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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.

A Public Architecture of Flood Protection: The Design and Construction Process

During my time as the Kenya Country Director with Kounkuey Design Initiative I contributed to the development of seven public space projects within the settlement, though directed only the seventh project from inception to completion.  Known now as Site 07, it is one of the largest projects in the KDI Kibera portfolio. It is located at a point along the Ngong River that presents dangerous seasonal flooding risks and sits upon a contested border between the formal and informal city.Site 07 Panorama KDIOver the course of 18 months I directed the KDI team through a lengthy community-driven design and construction process, coordinated closely with local government offices, and executed construction with a team of local youth.


Site 07 PosterThe project was initiated by residents via an application to the Kibera Public Space Project. (I’ve detailed the Request For Proposals process in a previous post titled How To Start a Project in Kibera.) These residents had established a unified, government-recognized Community Based Organization named Kibera United For Our Needs, or KUFON. Within this group the residents had elected leadership that was representative of the diversity of their neighborhood, and were proposing a series of programs that they had hoped to implement.


Afritekt KDI WorkshopBoth the direction of the project and the parameters of the design were determined by the community group in regular weekend meetings, the results of which were then assessed by the KDI team the following week. Together our team used community-identified operations and maintenance challenges as well as practical technical limitations to structure design meetings. Activities such as blind voting, gender sensitive  groups, and children’s design competitions ensured that all voices in the community were heard.

Some components of the design development were not KDI Afritekt SitePlanningdriven through collective decision-making. These resulted from the need to engineer flood control and the availability of financial resources. As our team of engineers gathered data and secured funding, constraints were introduced into the community’s design process.  This allowed some construction to run concurrently with project design.


Kibera Flood ProtectionFor the primary flood protection, we chose to install a gabion wall: over 50 stacked 2mx1m steel mesh boxes filled with stone. In order to reach our desired finished ground level and to ensure a footing on undisturbed soil, we had to stack these cages four levels high.  This created a total height of 4 meters from footing to finished ground level, much of which to exist below grade.

Halfway down the site, the wall changes to a gabion mat as a less aggressive protective option.  This was necessary as a bottle neck in the river flow occurs at the middle of the site due to turn in the river and a boundary of the formal city. While the sloped design cut into the useable public space, it did provide landscaping opportunities as plants with deep roots are essential to the resilience of the structure.

Even with all of this labor and cost (roughly 25% of our construction budget), our calculations estimate that the Ngong River will still overtop this protection every ten years. With this regular threat of catastrophic flooding, the entire site would have to be designed to accommodate the rushing river waters full of solid waste and untreated sewage.

Afritekt KDI Site 07 Plan

Schematic Site Plan

The expected force of rushing flood waters soon began to carve out the architectural forms that would house the community’s list of desired programs. These programs include a public sanitation block (3 showers + 3 toilets), a business kiosk (for selling water and groceries), a large gathering space, and a play space and a public laundry washing area, which are all defined by a secondary level of curvilinear drainage and tiering.  These tiers serve as seating areas that shape the public spaces while creating opportunities for informal businesses to take root. The resulting open spaces are then further defined by crisscrossing circulation paths that guards against land grabbing that also support further development of public space along the river’s flood zone.

Afritekt KDI Site 07

Afritekt KDI Site 07 Section



DSCN0084The complex construction detailing of the sanitation block marked a big step forward for me personally and for our whole team.  The rectangular structure consisting of 6 stalls, a business kiosk with an elevated water tank, and a ground level space for capture and storage of rain water, consists of three different structural systems that marry strength with ease of construction. The substructure and business kiosk were constructed with masonry and reinforced concrete.  This base serves as the foundation for a steel tube frame system and roofing. Structurally Insulated Panels (SIPs – though commonly known as “EPS panels” in Kenya) wereEPS installation then tied into the steel system as partitions.  These panels are still very new in Kenya. Their rapid assembly, ease of integrating plumbing, and cost savings as compared to standard masonary walls are starting to be used in numerous projects around the capital.  We were happy to be the first to use them in Kibera.


KDI Site 07 ExcavationFrom beginning to end, the process of construction in Kibera, and particularly on this site 07 project, can be described most eloquently as CHAOS.

Constant strategic decisions had to be made during construction to resolve conflicts. Coordination with the ministry of environment that was building a sewer line through the project site at the time of our construction caused delays on the order of weeks, then months.
Private developers across the river had the funds and legal ground to encroach upon the project site, further enablingSite 07 Sanitation Block mother nature to flood the construction site every few months.  The resulting demolition from these events would then bring about public/private “property” line disputes, as surrounding homes could be reconstructed within only a matter of hours. These challenges and others resulted in erratic construction timelines, at times going from 50 workers one day to only three the next.

Site 07 Sanitation Block

From initial engagements with the community in 2014 to the opening of the sanitation block in early January of 2016, the entire process took about 20 months – and there are still a number of final touches that are needed. We expect that the pavilion roof over the performance space, the construction of the playground, and the pedestrian bridge will be filled out over the course of the coming months.KDI Kibera Site 07


Upon the opening of the sanitation block, responsibility of the project was passed over to KUFON. This includes not only daily operations of running the site’s businesses and ensuring that nightly security for the site is in place, but developing monthly revenue and profit reports to the KUFON members.  This is easier said than done.  To ensure a transparent community reporting system, the KDI team will be working with the group to sustain good governing practices within the group, and assisting in regular bookkeeping meetings.  In the coming months I look forward to publishing a follow up post highlighting both the group’s progress and the strategies that are being implemented by the KDI team.


Land and Water – Resolving the Tensions of Climate Change and Urbanisation in Nairobi’s Largest Slum

The following post was published in the July 2015 issue of BuilDesign magazine, a Kenyan architectural review publication. The article was the last of such articles that I contributed to as the director of Kounkuey Design Initiative’s Kenya office.  This one in particular outlines our work on flood risk assessment which will continue throughout 2016.

During the April just before writing this article, Nairobi and Kenya as a nation endured flooding on an unprecedented scale.  Families and businesses rural and urban, formal and informal were affected.  It was with these events fresh in the mind of Kenyans that the entire July issue was dedicated to the challenges of flooding facing architects and planners in Kenya.  Our article below was presented as a special feature.


In the last couple of months heavy rains have brought the issue of flooding to the forefront of many Kenyans’ minds. Traditionally, flooding has been a problem associated with rural areas and places like Narok that have developed in floodplains. However, the recent floods in Nairobi and Mombasa have highlighted the issue as an urban problem, raising questions about how Kenyan cities are designed to face the environmental challenges of the 21st century; including climate change, increased variability in weather patterns, and the subsequent threat of natural disasters. There is a need for our cities to grow resilient to the risks that threaten the lives and livelihoods of city dwellers. Particular attention is needed to address the risks that affect the poorest and most vulnerable citizens that not only make up a huge proportion of cities’ population, but who also often live in the most hazardous locations.

Urban Flooding in Kibera
In rapidly urbanizing cities informal settlements are consistently located along natural drainage paths. In many cases, residents’ housing encroaches on the adjacent waterways, exposing residents to regular (and dangerous) flooding. Nairobi is no different.

Nairobi Rivers and Slums

Nairobi River Basin + Informal Settlements

Nearly all of Nairobi’s informal settlements are located along one of Nairobi’s three major river systems (the Motoine-Ngong, Nairobi, and Mathare rivers) that make up the Nairobi River Basin.  As the city continues to experience exponential growth (most of which occurs in informal settlements) and global climate change increases rainfall variability, flood risk in the city’s informal settlements will continue to rise.

Kibera is an example of one such informal settlement. Kibera is situated along the Motoine-Ngong River in Nairobi and it has an estimated population of several hundred thousand people living in single-storey dwellings in a space two-thirds the size of New York’s Central Park. The inhabitants of Kibera face many challenges including high levels of economic poverty, high population densities that result in a lack of public spaces within the settlement, and insufficient sanitation infrastructure. Solid waste management is also a problem. With nowhere to dispose of their rubbish, residents resort to using any available open spaces as dumping grounds or to throwing their trash into the Ngong River.  Informal drainage systems also lead into the river, and as a result, the river and the Nairobi Dam to which it flows into are heavily polluted.

Kibera Flooding

Flooding along the railway in Kibera

In Kibera, the cheapest dwellings are found along the Ngong river and its main tributaries; attracting the poorest residents who are willing to risk their lives and assets to live in the city. Bridges, access ways and other essential infrastructure can be found in these flood zones which, during the heavy rains, are often dangerous and impassable. The localized flooding of pathways and drainage systems is aggravated by the high level of impervious roofing and the erasure of natural water retention zones caused by human disturbance. Flooding can destroy the limited assets of poor households, halt economic activity, contaminate water supply, and lead to outbreaks of disease and displacement.

