bowl (literally a salad bowl, as in cooking supply store, not hardware). The water then passes through an inverted toilet flange. This system must be bolted (with at least two bolts) to the water tank below.  If the project is being built in an area with regular snow fall, a non-toxic snow melting system can be installed that distributes heated glycol through copper pipes. This is an expensive option, but could be the difference maker when waiting for April rains.

afritekt-earthship-gm-02As is the case with the simple survival model, the water storage tanks are located within the earth berm and behind the tire retaining wall. It is essential that whatever tanks are installed are designed for operating below ground. (Most water tanks are designed for surface storage, and will rupture or otherwise deteriorate in subsurface conditions.) For a large scale home like that of
the global model, it can be assumed that more than one water tank would be required (precipitation rates and total number of occupants are determining factors). The connections between the tanks must be done with 2” flexible PVC pipe. The 2” is then reduced through a T to 1” semi-flexible pipe before entering the interior of the home at a single location. Everything viewed at right is buried below ground.

afritekt-earthship-gm-03While traditional homes may consider the fireplace as the hearth the organizes the plan of the home, the Water Organizing Module (WOM) is this the comparable element in an Earthship.  This system, comprised of a number of filters and connections, the effective hub of the entire water distribution system. Located just below the entry point from the water storage, the WOM begins with 50 filter, followed by a pressure activated 24 Volt DC pump. After passing through a 500 filter, water for washing is distributed and stored within a pressure tank. The pressure tank may be anywhere between 10 and 50 gallons, depending on your number of occupants and fixtures. Finally, an additional 1000 filter and ceramic potable water system distribute drinking water to a few points throughout the home.

afritekt-earthship-gm-04The Global Model Earthship seeks to provide all of the amenities of modern everyday life. This includes laundry washing machines, hot and pressured water for showers, and toilets that flush like normal. It should be made clear however, that this interconnected system will not work if it is not consistently used. Because grey water is drawn from the planters to flush the toilets, the system will come to stand still if the residents do not use the kitchen sinks and take regular showers. The human resident therefore becomes an integral part of this ecosystem; activating it and sustaining it.

After the initial use, the grey water is directed to a system of “greywater planters”. These basins filter the water for repeated use while providing needed moisture for indoor crops.  While the width of a planter is afritekt-earthship-gm-05typically determined by the 3 meter roll of EPDM that the Earthship team uses, meaning that for a needed depth of approximately 36”, the width also ends up being the same. (Depending on the strength of the terrain and the quality of construction, these channels could be made from reinforced concrete as well – though it would be harder to repair.)  At each transition moment in the planter, an inspection chamber is needed to ensure that water flows consistently through base of rock.  It must also be noted that a recirculation pump is required to run for a number of hours each day.  This bilge pump is typically linked directly to its own solar panel that provides power during hours of sunlight.

afritekt-earthship-gm-06The grey water from the kitchen sink and shower enter the grey water cells through a simple worm box. This composite box with perforated copper base makes an ideal home for red wiggler worms when kept closed and at a fairly consistent temperature. With only an initial base of wood filings, egg shells and/or newspaper clippings, the worms can convert the incoming grey water from the kitchen sink into natural fertilizers for the grow beds.  With the box sitting over a rock bulb, the nutrient rich grey water will be able to immediately pass deep into the planter.

Whenever the greywater is transferred from one planter to another or extracted for reuse, a rock bulb, inspection chamber, and EPDM skirt must be installed to ensure unobstructed flow. A transfer from one planter to another – pictured at right – must be installed so that both tanks are equalized; meaning that the water stay level and does not overflow from one to another. Also, any puncture to the EPDM must be done so precisely, cutting a 1” hole for the 2” pipe.



The end of the planter must create a filtered condition so that a pair of bilge pumps can regularly recirculate the greywater and extract water for toilet flushing. It is therefore essential that in the meter before approaching the rock bulbs, a pete-moss filter is placed.  This is essentially a perforated off-the-shelf bag that can fit snuggly into the channel.  A large rock build then supports two inspection chambers that house DC powered bilge pumps.


