Kenyan slums are famous for all the wrong reasons, from poor living conditions to high crime rates. According to a 2009 Oxfam report on urban poverty and vulnerability, 90 per cent of slum dwellers in Nairobi have no access to piped clean water or basic sanitation services.
Inadequate public waste collection means that waterborne diseases are rife. Children under five are four times more likely to die than the rest of the slum population.
Another report on urban slums, youth economic and social empowerment says 75 per cent of young adults are unemployed, driving many to crime, prostitution and drug use.
But one woman is on a noble mission to transform slums to “a place of hope, opportunity and action”.
Connie Neilsen, famous for her lead role in the movie Lost in Africa, together with David Warner and other partners have developed a business model which is set to transform slums in developing countries.
The first actualisation of the model is the Kibera Human Needs Project (HNP) Town Centre which opened in July last year.
For Kibera residents, the Town Centre is a beacon of hope, which has been elusive for many years.
Kibera is thought to be one of Africa’s largest slum – an informal settlement where water is scarce, expensive and most often contaminated. A 20-litre jerrycan costs Sh5.
According to the UNDP Human Development Report (2006), an average Kibera household spends up to 20 per cent of its income on water and pays about 11 times more than the lowest tariff for piped water in Kenya. This is as a result of political exclusion, presence of water cartels, water rationing and poor infrastructure.
Additionally, women and children spend about an hour daily to locate a water vendor, queue to fill their containers and get back to their homes.
When there is a shortage, which happens about four times in a month, the women can spend a whole day looking for the precious commodity.
Some of the water they pay for is also contaminated due to broken pipes and leaking tanks. As a result, infant mortality and diarrhoea infection rates in Kibera are more than double the Nairobi average.
But now residents are getting a new lease of life in the form of clean drinking water, toilets, showers and laundry services sourced from an iconic blue and white building, which is two floors high and approximately 40 meters long, with an underground waste water recycling system and a roof top covered with solar panels.
The building also provides opportunities for community members to develop skills and knowledge at an adult education centre, an information centre and cyber café.
There is also a coffee corner, a micro-credit section and a green market place where “micro-entrepreneurs will avail clean-technology home upgrades for slum dwellers at bottom-of-the-pyramid prices”, according to Ms Nielsen.
She says HNP has been set up to provide a platform where locals can receive essential services, build networks and use communication technology to explore other opportunities beyond their locality.
“We hope these services will have the sort of catalytic effect with which a Kibera woman with six children can learn how to change her life… and a way for Kibera youth to have aspirational views of the world rather than a depressed, passive fear of the world,” said Ms Neilsen.
The inclusive business model used to develop the HNP centre has ensured that Kibera residents have been part of the process from the initial concept to construction, operation and management. The centre was constructed by about 300 residents, including women.
Currently, the centre has 27 line managers drawn from the community, about half of them women. Three of the top five managers are also women.
The centre also has a co-operative that allows its 100 members to enjoy priority access to services, subsidised rates and participate in decision making.
HNP has built a water kiosk with support from partners and is currently strategising on establishing a distribution network.
“We want to ensure clean water is available from source to the mouth of the three-year-old baby who should live to celebrate their fifth birthday and beyond,” said Ms Neilsen.
A baseline survey for the next phase has already been done.
It will involve mapping distribution points and laying pipes to identified areas. When it is completed, it will be a dream come true for the residents. HNP is also making headway in terms of raising capital to expand operations.
HNP not only has a pool of local and foreign partners who are supporting different phases of the project, but in August last year it joined a team receiving support from the World Bank, InfoDev and Crowdfunding Capital Advisors to pilot crowd funding in Kenya.
“The sponsorship is for us a positive area of partnership and an opportunity to expand services we offer at the Town Centre,” Ms Neilsen said.
In the next one year, the center is expected to generate revenue to meet operational costs.
Part of the profit will be paid as dividend to members of the cooperative while the rest of the money will be invested in building a similar centre in another slum.