The only way to mitigate the hazards of flooding is through the enforcement of effective flood risk reduction policies. The only concrete policy for flood protection that exists in Nairobi is the designation of a blanket riparian zone for flood management, within which all structures are deemed illegal. The policy has proved difficult to enforce as city dwellers from every strata of society encroach on the Nairobi River Basin riparian zone. In Kibera (and other informal settlements) this has created tensions between residents and implementing agencies. Many observers have advocated for a more nuanced approach to avoid the costs and mass evictions that would ensue should the policy be fully implemented.

Public Space as Flood Protection
The Kibera Public Space Project was initiated by Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) in 2006 as a means of addressing some of the challenges mentioned above. KDI is a design and community development organization that partners with communities living in extreme poverty to physically transform degraded environments, grow economic resilience, and build social cohesion. At its inception KDI developed a conceptual strategy for addressing Kibera’s macro-scale challenges like economic opportunity and watershed remediation through the development of micro-scale Productive Public Spaces (PPS) in key locations along the waterways.

Kibera Tributaries

Concept: The Kibera Public Space Project as River Infrastructure

The premise of the concept is to create a network of active, attractive community-hubs along the Motoine-Ngong river and its tributaries as a means of; (1) building the river infrastructure to ameliorate resilience to flooding, (2) retaining and re-introducing much needed ecological buffer zones, (3) protecting the riparian zones along the river, (4) reducing point pollution subsequently contributing to the remediation of the river,Nairobi Dam and downstream areas, (5) introducing much needed water and sanitation facilities and recreational public space into Kibera to serve the most vulnerable residents.


The Kibera Public Space Project – 2015

To date, KDI has completed six PPS projects and is currently working on its seventh. These projects have achieved a level of support, appreciation and endorsement from Kibera residents not only because it is the residents themselves that propose the projects in the first place, but also because KDI adheres to strict principles that prevent them as an organization from demolishing any structures. This sensitivity and intimate understanding of the Kibera context has enabled KDI to operate within the extremely complex environment.

The Future of the Waterways

Over the last decade KDI has gained a wealth of experience building PPS in Kibera that integrate physical and social solutions while building the resilience of local communities to flooding along the settlement’s waterways. This year the team has embarked upon a program focused on urban flooding to further understand flood risk in Kibera. The project aims to quantify the vulnerabilities of affected persons and to work with them to build the resilience of communities to both adapt and respond to flooding. The overall objective of this project is to create a “toolkit” that can be used to implement flood risk reduction strategies in Kibera (and in the future – other informal settlements) by incorporating local perspectives. The toolkit will comprise of a digital flood map developed through hydrological modeling and physical surveying, flood risk assessment which incorporates community perspectives on risk, and policy prescriptions for applying the tools in Kibera and elsewhere.

Ultimately, the development of the toolkit will address the need to protect riparian zones and negotiate the realities of residents living in flood zones. The project aims to pave the way for a more nuanced approach to planning by helping define where different structural (physical) and nonstructural (social resilience) measures might be most appropriate. Overall it represents an opportunity to re-imagine the identity of Nairobi’s waterways. What if the riparian zone could be reclaimed to provide an environmental buffer against flooding, while providing public space, access ways and underlying infrastructure (sewerage drainage, water) in a series of linear parks?

Kibera Linear Parks

Concept: Kibera Linear Park System

For KDI it is the next step in building the vision of the Kibera Public Space Project to consider this possibility. By continuing to build Productive Public Spaces that demonstrate the potential of integrated and participatory approaches while providing settlement-scale data to inform larger planning decisions, we hope to influence the development of the Ngong River and the wider waterways of Nairobi towards a sustainable, equitable and resilient future.


Tujenge Kibera: We have a Life in Kibera

Over the past two years of working in Kibera, Nairobi, I regularly encountered the numerous challenges facing residents within the “infamous slum”. The lack of proper sewage or regular garbage collection, the ever-present threat of crime, and the stops and starts of failed development projects that touch each of Kibera’s 13 villages remain constant factors in the daily lives of residents.  Unfortunately, it is only these kinds of stories that make their way to the outside world – painting a picture of a hopeless condition that cannot remedied; and one that has not experienced any progress over the years towards a better quality of life for residents.

It is this unrelenting negative picture of Kibera that is being shown to the world that motivated our team at Kounkuey Design Initiative to produce a call to action that would show a different, emerging side of Kibera: the side that reveals the work that residents are doing to improve their own neighborhoods.  The film below is the result of months of work and was selected as a winner of the Rockefeller Foundation Storytelling Challenge. It was a pleasure to write and produce this film with my team in Nairobi and with our colleagues at Lightbox Africa.

Tujenge Kibera Viewing Party

Film Viewing Party, Kibera November, 2015

This film was shown to the Kibera community during a public viewing at Undugu fields on November 7th, 2015. The film was well received by residents and accompanied by a children’s dance competition and celebration.  The event concluded with the final message of the film – to share stories of positive change in Kibera.

On November 20th, stories of positive change will be shared during Nairobi Design Week.  To learn more about the work that the KDI team is doing with Kibera residents and for details on how to visit the Kibera during design week, you can visit Nairobi Design Week’s website here.

Tujenge Kibera

From Waste to Place: The Creation of Kibera Park

The article below was written my me and my KDI team in the fall of 2014 and was ultimately published locally in East Africa’s BuilDesign Magazine. The text and images seek to summarize the strides taken and the successes achieved in developing what has become known as Kibera Park – the largest (and greenest) space of its kind in Kibera.  Work on the site continues to this day as the community is slowly expanding the park to fulfill their envisioned master plan.


Kibera From Above

Kibera From Above

Kibera has grown to exemplify the broad range of challenges facing hundreds of thousands of Nairobi residents. These hardships extend beyond the basic needs of economic insecurity, inadequate housing, or limited access to quality water and sanitation facilities. These challenges also include minimal access to open, green public spaces that allow residents to enjoy recreational space which is a vital part of everyday urban life.

Like so many other informal settlements, Kibera is characterized by a dense concentration of people and housing. Relief from this congestion in the form of public park space is a rarity.  The existing public spaces in Kibera, which are mostly bare, open football pitches, are few in number. Furthermore, the ambiguities surrounding land ownership and the limited space availability, means that creating new public spaces with amenities that serve Kibera residents continues to be a contentious issue.

One organization working to develop public space in partnership with the residents of Kibera is Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI). Featured in our previous issue, KDI is an organization of urban planners, architects and engineers that has partnered with six communities throughout the informal settlement to reclaim and transform waste areas into Productive Public Spaces (PPS).

The Original State of Kibera Park - 2007

The Original State of Kibera Park – 2007

KDI’s first PPS began in 2006 and remains its largest project to date.  The one-acre public park, Kibera Park, is situated in Silanga Village, bordering Soweto East and sitting at the edge of the Nairobi Dam Basin.  Born from what was once a dumping site and a hideout for thieves, Kibera Park now stands alone as one of the only public green spaces within the informal settlement.  KDI’s community partner, the New Nairobi Dam Community (NNDC) group, operates multiple programs within the park including a multi-purpose structure that hosts primary school classes, religious services and public gatherings on the weekend, two showers, three compost toilets, a compost processing facility, an urban farming initiative, and an artistic co-op that creates

designer baskets for sale.  The community group is also looking to expand the project to include a polytechnic school, a recycling centre and a community café.

After numerous meetings with area leaders and surrounding residents, construction of the project began in earnest in 2007. The area’s residents began by contributed their efforts to sorting out and cleaning up the rubbish that clogged the river tributaries that delta into the Nairobi Dam. Together with KDI, the residents excavated and defined the river waterway to guard the site against future flooding. This process led to the complete reclamation of the dumping grounds into buildable land.

Community Wide Design Meeting

Community Wide Design Meeting

With the land secured, KDI engaged NNDC in initial design workshops.  In these meetings, visioning activities were conducted using various mediums of engagement—interviews, mapping, modeling, and photography—to give residents a new lens for interpreting their own landscape. Together, the community and facilitators proposed and then prioritized physical and programmatic solutions through a democratic, iterative process. Constraints of space and budget were then incorporated into the decision-making process via a series of applied exercises: surveying, footprinting, costing, and business planning which led to the final design resolution.

The completed multipurpose structure boasts five 8x8m spaces.  Each of these spaces are defined by folding walls that can be opened to transform the modular structure into a unified performance space for public gatherings. This flexibility has allowed the community group to reinvent the space(s) to accommodate multiple programs. Adjacent to the structure, KDI and the community members developed the land into a farm for growing vegetables and an improved water vending station for the community group to sell quality water to local residents.