With water being reused from the greywater planters, a toilet flush afritekt-earthship-gm-09essentially consumes no water. With a pressure activated pump and a small 50 filter, the water is clear and no one is the wiser.  Upon flushing in a Global Model, the blackwater then heads to a standard, often prefabricated septic tank. These large concrete structures are designed to break down solid material and to be exhausted on a regular basis. These structures commonly overflow into a leach field safely underfoot. Earthships however, guide this black water into what the team has termed an “Evapo-Transpiration Cell” or E.T. Cell.  This outdoor system follows much the same standards as the greywater cells inside, though uses every bit of nutrients before reconnecting to a leach field.

Understanding this path of water and all of the details associated with it was one of the main reasons why I sought a place at the Earthship Academy. In light of the projected water crisis that will affect many parts of the world (including the high desert of Taos, New Mexico), it’s it extremely concerning that such decentralized water systems have not become more standard practice.  I expect that in the coming decade professionals will be looking towards these systems found in the Global Model as examples that can begin to question established building codes that require wasteful consumption of valuable resources.

From Sky to Earth: The Path of Water Through the Simple Survival Earthship

During the fall of 2015 I traveled to New Mexico, USA to attend the Earthship Biotecture Academy.  This one-month program occurs 4 to 5 times a year on the campus of the Earthship Biotecture design and construction company in the high desert of Taos.


(Image courtesy of

As is proclaimed on the Earthship website, “… the earthship is the epitome of sustainable design and construction. No part of sustainable living has been ignored in this ingenious building.” While I would say that there is always room for improvement, and that there is never a ‘right answer’ in architecture, the Earthship team has made some great breakthroughs in both the use of recycled materials and the reuse of grey-water for the domestic growth of food year-round. The academy session was a great experience, and I recommend it to anyone interested in off-grid housing.
Having learned of these strategies over the course of the one-month academy, I was then honored to be asked to return to Taos a few months after the session to assist the Earthship team in authoring graphics for a new version for the text book. earthship-academy-logo-2016Over the course of three months, I developed illustrations showing the path of water for domestic use, as well as a visual aids for effective use of recycled materials. (I also developed the new Earthship Academy Logo at right.)

To be honest, I’m not sure if the new textbook has been published or if it will be anytime soon.  Regardless, I’ve felt that it’s important to get these graphics out into the public realm. In this blog post, I will outline the path of water in a “Simple Survival Earthship” – which is the most basic, least expensive design to have been developed by the Earthship team. A follow up post will cover a more sophisticated path of water for higher-end clients, and a third will cover construction methods employing recycled materials.

From Sky to Earth: The Path of Water in the Simple Survival Earthship


The Simple Survival: A ‘greenhouse’ facade, two adjacent washroom spaces, an insulated studio space, water storage within earth berm.

The Simple Survival is the smallest, most economical model developed by the Earthship team. While the roofing system and precise location of some elements may change, the plan consists of a studio-style living space with a washroom, water closet, and equator-facing greenhouse. The entire space is both excavated and surrounded by a retaining wall and earth berm that allows the space to harness the thermal energy of the Earth. Using a maximum surface area for the roof, all rainfall is captured and stored within subterranean tanks behind the retaining wall. This water is then filtered, consumed and used, recycled through grow beds of edible foods, used again, then disseminated out into the surrounding property to foster growth of landscaping and season food crops.

afritekt-earthship-ss-1The first step of the process looks identical in almost all Earthships. While any standard gutter system could be used, on-site cut and formed gutters allow for a custom transition from gutter to storage. Alternative systems could be made from plastic or PVC. What is essential is to ensure that the water passes through a series of coarse filters. The current Earthship strategy includes a small dam at the end of the gutter, and gravel within a modified industrial sized perforated salad bowl (literally a salad bowl, as in cooking supply store, not hardware). The water then passes through an inverted toilet flange. This system must be bolted (with at least two bolts) to the water tank below.


afritekt-earthship-ss-2Your choice of water tanks is essential. Not all water tanks can be buried. In fact most are designed for surface storage, and will rupture or otherwise deteriorate in subsurface conditions. Be sure that whatever tank you install is specified for being buried and will be placed on undisturbed/compacted earth. If you are burying more than one tank (project location and the number of occupants are determining factors) the connection between the two must be done with 2” flexible PVC pipe. The 2” is then reduced through a T to 1” semi-flexible pipe before entering the interior of the home. Everything viewed at right is buried below ground.



afritekt-earthship-ss-3The supply side for the Simple Survival Earthship is exactly that: as simple as can be for survival. The tanks within the earth berm gravity feed a hose that can be used to fill up a bucket for washing or watering of plants. After passing through a minimal in-line filter, the supply must be pressurized through the installation of a pump of some kind.  This can either be a hand pump or an electric pump that is either pressure-activated or turned on with a switch.  If an electrical pump is used, a Power Organizing Module (POM), or small car battery hooked with standard outlets, must be connected. After passing through a hose manifold that would allow different attachments, the pressurized water can be stored in elevated black painted containers under daily sunshine.  The solar gain from these canisters will supply semi-reliable hot water (depending on the location) in the afternoons.


After being used at the kitchen sink and in the shower, grey water moves to two adjacent planters that filter the water and provide growth media for both beautiful and edible flora. The depth and width of any planter is limited by the waterproofing containment material strategy.  The Earthship team typically uses ethylene propylene diene terpolymer membrane (EPDM), which comes in rolls of  3 meter width. Each planter can therefore be only about 1 meter wide in order to achieve the needed depth to support plant life.

An effective planter must descend slightly along the path of water, ranging from 32 to 38 inches. Within this system, water must be circulated regularly.
Typically, a small sump pump is attached directly to a afritekt-earthship-ss-5single solar panel that ensures water movement during daylight hours. Inspection chambers,
connection details and soil mixtures will be covered in a follow up blog post.



When it comes to “number 2” in a Simple Survival Earthship, it should first be acknowledged that if not built correctly, a toilet system can become a catastrophic mess.  This is why typical septics and sanitation systems are developed in accordance with numerous building codes and regulations.  It is also why the Simple Survival uses a design that has garnered the nickname of an “Outlaw Septic”. This system will not pass most septic regulatory inspections. It will, however, get the job done at minimal cost. Placed over a 5’6” diameter EPDM lined afritekt-earthship-ss-6excavation, toilet flushes taken from the greywater planters are deposited into the center of a stack of large truck tires.  The solids eventually break down and seep through the cracks between the tire treads.  Further filtered through large rocks, the liquid overflows into an external grow bed that further breaks down the refuse. In this external grow bed, the black water is evaporated, consumed through ecological transpiration, and put to use in providing life in giving nutrients to our surrounding landscape.

This is the most basic path of water employed by the most “bare bones” Earthship design. When designed and used effectively, a single person’s water consumption can be reduced by more than 50%. As mentioned however, some of the steps here pose problems when building within a formal, law-abiding context.  I will address this in a follow-up post outlining that path of water for the “Global Model” (perhaps explained as a “deluxe model” Earthship). The next post will cover systems of filtration, circulation, and the incorporation of more standard design details.

Thanks for reading – I hope this has been helpful.  Feel free to drop a comment below with questions that I can use to develop the next post!

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Towards Safer School Construction: A Community-Based Approach

Throughout my emerging career as a designer, builder and humanitarian working in challenging environments, I’ve learned of numerous ‘best practices’ ranging from effective building details and construction methods, to strategies of planning and inter-agency coordination. I’ve additionally grown in patience and humility. These lessons however did not always come about through successes. I’ve encountering a number of avoidable challenges that emerged through organizations’ uninformed methods of development and implementation (some of which I worked with, others with which I partnered.)

I was therefore honored in early 2015 to be invited to contribute to a publication that was underway through the Global Alliance for Disaster Risk Reduction & Resilience in the Education Sector (GADRRRES).

Over the course of the year, I contributed case studies for safe school construction, edited those of other professionals, and contributed language and diagrams for Towards Safer School Construction: A Community-Based Approach. Available for free download HERE, the publication was has been developed as a means to share lessons and knowledge among designers, builders and development practitioners. The effort was funded by Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery to enable Save the Children to collaborated with the United Nations Educational scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Risk Reduction Education for Disasters (Risk RED), and ARUP to develop this guide.