Kibera Park - 2011

Kibera Park – 2011

A few years after this first phase of the project was completed in 2010, NNDC worked with the Ministry of Agriculture to further improve the yields of their farming project.  This led to the installation of a polytunnel greenhouse with a drip irrigation system.  These improvements have increased the quality of the produce cultivated by the community group.

KDI returned to the site in 2013 to kickstart a bamboo planting initiative, construct a much needed foot bridge, and to design and support NNDC in building a much needed sanitation facility.  This particular area of Kibera presented two unique challenges: the reclaimed land is too low to connect to the elevated sewer line and build a modern toilet, and the subterranean water level is too high to build a traditional septic system.  These design constraints led KDI and NNDC to investigate a number of decentralised sanitation systems like urine filtering wetlands and dry toilets.

After a number of field trips and design workshops, the community decided to develop a compost toilet system.  This decision then informed the design of an elevated toilet structure with compost chambers located below it.  Inside each chamber is a compost receptacle that collects human waste and dry materials. This receptacle is then moved to compost bins to mature into usable humanure which NNDC intends to sell to horticulturalists and planting initiatives around the site.

The detailed design of the structure, completed by KDI with technical support from Buro Happold (an engineering firm), boasts wide, steel reinforced concrete footings to ensure a strong and sustainable placement within unstable soils. The super

Kibera Park Compost Sanitation Block - Feb 2014

Kibera Park Compost Sanitation Block – Feb 2014

structure was erected with Interlocking Stabilized Soil Bricks (ISSBs), which not only cut down the construction timeline and expedited the building process, the fabrication of these bricks on-site kept the financial investment within the community. The finishing of the structure was completed using local fabricators and materials. The tiling throughout the building adds a distinct accent among sanitation facilities within Kibera.

The completed sanitation block now boasts three compost toilets, one urinal, and two showers for the use of surrounding residents. While the non-flushing, compost toilet has generated curiosity among the surrounding residents, it has also piqued the curiosity of the Ministries of Environment and Health as potential solutions to the complex water and sanitation challenges facing this area of Kibera.  Since the opening of the project, KDI has been working together with the community to establish maintenance and operational procedures that ensure a quality compost product is produced and that the facility remains clean and safe for area residents.

The NNDC Group has spearheaded each incremental development within the site.  Having prepared a complete master plan of the site in partnership with KDI, the community’s vision for the next decade includes expansion of current agricultural facilities to include a fish pond and elevated grow beds.  This improvement of the farming methods on the site will ensure that all agricultural activities produce organic quality produce.  Additions to the multi-purpose hall will provide more classroom space for the existing school’s children and will expand the project’s ability to be used in a variety of ways – perhaps even allowing the school to turn into an open air market during weekends.

Kibera Park Master Plan - Afritekt

Kibera Park demonstrates how a public park, its programs, and its community members can be unique catalysts for the wider community and for economic spin-offs. The project has provided environmental, social and economic benefits for Kibera residents as a place that allows residents to reconnect with nature and escape the stress of city life. This has had a positive impact on visitors’ mental health whilst providing essential water and sanitation facilities.

Kibera Park is one of five Public Space Projects that KDI has realized in Kibera over the past eight years.  While each project presents unique challenges, all of the projects are geared towards creating environmental, social and economic impacts that ensure they are owned, operated, and sustained by the residents of Kibera long into the future.  Further, with the support of technical experts, the Kibera Public Space Project is raising the standards of design and construction within the informal settlement. KDI’s approach to creating public space through a non-intrusive, community driven design method stands as an example of contextual slum upgrading that produces quality design and sustainable programs.

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Kounkuey Design Initiative: The Kibera Public Space Project

Over the past two years working with Kounkuey Design Initiative in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, my team of 10 local staff was constantly writing articles to help further the discussions surrounding the challenges and opportunities of urban development and slum upgrading efforts in the city.  Many of these articles were published locally though did not find there way into online forums.  This article below presents the Kibera Public Space Project in its entirety – both the progress achieved, the strategies employed, and how the project fits in with other efforts surrounding the informal settlement.  The article was published in in the March 2014 issue of BuilDesign Magazine.


Urbanization in Kenya has been uneven and concentrated in big cities like Nairobi. The development of informal settlements are reflective of this asymmetrical development and they continue to multiply in number. Over the decades there have been several approaches to slum upgrading ranging from large-scale, top-down, public sector approaches; to small scale, self-help and enabling strategies.

Discussions surrounding development within informal settlements have gained traction as traditional approaches to slum upgrading have not been holistic enough in addressing the lived realities of slum dwellers, nor effective enough to meet their social and economic needs.  Drawing on lessons learnt from these slum upgrading precedents, Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), an international NGO specializing in the practices of architecture, landscape architecture, engineering and urban planning, has developed an approach to slum improvement based on multi-stakeholder participation, sectoral integration and networked change.

In the context of KDI’s approach, multi-stakeholder participation is defined as an iterative and open design process that mobilizes community groups (and their knowledge of the context), the technical knowledge of design professionals, the political will of local government, and the investment capacity of the private sector. Sectoral integration refers to the amalgamation of physical, social and economic strategies into an integrated slum improvement project.

Together, multi-stakeholder participation and sectoral integration optimize the potential for networked change. This networked change describes KDI’s approach to addressing macro-scale issues through the development of a network of micro-interventions.This physical network is supported by a human network of slum residents and institutional collaborators.

The Kibera Public Space Project 

KDI has developed and employed this method in collaboration with communities in need by creating low-cost, high impact environments called Productive Public Spaces (PPS).

kpsp network 2A PPS is a community-driven intervention that seeks to mitigate environmental hazards, provide public space amenities, build social networks and develop small business enterprises. Together, these layers of design address numerous environmental, social and economic needs for the project’s surrounding residents, villages and the settlement as a whole.

In 2006, KDI began working in Kibera to assist communities in transforming their surroundings through a bottom-up approach to slum upgrading activities named the Kibera Public Space Project (KPSP). KPSP is a series of  micro-interventions that work together to create a network of public spaces and communities which collectively address the macro-challenges of poverty reduction, river remediation, waste space reclamation, social cohesion, and general quality of life in the settlement. To date, KDI has completed six KPSPs and is working towards developing its seventh project in the network.

The Design and Development Process

KDI’s participatory planning and design methodology is key to the success of the KPSP. Each project takes about two years from inception to implementation. This process includes organizing community members, securing the necessary backing from local authorities, designing the space and associated businesses plans in collaboration with their community partners, as well as construction and implementation.

Each PPS begins with the vision that residents have for their community.  KDI solicits community organizations throughout Kibera to identify potential PPS through submitting formal Requests For Proposals. This process helps KDI understand the community’s vision for the proposed space and future community activity within the space.  Once KDI selects a community partner, the NGO seeks consent from the surroundings’ residents, youths and local authorities.

During implementation, KDI and the community partner hosts interactive, participatory design workshops with community members.  With the guidance of KDI’s technical team, these workshops include discussions about the physical planning of the facilities and the design of the social programs that will activate the public space.

Installation of KDI’s projects typically takes about 6 months.  The construction process begins by building up the waterway (as projects occur along river tributaries passing through Kibera) and connecting to water and sewer infrastructure, followed by the completion of the structures.  Kibera residents and community partners lead all of the construction work and fabrication, which guarantees financial investment within the informal settlement.

Upon completion, KDI monitors and provides non-financial support to the project for one year, ensuring that the members have the capacity required for project sustainability.  When it is appropriate, KDI exits; allowing the community to independently and sustainably operate the project.



KPSP01 - 2009

KPSP01 – 2009

KPSP01 lies at the border of Silanga Village and Soweto East, adjacent to the Nairobi Dam. For decades this site was unbuildable, used as a dumping ground, and impassable because of flooding. KDI and the New Nairobi Dam Community (NNDC) began working together to reclaim the site in 2006 by controlling the persistent flooding with a new waterway and developing the landscape.The site now hosts a community centre that functions as a school during the week and is home to several churches on the weekends. The walls of the building can be opened to serve as a covered stage with amphitheatre seating for special events. Also present on-site is a large urban agriculture facility that the community operates.


KPSP02 - 2010

KPSP02 – 2010

KPSP02 is located at the Mashimoni-Lindi Bridge in the heart of Kibera.  The site had four make-shift toilets that drained into the river and was otherwise devoid of activity. The Riverside Usafi Group emerged as a productive community group, which began working together with KDI to transform the space.  Today, a clean, hygienic sanitation block providing improved water and six toilets and four showers that are connected to the sewer line replace the polluting toilets.  Adjacent to the sanitation block are three community business kiosks and a children’s playground. The revenue generated from this project generates enough income for community driven expansion efforts.


KPSP03 - 2012

KPSP03 – 2012

KDI’s third KPSP is one of its largest projects. It is located in Gatwekera along the Ngong River at a key pedestrian access point into Kibera. The length of the river in this area was under constant threat of flooding, and was a common hideout for thieves. Residents rarely passed through the area during evening hours for fear of robbery. In 2010, KDI partnered with Bridge Community Group and the Kibera Christian Initiative (KCI) to design and build a PPS that would address these environmental and social challenges surrounding the site.

Today, the site includes several drainage channels and 75 metres of flood-mitigating, stone gabions.  This river remediation enabled the construction of a school, two business kiosks, a public laundry washing facility, a small poultry farm, and a playground for neighborhood children.


KPSP04 - 2013

KPSP04 – 2013

KDI’s fourth project lies at the border of the Lindi and Laini Saba villages along the confluence of two large tributaries. In 2012 three community groups came together to develop the space: Slum Care, Ndovu Development Group and Usalama Bridge Youth Reform. This project became KDI’s first site with a large association of youth. The collective partnership supported the development of a riverbank gabion system, a formal, improved water and sanitation block, a daycare centre, and a garbage collection and recycling program.


KPSP05 - 2014

KPSP05 – 2014

KDI’s fifth project in partnership with Empowerment to the Community Foundation (EMCOF) presented a number of challenges.  While the community indicated that a toilet block was the highest priority, this project location at Daraja Ya Masista (Sister’s Bridge), Gatwekera sits at a low elevation making a municipal sewer connection impossible. Over many months, KDI and EMCOF worked together to research, design and construct a septic tank + wetland solution for the community. The entire site was completed in February of 2014, and now hosts a public laundry washing facility, a day care center, a barber shop, and DSTV viewing theater.


KPSP06 - 2014

KPSP06 – 2014

Designed as a second phase to KPSP01, KPSP06 was initiated in response to the dire need for on-site sanitation option. Without any improved toilets in the area, the project was one of the major priorities for KDI’s community partner, NNDC. The primary challenge  was similar to KPSP05; it was impossible to connect to the municipal sewer line because of the project’s elevation. Through numerous design workshops, KDI and NNDC determined an alternative composting toilet system as the best option for the community. Human waste is collected and mixed with various dry materials to create humanure compost. After a 6-8 month maturing process, NNDC will be able to begin use and sell the organic fertilizer for local farms and for added community income.

Expanding the discussion around Slum Upgrading Projects

While some of the larger efforts surrounding the needed improvements in and around Kibera have been representative of top-down methods, KDI has been paving the way to develop a methodology that brings residents’ concerns and creative potential to the forefront of the design process.  Larger interventions are often needed to address such challenges as those presented by Kibera. Small scale, grassroots methods however can limit the negative effects of large scale developments while ensuring unified, unanimous project support.

BD_003_01      BD_003_02


Over the next few weeks I will be republishing a number of articles written over the course of the past two years. Many will be of my work with KDI in Nairobi.  Other posts will present my personal writings that discuss best practices of design analysis and implementation in the larger informal/humanitarian realm.  I look forward to sharing.

… Back to the Blogosphere

After four years of living in East Africa and a total of six years of dedicated professional focus towards issues pertaining to design, development and construction within the East African context, I’ve recently taken some time off to allow me to recharge my batteries and spend some time with family and friends.

As many of the subscribers to this blog may have noticed, I have not published much of anything over the past two years. Apologies to all.  This pause was a result of my work over the past few years being thoroughly consuming; requiring me to write and publish for my teams and organizations through alternative outlets.  Now with some time to reflect, I will be able to re-post and analyze much of the work that I contributed to over the past few years. Many of these articles and book chapters have been published within the East African community though have rarely found their way to western audiences.  It is my hope that presenting them here will bring more attention to current and future efforts that are helping to shape the region.

… So I am now officially back to the Blogosphere!  The first article shall pop up within the coming week.

Looking forward to sharing – and many thanks for continuing to follow!

  • Charles (Afritekt Admin/Author)

How To Start A Project In Kibera

Having worked with numerous NGOs ranging from the smallest (of only one or two volunteers) to one of largest (with thousands of full time staff), I have grown to question the strategies with which development projects are initiated.  Over time I grew frustrated that so much of the initiative rested with the donor or service provider – and communities dissolved into simple recipients.

At the small end, projects are often begin through international friendships.  These are either through expats in the west seeking funding opportunities for their village back home, or someone in the tourism industry that befriends a traveler.  These friendships spawn a non-profit that is often dedicated to a single community or project.  While work gets done and progress is sometimes made, the individuals who initiate the project and those who fund it often do not have the expertise needed to make strategic decisions that foster further discussion, development and progress.

On the other end of the spectrum, the largest NGOs have only the best and informed goals in mind. With a well organized staff of individuals that have dedicated their lives to such work, these organizations have the resources and ability to target projects that contribute to larger macro-solutions. However, with massive budgets and constrained timelines, these expansive initiatives must often focus more on numbers of affected beneficiaries and dollars spent per month than on the diversity of challenges posed by each different community. This translates most simply to: get started, get building, get spending. As a result, the selection process of communities can be done while looking over a large map – hardly enough information to understand a community’s needs and capacity for development.

I reached a point last year where I was ready to quit working for these “others” whose strategies I did not agree with. I was ready to start something of my own: an organization that takes the time needed to do things right, allocates significant budgets (with flexible timelines) to important initiatives, and – most importantly – provides services and programs for which a community group would have to apply. Such an application process would force communities to self reflect, substantiate their needs, and propose self-authored solutions. I outlined many of these thoughts in an article published in 2010 on Engineering For Change titled “How to Write a Proposal For Work in Your Community”.

It was right at this time that I found myself in an interview with Kounkuey Design Initiative. KDI seemed to be developing a strategy that merged all of my proposed strategies and were working to perfect many of them. I signed on, and just this past week finalized my first call for project proposals throughout Kibera, the largest urban slum in East Africa.

This is how development projects should start.

RFP poster advertises information sessions about how to apply for a development project.

RFP poster advertises information sessions about how to apply for a development project.

The process begins with hundreds of posters distributed throughout the targeted area. These are at first concentrated around high profile (chief’s offices, district commissioner compounds) and high traffic areas (neighborhood entrances and markets). Posters are then placed around sites with development potential, and finally in quieter, residential zones. Care must be taken to publish the information in all languages (in this case English and Kiswahili), and to post the fliers in all neighborhoods. This ensures that all residents have equal opportunity to apply. The posters themselves (right) advertise information sessions that are held on different days in large public spaces. During these events, questions are answered and applications distributed.

KDI RFP info meeting

KDI RFP Information Meeting

The application itself seeks to reveal the potential of the proposed project as well as any flaws. It begins with basic questions about the Community Based Organization (CBO) such as “How many members do you have” or “Who controls the site referenced in your proposal”.  These questions provide valuable information as to the capacity of the group and the feasibility of the project. The following questions ask the authoring group to reflect upon the organization’s history of community and NGO engagement. What lessons has the community group learned? (What has it not learned?) Finally, the group has to articulate its vision for the proposed project. With no restrictions as to what the project could be, the community is free to propose a sanitation facility, flood water control, an urban garden, an Internet cafe – anything. These questions and answers provide our team with the needed data and valuable perspective as we move into the selection process.

After the one month window for submissions has closed, our team reviews each submission independently (the last RFP solicited over 30 applications).  This then graduates to community site visits, interviews, and meetings with area residents and chiefs.  This interview and selection process can last anywhere from one to three months.  It is only when site boundaries are confirmed, and the CBO, area residents and local leaders are all consulted, that an MOU is signed and design meetings begin.

This kind of competitive process is one of the best ways that and NGO can ensure that whatever project it begins is in line with community needs and desires; while also contributing to the larger macro goals of the NGO.  It also ensures that if the project’s program evolves throughout the design process, solid leadership and management exist within the CBO to organize and refocus the strengths of the community.  Moreover, such an application process moves a community group from beneficiaries to active participants in – and authors of – the entire initiative.

The deadline for this round of submissions is the 24th of February at 5pm.  I’m looking forward to posting an update once the selection process is complete!

Corruption Can Buy You Dinner.

…. and development is one of the best places to eat.

For anyone working in development, construction can be the phase most vulnerable to corruption.  A construction project is a complex purchase that leaves many opportunities to “eat.” Such corruption, unfortunately, is particularly prevalent in Africa.   Where there is daily hunger, money earmarked for construction becomes an enormous temptation to all involved in the process.  Although development brings long term benefits, immediate need can drive contractors, community leaders, and developers to siphon off funds for pressing personal needs.