The document is currently being translated into Chinese and is being used in numerous development efforts including the ongoing reconstruction in Nepal. To assist in the dissemination of this information, Save The Children is developing a short film to illustrate how communities have been using this document and its lessons. I expect that this film will be released within the coming year.

Please feel free to share this document through your professional channels. I hope it can help practitioners and communities develop safe and resilient education facilities long into the future.

Urban Infrastructure Development in the Informal Context: A Multi-Stakeholder Approach

((This article of mine was originally published by Digital Design Debates on July 11th 2016 for their 18th issue on cities. You can read interesting debates and discussions regarding other developing cities on their website here.))

Urban Infrastructure Development in the Informal Context: A Multi-Stakeholder Approach

Railway line - Showing Advancing Government-built Row Housing

When considering informal settlements and debating the challenges that face our world’s most vulnerable urban residents, one of the most referenced slums is Nairobi’s Kibera. As one of the largest settlements in the world, Kibera is also regarded as one of the most dangerous and complex neighbourhoods in East Africa. Residents and urban theorists alike struggle to find solutions for addressing the exceptionally complex and difficult conditions in Kibera.

… the Kenyan government responded with corrupt negligence (…).

When Kibera began its rapid growth as an informal neighbourhood in the 80s and 90s, the Kenyan government responded with corrupt negligence, allocating development funds to the city centre and more affluent neighbourhoods. In response, hundreds of NGOs entered Kibera intending to improve the livelihoods of residents, only to collectively contribute to an over-saturation of aid. Together these uncoordinated efforts among aid groups and a lack of initiative on the part of the government perpetuated the unruly expansion of the informal settlement, further reinforcing Kibera’s reputation as an intractable urban crisis.

NGOs have also begun making notable progress (…) within the urban fabric of Kibera.

The last eight years, however, have seen unprecedented development efforts inside the settlement that have successfully improved both public infrastructure and public service delivery. NGOs have also begun making notable progress both in working alongside the government and in developing smaller scale infrastructure interventions within the urban fabric of Kibera.

The Government of Kenya – Redrawing the Urban Plan

KENSUP Complete

The KENSUP project, 2016. Photo Cred: KDI

The unprecedented flurry of development activity from Kenya’s government began in 2010 when ground was broken for the National Kenya Slum Upgrading Program (KENSUP).  In Kibera, over 20 high-rise residential buildings have already been built with dozens more planned for later phases. 2014 saw the implementation of new initiatives, starting with the construction of sewage lines and over 100 public sanitation blocks. In 2015 work began on turning the main pedestrian routes through the settlement into two-lane paved roadways. In 2016 the area around the iconic railway track that runs through Kibera is scheduled for redevelopment with an expanded buffer zone and adjacent row housing.

…public housing, water and sanitation, and transportation infrastructure on the largest of urban scales.

Government Sanitation Block

Government Sanitation block, 2016. Photo cred: KDI

Together, these efforts have sought to address issues of public housing, water and sanitation, and transportation infrastructure on the largest of urban scales. The funding and motivation for each of these projects came from both county and national offices, reflecting a shared dedication across government stratum to execute massive upgrades throughout the settlement.



… forcing them to hastily cut their small shops in half (…).

Government Backhoe and Demolitions

Government demolition crew clearing the way for planned infrastructure, 2014. Photo cred: KDI

From residents’ perspective, however, this flurry of activity has followed a familiar sequence of top-down implementation. Plans were drawn up in government offices, and budgets and financing models approved by elected officials. Only after these plans were complete were surveyors and task forces sent into the community to designate illegal structures for demolition, and, in some cases, to inform residents of their forced relocation. The projects were often initiated with little warning. When a sewer line was constructed through the dense Lindi neighborhood in 2014, some residents reported being given less than 48 hours to disassemble their homes before they would be forcibly demolished, and no relocation services were provided. Store owners were given similar timelines in advance of the road expansions, forcing them to hastily cut their small shops in half to accommodate the approaching bulldozers. These developments have generally been accepted by residents as long overdue upgrades, though the seemingly haphazard implementation methods have been jarring and disruptive for the Kibera community.

The International Community – Refining Public Space

With this surge of activity, NGOs working in Kibera have found their roles evolving. Once independent stakeholders working on grassroots development projects, they now work on a larger scale, collaborating with governmental implementing agencies.

Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), an international NGO of engineers, architects, urban planners and Kibera residents, has worked in Kibera since 2007. KDI’s mission began with initiatives to help residents improve their own neighborhoods in Kibera through the development of productive public spaces. These locally scaled projects sought to resolve environmental, social and economic challenges by developing the water and sanitation infrastructure, gathering spaces, playgrounds, and income-generating activities.

… an iterative design process that puts residents forward as the primary decision makers.

KDI Design Process

The KDI team working with community members to design a public space, 2014. Photo Cred: KDI

These smaller, more intimate projects have required a much more nuanced approach to development, as such projects require unique, site-specific solutions. In response, KDI developed an iterative design process that puts residents forward as the primary decision makers. Through open forums and referendums, residents decide everything from public/private boundaries to the locations and details of public facilities.

The bottom-up strategies of KDI’s design and implementation methods stand in stark contrast to the government’s approach. Based on the lessons learned over the past few years of development activity however, KDI and the government have started working together and sharing resources, coming together in an effort to address the seasonal flooding that occurs as a result of Kibera’s over-development, for example. This joint project employs community-driven flood mapping coupled with government strategic planning and risk assessment.

Examples of government/NGO coordination can be seen in numerous other parts of Kibera as well. Where government leadership once generally worked independently, offices have now begun to take advantage of the expertise of NGOs and contract them to assist in their large scale interventions. Additionally, much of the large-scale public infrastructure labour costs have been linked to government-run savings and loan schemes, a strategy normally associated with non-profit aid. This growing coordination and cross-fertilization of efforts represents an emerging acknowledgement of the complexities surrounding life in Kibera.

Kibera Residents – Activating the Neighborhood

Kibera residents now have unprecedented opportunities for more secure investments (…).

This combined approach of top-down interventions on the part of the Kenyan government and the bottom-up development efforts of NGOs has begun to formalize and solidify the physical infrastructure and urban plan of Kibera. This has gone beyond the simple construction of needed infrastructure and begun creating social and economic opportunities for residents. Kibera residents now have unprecedented opportunities for more secure investments in their neighborhoods and private businesses.

Local Scrap Metal Business Kiosk - Kibera

An informal business in Kibera, now one step closer to formality.

On roads that used to be dirt alleys only wide enough for pedestrians, buses and motorcycle taxis now ferry passengers in and out of Kibera on paved roadways. Local business owners have reported that with the improved vehicular access, they have been able to import goods for sale more easily. This enhanced connectedness to the larger city of Nairobi along with a new system of night-time lighting has also brought more customers, injecting Kibera business owners with a very new sense of competition and opportunity. Private structure owners are now building more permanent homes and businesses along the roadways and adjacent to public spaces, as confidence in what is “public” and “private” in this informal setting has begun to solidify.

Issues of high unemployment, informal education, and public health remain.

The challenges facing Kibera’s residents are by no means resolved though. Issues of high unemployment, informal education, and public health remain. The concerted efforts of development actors over the past few years, however, have made substantial progress towards mitigating the numerous challenges that confront development strategies in the informal context.

… solutions at the urban scale cannot be mitigated by solely invasive, top-down, sweeping interventions.

Kibera’s recent history teaches us that solutions at the urban scale cannot be approached by solely invasive, top-down, sweeping interventions. Additionally, results stemming from time-intensive, small-scale, community-led efforts can prove insufficient without the support of larger public sector development. It is only with the coordination of efforts, the sharing of ideas, and the acknowledgment that multiple actors working in a single environment is an opportunity for collaboration that the challenges and volatility of informal living can begin to be addressed. This coordination can then effectively allocate resources and expertise to open the door for the private sector to emerge.

Slowly, Kibera is beginning to rewrite the neighborhood’s troubled reputation, as well as the common misconception that its many challenges are too complex to analyse, too difficult to clarify, or too big to address. What was once often referred to as “one of the worst slums in Africa” is set to stand as an example of the “formalized informal” resulting from inter agency coordination.

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