Having prepared construction documents, budgets and contracts for over 100 schools, 30 water systems, 25 health centers and numerous other public projects in Central and East Africa, I have authorized and overseen payments totaling over $4,000,000 for construction costs.  Corruption can come in many forms and at many places along the way.  It is the construction manager’s responsibility to be aware of and to seal the cracks through which dollars, francs and shillings fall.

Here are ten common opportunities for corruption that can sink a construction project:

10. Coordinating Prices.  As building contractors or material distributors prepare their proposals for a potential project, it is not uncommon for them to be aware of their competitors’ bids.  It’s not difficult to turn a competitor into a conspirator by coordinating submissions.  One contractor will drastically overbid a project, while another will do so only slightly.    This consumes money that would typically be used for change orders and improvements to the design.  Moreover, it destroys the trust upon which a competitive free market system is built.

09. Shorting Materials.  For a construction model in which materials are purchased directly from a distributor, “adjustable” quantities of sand, stone, and gravel often create a wonderful opportunity to eat.  These materials are difficult to measure, especially once they have already been dumped on site.  A truckload might be sold as an eight cubic meter delivery – but only filling the truck 90% of capacity is an easy way to “shave a bit off the top.”  This method can also apply to bricks.  Smaller bricks cost less.  If a load of bricks arrives and the dimensions are off only by a centimeter or two, the load will not be sufficient to complete the project and money will be lost.

08. Shorting Mixtures.  Shorting concrete and mortar mixtures is extremely common.  With cement being the most expensive building material, mixing a ratio of 1:4 instead of 1:3 can produce extra bags that can then be sold at the end of the project.  This leads to weaker construction that brings the life of the building into question.  It must also be noted that in seismically active sites, diluted concrete mixtures can result in dangerous structures.

These problems can be solved with proper oversight and negotiations.  They are, however, one-sided. Corruption becomes more difficult to identify and eliminate when parties begin to coordinate across contract lines.

07. Community Overpays – Intentionally. When the community has a grant but does not have direct access to the money, community leaders can award the contract to the supplier on the condition that they are paid a small kickback for the overpriced materials.  Both sides benefit from the arrangement; the construction project suffers.

06. Awarding Labor to Elites.  It is always best to hire local labor.  This brings much needed salaries into the community and can help stimulate the local economy.  Local contractors however must retain the authority to choose which skilled labor they employ.  This ensures that the project is completed on time and to the highest standard.  When a salary is awarded to one who is not qualified, it can undermine the drive of those who have needed skills. (In diverse regions this is sometimes caused by tribalism.)  These talented masons and artisans may then be pushed toward considering other, less legal ways to gain employment.

These scenarios are beyond difficult, because it is the people who will directly benefit from the project who begin to prevent its successful completion. In these situations, firm conversations should be held between all parties to review the community’s ultimate goals for long term development.

Corruption problems are multiplied when leaks from an NGO’S own staff are thrown into the mix.  As professionals who oversee the design and budget of the project, corruption at this level can completely discredit the project and the community’s trust in the development effort.

05. Selling Information.  A project’s construction cost estimate is sensitive information.  An architect or engineer works to prepare a project that is tailored to construction costs and will arrive within budget.  In the event that these estimates are leaked to a contractor, the level playing field needed to create competition is destroyed.  If a project is estimated at $10,000 for example, eyebrows should be raised if a proposal arrives at $9,999.

04. Paying to Submit a Project.  This method is the simplest way to make a few dollars.  “Sorry, it costs $5 for me to accept your proposal.”  If a bribe arrives this early in the process, it can be assured that more bribery will occur during the project.

03. Falsifying Progress.  Contractors are paid after having achieved certain predetermined benchmarks of construction.   Progress must be measured accurately, because exaggerating the amount of work completed is a fast track to fill one’s pockets.  This of course will make completing the project that much more difficult as funds will dry up before the end of the project.  Responsible and informed staff understand that approving a payment for a few dollars without proof of accomplishment could end up costing much more in headaches during the months to come.

02. Falsifying Material Quantities.  As mentioned above, materials such as sand and gravel are easy to short.  In the event that your staff member determines that only 95% of the contracted quantity was fulfilled upon delivery, the staff member can decide whether to approve thousands of dollars of materials – or not.  Bribing a staff member bleeds rescources from the project – though buying a signature may be cheaper than another delivery for the distributor to fulfill the contract.

01. Conflicting Interests. Conflict of interest is by far the worst-case scenario.  If someone working for your development organization has a financial interest in an outside contractor involved in the project (perhaps through family relationships), this conflict can undermine the entire construction and development effort.  It can further discredit an organization and prevent it from bringing further development to where it is needed most.

These 10 points do not encompass all of the potential traps involved in small or large scale construction.  Property title issues and corrupt government officials can substantially complicate or even stop a project in its tracks.  Where corruption is present, development and investment plummets, thereby exacerbating an already needy situation.

I recently read a Facebook post arguing that Africa’s biggest problem was not simply poverty, disease or access to education, but rather “a failure to harness our potential.”  I couldn’t agree more.  However, the post did not site reasons for such failure. Corruption  must be considered as one of Africa’s biggest problems.  It prevents capable, inspired citizens from moving their communities forward.

It eats.

And it chokes.

If You Plan to Build 100 Schools in Congo

.                within a limited time, you have to be efficient.

This means one needs a standard design prepared with an even more standardized system that allows small adjustments to be made for each project.

Having broken ground on more than 100 schools over the last year, my strategy for creating project construction documents has evolved.  In the beginning, I created all of the standard drawings for classrooms (in blocks of 3, 4, 5, and 6) and latrines.  Below you can see an example set for a block of three classrooms.  The brick + cast in place concrete + corrugated roof panel scheme is typical of rural East African architecture.  All dimensions conform to the Congolese Ministry of Education standards (which sometimes differ between provinces) and provide seating for approximately 30 students per classroom.

In the beginning, I would adjust each drawing set to cater the communities’ needs.  Some would want water catchment; some a ceiling, or a different type of flooring.  My first few sets of documents were consumed in these details – as I represented each variation visually.  It became clear by my 15th school however, that the number of projects and their pressing deadlines would not permit such attention to detail.  I have therefore begun using this single set of drawings and directing the contractor to the budget.  This allows us the control all construction details through contractual language and the material quantities that arrive on site.

Below is a Bill Of Quantities that we use to build the most common school unit of 3 classrooms, 2 latrines and a water capture system.  In this variation, the foundations have been budgeted as stone masonry which frames the cheapest flooring option: compacted soil topped with a brick pavers and a pure cement finish.  Quantities for bricks, sand and gravel vary according to material quality and brick dimensions – and have been slightly increased to ensure sufficient quantities.  (It should also be noted that all local materials here can be decreased in the event that the community has access to such materials and can contribute them to the building effort.)  Tools and measuring instruments should also be factored into project costs, as their quality usually limits them to a “one project” life span.  In all, a project of this scope (in the accessible regions of South Kivu) will cost less than $22,800 and take about 3 months to build.

Material Unit Quantity
1 Sand m3 46
2 Gravel m3 9
3 Masonry Stones m3 21
4 Bricks pce 40000
5 Scaffolding Posts (± 5m each) pce 60
6 Scaffolding Boards pce 6
7 Ciment sac 230
8 Ventilation Blocks pce 108
9 Formwork Wood (3.5m ea.) pce 35
10 “2×4” Wood  (3.5m ea.) pce 94
11 “2×2” wood perlins (3.5m ea.) pce 75
12 Fascia Board 25cm wide, 3.75m long pce 18
13 Shovel pce 5
14 Pick pce 3
15 Hoe pce 2
16 Machette pce 1
17 Trowel pce 2
18 Spirit Level pce 1
19 Wheel Barrow pce 2
20 Digging Bar pce 1
21 Measuring Tape, 50m pce 1
22 Measuring Tape, 5m pce 1
23 Mason Hammer, 5 kg pce 2
24 Mason Hammer, 1 kg pce 1
25 Mason Bucket pce 4
26 Wheel Barrow pce 1
27 Carpenter Hammer pce 2
28 Mason Square pce 1
29 Crow Bar pce 1
30 Hacksaw pce 1
31 Hacksaw blade pce 10
32 Scissors (Tin Shears) pce 1
33 Large Tarp pce 2
34 Paint Roller pce 6
35 Brush, 3″ pce 4
36 Brush, 4″ pce 6
37 Sand Paper ml 2
38 20 Liter Bucket pce 6
39 Large Sand Sieve (5mm) m2 1
40 Fine Sand Sieve (2mm) m2 1
41 Deisel Fuel litre 10
42 12mm String (100m Roll) pce 1
43 Nylon String  (100m Roll) pce 2
44 Rebar HA6 (12m ea.) pce 52
45 Rebar HA8 (12m ea.) pce 42
46 Galvanized Tie Wire kg 15
47 Galvanized Roof Panel (G30) pce 103
48 Galvanized Roof Crown pce 15
49 Roofing Nails kg 15
50 15mm Nails kg 10
51 12mm Nails kg 18
52 10mm Nails kg 10
53 8mm Nails kg 10
54 5mm Nails kg 6
55 PVC Gutter ml 44
56 Gutter Ends pce 4
57 Gutter/PVC connection pce 2
58 Gutter Brackets pce 26
59 PVC 110mm ml 15
60 PVC 110mm Elbow pce 3
61 PVC 110mm “T” pce 3
62 PVC Glue tube 2
63 Plastic Water Tank (2m3) pce 1
64 1/2″ Tap pce 1
65 Complete Wood Door 0.8×2.10 pce 2
66 Complete Wood Door 0.9×2.10 pce 3
67 Complete Wood Window (150×110) pce 6
68 Complete Wood Window (200×110) pce 6
69 Chalk / Lime (50 kg) sac 3
70 Latex Paint litre 45
71 Oil Paint litre 26
72 Chalkboard Paint litre 3
73 Kitchen Salt kg 6
74 Student Desk pce 45
75 Teacher Desk pce 1
76 Teacher Chair pce 1

I provide these details not to help you understand what a good three room school building will cost – or how to build such a building.  There are numerous beneficial details that are missing from this example. Rather, I present it here to show what a team of locally trained masons could be expecting to build.  It could also be assumed that a rural community would enjoy seeing such an example built for their school.

I welcome you to use this information as a reference point for your own designs.  Any improvements to this scheme could drive the project cost up – but in my view, any and all considerations taken towards appropriate, contextual design can have lasting positive affects towards the sustained development of your community.

The next step, of course, is the how.  Material procurement, appropriate construction methods, conflict, and corruption present the most formidable challenges to project completion.  … But perhaps that will be left to a follow up post…

Happy building!

Building a Butterfly

The decent down to Mwenga Centre

The descent along Route 2 to Mwenga Centre

Mwenga Centre is one our most remote outposts.  A six- to eight-hour drive to the south west of Bukavu, Mwenga is surrounded by dense forests and impressive mountain ranges beyond.  The modest town center is home to approximately 5,000 people with a handful of shops and restaurants along the main Route Nationale 2.   Two of our Tuungane communities, both named Kalole (neighborhoods of Mwenga Centre), participated in the governance program and determined that they both would like to use their grants to build a large market in their town center.

When this project landed on my desk in July of 2012, I realized that not only did we have a beautiful and prominent site, but with a budget of $45,600, we would be able to do something special.  I spent a Saturday preparing a modified set of drawings of our standard market design.  I found myself drawing an inverted roof with a descending king post to support the center of the structure.  I also took the time to clearly lay out the dimensions of the needed trusses – labeling truss type “A” and truss type “B”.

Drawing: Diagram showing truss locations

Market “Option 2”

I sent the plans down with my technician the following Monday along with a copy of the standard roof designs – and asked for the community to review both before choosing one.

About 10 days later, word came back: “They loved it!… But they decided that they would rather have two market structures than one market with a unique roof.”

A roller coaster of a response, but – in adherence to the Tuungane principals – the client is always right. The contract was prepared and as it came across my desk, I noted that the drawings included in the document were that of the typical pitched roof.  Another slight heartbreak – but gave my signature and moved on.

C:Documents and SettingsCharles.NewmanMy DocumentsProjects3

Standard Market Design

Over the next few months I heard the occasional updates and signed off on payments.

“Foundations complete.”

“Columns in place.”

Fast forward to December 2012 – and I received these pictures:

I was ecstatic to see that the community had built the structure almost exactly according to my “second option” drawings.  I was surprised because I only printed the drawings once – never to have seen them again.  The contractor must have held on to these documents with the intention of following them…

Now, first off, I had to have a solid conversation with my team.  I should have been informed that the community had planned to proceed with the inverted option the moment the trusses were being constructed.  Had I been informed, I might have insisted, for example, on a certain connection detail between the reinforced concrete beams and the wood super structure.    Looking at these photos my first thought (and perhaps yours too) is the threat of wind.  This region is not prone to large gusts of wind and the site is also flanked by structures on either side – but precautions must be taken to ensure the structural stability of the roof against lateral winds.

My staff is currently working to prepare an amendment to the contract for the addition of protective panels along the sides of both buildings.  This is an unfortunate need but a positive development.  These panels will be perforated to minimize pressure on both the side panels as well as the underside of the primary roof – which will come at a cost.  However, these perforations will be an opportunity to add decorative patterns along the sides of the buildings.

Regardless of these complications – the community is over the top with pride about the beauty of their unique market.  Located in the town center, it overlooks the main road and has earned the nickname “Le Papillon” – The Butterfly.

Burundian Splatter Plaster

Descending from Rwanda's 1000 hillsOn the road from Rwanda to Burundi, the rolling hills dissipate into the long, flat, straight road towards Bujumbura.  The temperature rises, and the mountains of Congo drift away into the distance.  The scenic drive is complimented by the small villages along the way – and the beauty of their architecture.

Almost all of the buildings are made of the same mud brick construction methods and topped with “iron” sheets or thatch.  What sets each home apart from the next though, is the paint – or perhaps more appropriately, the waterproofing.

Calcium Oxide, usually referred to as lime, is a building material used throughout East Africa and is often mixed into cement mortars and plasters to improve water resistance.  When used independently, mixed to 1 part lime : 3 parts sand, “lime only” mortar still retains cementitious qualities at a fraction of the cost of cement mortar.

Home owners in the North West of Burundi have incorporated lime’s qualities into their architecture using a unique method: splatter plaster.  A concentrated mixture of lime + water is applied to the exterior surface of the mud brick construction.  While the most appropriate location for this application would be at the base of the building (most exposed to rain), Burundians have turned this effective waterproofing material into an opportunity for decoration.  Splattered, splotched, dabbed or washed – each building presents a different method, a different design, a different home.

I honestly wish I had more pictures to post here.   Every house along the two hour drive is unique; assembling a collection of architecture that I have not yet seen in other parts of Africa.

One can imagine that for public infrastructure (schools, clinics, markets), such a method could be employed to create a truly contextual design.

. . . . . . . . . . .  What will really get you thinking is the introduction of colored chalks into the mixtures!

The Loita Learning Center – Up and Running

I am happy to report that one year later the Loita Learning Center in Kenya’s Maasai land is up and running with solar panels, a massive dish, and working internet!   The project was organized by Under The Acacia and the administration of the Loita Hills Academy.  A great summary of the project was recently posted on the Internet Society’s blog, written by UTA chief strategist, Dylan Mahalingham.

The beauty of the center was made possible by the people of Loita Hills.

For a complete summary of the design process, I send you to one of my earlier posts: 15,000 Bottle Caps For Africa.

Article in Architectural Record

I recently had the opportunity to write a small piece about my work in Central and East Africa for Architectural Record, one of the leading voices in the architecture field in the United States.

In the article, I strive to explain how the IRC’s largest “good governance” program in the DR Congo is an appropriate model for development in rural Africa.  This is not only because it promotes unity and interaction with local government ministries towards responsible development.  The Tuungane program, from the perspective of an architect, creates relationships that put local populations in the position of a client; as apposed to that of a recipient or beneficiary.

I hope you enjoy the article.  Any comments that you can post at the bottom of the article would be much appreciated.  I look forward to responding.

Why LEED doesn’t work in rural Africa

In May of 2012 a colleague from the IRC approached me for some guidance on a health proposal he was putting together.  A portion of the grant would be earmarked for the construction of hundreds of clinics across the DR Congo, and he mentioned that the donor was very interested in “green” building standards.  Knowing that I was a LEED Accredited Professional, he began asking how we might be able to incorporate such building standards into the designs for the pending projects.  I rattled off some general guidelines such as using local materials – recycled ones if available, incorporating existing infrastructure, natural ventilation, etc.  He jotted down a few notes, then began to pry a little deeper.  “What about the LEED point system?  Could we incorporate that into our strategy?”

My response was frank: “No, not really.  LEED doesn’t work here in rural Africa.”

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and has become the most recognized standard for “green” building in over 30 countries worldwide.  LEED is a point system that grades buildings throughout design, construction and performance. One hundred points are available: a score of 40 secures the “Certified” label; 50, Silver; 60, Gold; and 80, Platinum.  The rating system is broken down into 7 categories, such as Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, and Indoor Environmental Quality.  Most points carry with them quantified benchmarks; while others, such as the Innovation in Design credits, call for explanation and interpretation.  A good reference guide that outlines each point and its requirements can be seen here.  LEED has become widely used around the world for good reasons: creating a structure within the LEED constraints ultimately lowers a building’s carbon footprint, creates a product that can be financially (and responsibly) profitable, and provides inspiration for follow suit.

Many of these points can be applied to work in rural development in Africa.

Materials and Resources credits 1.1 and 1.2 for example, recognize the reuse of existing building components.  If the design calls for the demolition of an existing building, minimum percentages of structural (1.1) and nonstructural (1.2) elements must be reincorporated into the construction.  By prolonging the life of building materials, energy that would be used for fabrication, transport and installation of new materials is reduced.  While in rural areas there may not be many existing structures available to reuse, such a standard can easily be incorporated into building practices in Africa.

The Indoor Environmental Quality credit 6.2, controllability of systems for thermal comfort, can also be achieved.  Such a credit requires substantial knowledge of ASHRAE standards (American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers), but by providing operable windows and calculating radiant temperatures and air flows, indoor temperatures can be regulated with little or no energy requirements.

Another credit, Sustainable Sites credit 7.1, Non Roof Heat Island Effect credit, can also apply.  The goal of this credit is to reduce heat absorption, thereby minimizing impacts on microclimates and human and animal habitats.  This credit can be gained by specifying light colors on building surfaces and by strategically locating trees and other vegetation.  Such design considerations can easily be implemented in rural development in Africa as well.

These credits and a handful of others can be achieved in most any project in the developing world.  Many more of the points however (as many as 45 of the 100), are simply irrelevant or financially irresponsible.  In some cases, adherence to these credits can actually be detrimental to project success and community prosperity.

The most obvious of these irrelevant credits is the Sustainable Sites Credit 4.3, Low-Emitting and Fuel-Efficient vehicles.  This point is gained by providing preferred parking for fuel-efficient vehicles.  Where parking is not part of the project scope, a fuel efficient car lending program must be provided for a minimum of 3% of the building occupants.  Hopefully, an explanation of this credit’s irrelevance is not necessary.  It shows that some of the LEED credits are geared towards urban “first world” conditions.

Commissioning of Systems EA Credit 3, Enhanced Commissioning of Systems, specifies that a third party must be contracted to oversee the design, commissioning, and monitoring of all mechanical systems for a ten month period.  Such a “handoff” of building maintenance can be very useful when working in rural developing communities.  However, this credit implies that mechanical systems have been incorporated into the design of the building.  Generally, specifying systems that require substantial technical knowledge is ill-advised.  Even if such knowledge can be effectively transferred, the financial resources available to maintain such a system are often extremely limited.  Further, hiring a third party to oversee the design process, installation and monitoring can add substantial expense to a project – expenses that could be better applied to other initiatives within the community.

Energy and Atmosphere Credit 6, Green Power, is one of the easiest ways for a project to “buy” a LEED credit.  Essentially, the building owners engage in a minimum 2-year contract with their energy provider that ensures that at least 35% of the building’s purchased energy will be from renewable sources.  First of all, this credit stipulates that electricity must be used and incorporated into the design of the project.  For many projects in rural Africa however, electricity simply isn’t a priority. Such projects are therefore eliminated from achieving this credit and many others in the Energy and Atmosphere category.  To further complicate the issue, such renewable energy service providers in Africa are often not recognized by the American Center for Resource Solutions Green-e Energy product certification or its equivalents.  Moreover, requiring a rural community to purchase more expensive electricity can endanger the financial sustainability of the programs housed in the building.

Renewable energy is good, of course.  Efficient light bulbs, Low-flow faucets, recycled materials and innovations in design are also good.  When considering rural development in Africa however, the needs and standards of construction must shift not simply to a new geographical and cultural context, but to one of development needs and capabilities.  Energy standards must first recognize the importance of electricity itself a major step forward, and, for example, points for electric cars could be replaced by points for mosquito nets.  This may sound like a simplification or a lowering of the LEED standards, but building sustainably in Africa spans far beyond a simple system of design and construction standards.  One size does not fit all.

If we want to have a truly productive conversation on building sustainability in Africa, we must consider social and economic factors as well.  A school with a gold LEED rating that does not have books, teachers, or even students would receive recognition that is irrelevant and undeserved.  An NGO that imports building materials and introduces a “green” building system squanders an opportunity to help stimulate the local economy by buying locally.  Further, if that NGO brings volunteers to help in construction, local laborers miss out on much needed salaries that could be used to send their children to school.

Jeremy Gibberd, an architect in South Africa, proposes Social Economic and Environmental building standards (further elaborated into a point system here) as a measuring tool for the success of a rural development project.  His work is still in progress, but I think he’s on the right track.

The answer to building sustainability in Africa should not be limited to architecture.  Rather, standards must be created to measure and credit sustainable programs, building techniques and financial relationships.  I look forward to investigating such a system further from my perspective as an architect and builder.  I will continue to publish my progress here and look forward to sparking debate toward a more prosperous Africa.

A 35 year old Innovation

Not your typical roofing system

This little building might not look like anything spectacular, but as I passed by it on my friend’s bike I quickly asked him to stop.  The entire roof was made from what looked like antique circular shingles.

We walked up the path towards the woman in the front courtyard who smiled as she saw us approach.  She lifted herself from washing clothes and we introduced ourselves.  Her name was Amiya.  When I started asking questions about the home, she revealed a sliver of history that told the story of this little building.

Amiya’s husband built the building sometime between 1972 and 1977.  He was working as a laborer on a large construction crew that was repaving the highway between Nairobi and Mombasa.  He would walk the 5 kilometers to the highway every morning to mix tar into the asphalt mixtures and to spread and compact the hot surface.  At some point during his work, he struck a deal with his foreman to purchase all of the leftover tops of the tar canisters for two Kenyan cents each. Today this would be about 1/10 of a USA penny.  He then carried 20 at a time back to his home over the course of two weeks.

The drum tops sit upon a wood superstructure and are fastened together with nails and bottle cap washers.  Roofing systems at that time were still only made of dry grass, so this was a truly an innovation.  The walls of the home, build from mud and wood posts, are in surprisingly good condition for being 35 years old – and probably constitute one of the oldest buildings in the region.

Amiya and her family live in Kenya roughly halfway between Kibwezi and Kithasyu.

Forcing debt upon local entrepreneurs

I don’t like some parts of my job – though these parts are often meaningful challenges that make me think harder about what I am doing here in the Congo.

Forcing debt on any of the entrepreneurs that I work with is a difficult task, especially when I am in one of the most poverty-stricken places in the world.  It must be said that I have had wonderful experiences working alongside truly inspired, organized and driven Africans.  However, as in the rest of the world, one eventually comes into contact with irresponsible businessmen.  Construction materials are shorted, then sold.  Occasionally, local laborers are not paid, and money finds its way into undeserving hands.  Sometimes, money is simply mismanaged.  The only way to effectively curtail such occurrences (and to ensure the completion of a project) is to use money: withhold it and create debt in the right places.

When I arrived in Congo I inherited a series of problems.  The vast majority of schools, roads and water systems had been completed, but 20 projects remained behind schedule and on the verge of failure.  Some had not been visited in weeks due to unstable security; others showed little progress, their funds dwindling.  These projects had not yet failed, however:  all they needed was a little encouragement and a bit of strong-arming.

The average construction cost of a typical Tuungane project hovers around $50,000. Our standard operating procedure is to withhold 10% as a guarantee, which is released only upon completion of the project and with the signature of the community president.  It ensures that when times get tough there is still a carrot on the end of the stick. This of course is a standard contractual agreement.  Sometimes though, the stick starts to get bigger and bigger, and the carrot gets smaller.

Take, for instance one of our projects in the Walungu territory, a six-classroom project in the village of Bashibashuma.  The contractor working on the project–we’ll call him “Jean”–has worked on two projects so far with the IRC’s Tuungane program.  His first project, a health center in Uvira, was extremely successful.  His second project was not.  After running short on money and souring a few relationships, the community opted not to extend his contract and to finish the project themselves.  This third project is still salvageable, though my colleagues and the community of Bashibashuma are getting restless.  Jean’s contract has already been extended, and little to no work has been done since I signed his last check for $6,300 – 4 months ago.

In mid-June, I invited Jean to my office for a chat.  He explained to me that he was having financial troubles, most of which were brought upon by the rains and the difficult roads conditions.

Jean had a remaining balance of $3,000 in our account, plus the $5,000 guarantee.  After some discussion, I offered a refinancing option that would reduce the guarantee and put more money in his pocket for the remaining construction. After all, he was very close to substantial completion of the project. All I would need from him would be a revised budget and construction schedule. I told him I’d be happy to set the paperwork in motion.

3 of 6 classrooms, unfinished in Bashibashuma

When I sought approval for this way forward, I learned that this had already been done for him in October of last year (something he had neglected to mention).  The guarantee could not be touched – especially by Jean.It became clear if this project were going to be finished, I would have to guide him through the budget revisions and scheduling process myself.

After visiting the site and taking notes on what was left to be done, I estimated what materials needed to be purchased: project completion would cost about $6,000. If we were to release the remaining $3,000, Jean would temporarily have $1,000 more in his pocket than would be his final profit if he were to finish the project.

$3,000 payment – $6,000 construction costs = $-3,000, Jean’s short-term debt

$-3,000 debt + $5,000 guarantee = $2,000, Jean’s profit.


$3,000 payment, and quit while ahead.

If he were to finish the project of course, he would remain in good standing with the community and the IRC, and would preserve his ability to win additional projects within the Tuungane program.  Up-front money, however, is a strong force (and perhaps one difficult for Jean to control), and this fact has led me to protect the community from the worst case scenario: a project that dies before it gets the chance to live.

I explained to Jean that he would need to front the first 50% of the remaining construction costs.  As soon as he could demonstrate that he had invested about $3,000, either through his receipts or by meeting benchmarks of construction progress, we would release the remaining $3000.  He would then be able to complete the project and receive his $5,000 guarantee, repay his debt, and net $2,000 profit.  I asked Jean to take the rest of the week to prepare a new strategy: scheduling out tasks, purchases, and setting a date when he would be requesting his final payment from IRC.

Jean arrived in my office a week later with a formal schedule, complete with his signature and a stamp.  By his estimates, the remaining work would take seven weeks costing a total of $6,180.  His planning showed that the costs would be split (apparently) between him and the IRC, and he would be ready for the final payment in two weeks.  Something had not translated.  Reviewing his timeline, I noted that he had severely front loaded 50% of the work into the first two weeks – an ambitious plan.  This is what I assumed he would propose, but after discussing his purchasing strategy and hearing of the large number of laborers that were ready to get to work, it was clear that he was determined to minimize the duration of his financial investment.  It was an aggressive plan, but I was ready to see him succeed.

“OK, Jean. We will come by the site in two weeks to see that this, this and this has been completed and to make sure to get you paid as soon as possible.”

He paused.  “Aww, Charles.  I will still be working on those things by then.  This is Africa.” He says with a smile.  “You can pay me on this date – that is what this document says.”

There is nothing I hate more than the “T.I.A.” bullshit.

“No Jean.  This is not Africa.  This is my office.  And this document is your proposed contract.  You signed it.  You stamped it.  And it clearly indicates that we will only pay you if and when you pay for this.”

What followed was a drawn-out, stressful conversation: interpreting the document and treading lightly so as to not offend one another.

Finally, I had to explain.

“Jean.  I understand that I am forcing you into debt.  But you have to understand that your debt will be my security.  It ensures that you will have no choice but to finish this project to gain your final guarantee.”

I have since given Jean a week to revise his plans.  I have no idea if he actually can get $3,000.  Nor do I want to think about the dangers involved in seeking such a loan in Eastern Congo.  Is this reason enough to ease the rules? Because life here is difficult?  Because this is Africa?


Bashibashuma needs a school. And if forcing short-term debt upon a contractor is the means to that end, that end will provide new opportunities for the next generation of Congolese entrepreneurs.

Introducing a new detail. My strategy.

I have been warned against trying anything new.  “You will not have the capacity to oversee such unique details – and many of the contractors will simply ignore things they don’t understand.  Besides, you will just be creating extra work for yourself.”

In some ways it is true.  Working with over 270 communities, the names of communities and complications of individual projects are already starting to blend together.  Further, contractors (as most architects will tell you) often make mistakes.  The difficulty in this part of the world though, is nor do they ask questions.  Introducing even the smallest innovations will clearly be more work for everyone.

Some ideas however, ideas are two hard to pass up.

The Liter of Light concept has been on my mind since installing a series of them in Kenya.  This is a simple and wonderfully effective detail that I am determined to introduce it into our school projects.  This starts with a construction detail but doesn’t end there.  On the sheet that I have inserted into our construction documents, I have included photos to illustrate a 1,2,3 process.

Liter of Light construction detail

Liter of Light construction detail

This additional detail will also have to be accompanied by the budget: 1 bottle of ammonia $5, one extra roof panel $20, black sealant $12, plastic bottles $1ea.  As long as these line items find their way into the contract, I am well on my way.

Next, I will have to purchase a few materials myself, make a prototype, hold a team meeting with my 30+ technicians, break them into teams, and have them build a prototype for themselves.  Soon, I will be armed and ready to try something new.

A new IRC logo: Women’s Protection and Empowerment program

Working as part of the large operation that is the IRC in South Kivu, I often get the opportunity to help out with other programs when a little designing is needed.  When the “Gender Based Violence” program changed its name to “Women’s Protection and Empowerment”, I found myself with another such opportunity.

The reasons for changing the program name are clear.  The old GBV title reflects all of the difficulties and dangers facing the women of Eastern Congo yet communicates none of the positive attributes of the IRC’s programs.  Yes, the team works with rape victims and provides medical and psychological treatment – but an equally important initiative provides micro-finance training that gives women the tools to improve their lives and those of their family.   A short, informative video explaining the micro-finance programs in South Kivu can be seen here  BBC story: IRC in the Eastern Congo

With this change in name however, comes the little task of changing the program’s logo.  The previous logo consisted of a hand symbolizing defiance or defense – I assume perhaps also to show strength.  The team wanted to change this logo to better reflect the new name and the positive nature of their many initiatives.

The team came to me with this challenge and I quickly accepted.  This new logo that I’ve created has been accepted and added to the standard issue black IRC t-shirts. I will be happy to see this printed and accompanying the team into the field as they continue their amazing work.

New Logo for the IRC’s Women’s Protection and Empowerment program in South Kivu

Can a Water System be Beautiful? – Part II

On May 15th of this year I posted an article about a new approach to designing and building rural water systems.  In this post I detailed one large project currently approaching construction in Minova, just Southwest of Goma.  For this project I reached out to local artist Innocent to turn the large water tank into a piece of public art.  He produced a rendering, and is currently preparing to coordinate is painting with the local contractor and the construction schedule.

I have since introduced this water system as art idea to the community development committee of Mulama, another community on the outskirts of Mwenga Centre.  As I have come to learn however, for many communities throughout the Eastern Congo, an artist is not always easy to come by.  Unfortunately, art is a difficult trade on which to survive, and most rural Congolese focus their energy on agriculture and on conducting small business.  This lack of artists is not entirely a problem.  In fact, it is a wonderful opportunity.

The governance goals of Tuungane strive to bring communities together to make decisions on how to improve their communities.  During the short design phase of each project, my office holds the hand of the community throughout the process.  For education for example, my office works to reach the communities’ goals of 3 classrooms in brick or 4 classrooms in wood.  For water systems however, the amount of community involvement is somewhat limited.  The committee indicates the number of taps stands it wants and where – but in actuality, these locations are largely decided upon by the amount of water available and by gravity.  Bringing a community together to beautify their own infrastructure would not only create a water system that stands apart from that of their neighbors, but it would become an opportunity for elders, men, women and children to contribute to the true design of a single project.  Colors will have to be chosen, patterns discussed, and over a few days volunteers would come together to bring a piece of beauty into their village.  Such an opportunity could have lasting positive effects in community communication, enthusiasm, and project ownership; while creating a monument to the community’s efforts that will stand for decades.

It must be noted that the amount of paint proposed for these projects is a small expense when considering the communities’ budgets.  The envelope for construction averages $24,000.  One water tap, depending on its relative location, costs around $1,000.  Therefore, any remainder of funds can go towards this extra artistic expense.  I estimate that the amount of paint and brushes for a water system with one large tank and 5 water taps would cost $400.

In order to present this idea to the communities, I have prepared these two pages showing how a water tank and water taps can be designed.  These pages are printed on our black and white printer and left with the communities who indicate enthusiasm for the project.  I have intentionally left these pages vague – showing only examples and suggestions for themes.  With a minimal use of words, these diagrams can be interpreted and design can be sparked.

Currently I am working on contractual strategies that will allow these opportunities to proceed without complication.  For the coming construction in Mulama, our community partner in Mwenga, I will be holding meetings with their development committee in the coming weeks to confirm their plans for their project.