DIY lessons for South African Slum Dwellers

by James Tayler

By Louise Cobbett, SDI Secretariat 

In Huruma, one of the many slums in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, six savings schemes work with the Akiba Mashinani Trust. These residents are part of an ambitious community led housing project. A group from South Africa’s Informal Settlement Network went to visit the project in early July to learn from their experiences.

The Huruma residents’ first step was to look at the land they were sitting on and form an advocacy team in order to negotiate with the landowner. The process took three years before they could an agreement with the landowners. The agreement was applicable for all 6 settlements, and they have signed a MOU with the Nairobi City Council.

The residents of the Kambi Moto neighborhood in Huruma retained leadership of the project even during a highly technical phase of building design when they ‘dreamed up their houses’. The houses were built based on the plans that emerged: semi-detached multi-storey structures, with the possibility for incremental additions upwards.

At first, the community appeared to be particularly unprepared to begin construction. For a long time, residents focused on the theoretical challenges that could come from the housing project. The found that once they started to build, a lot of the questions were answered and it proved to be the catalytic process for the federation. Membership to the savings schemes also increased with the tangible signs of progress within the settlement. The planned number of houses within Kambi Moto is 270.

Quite often when development happens without the community’s direct input, the houses do not make sense for the community in terms of its ability to pay and willingness to use the structures. The residents of Huruma were able to avoid those problems by building incrementally. Each structure, which can reach up to four floors, costs about $2,000.

The community is required to provide the manual labour, which drastically cuts the cost of the structures. They begin with starter houses, which is a ground floor structure consisting of a living area and a kitchen. The second level is a bedroom and a shower/Indian-style toilet. Because of limited space, they have made the effective use of what does exist by using the roof as a place to hang washing or keep chickens. After the family has saved enough, it begins construction on the third and fourth levels. Ultimately, it means that if the family, for whatever reason, does not complete the later levels; the house does not feel incomplete.

One of the most significant lessons to come from the exchange concerned architecture’s role in the process. By having the communities discuss their dream houses, it created a space in which the community were a part of a relatively technical process, and architects could work with the community to articulate the community’s desires fro the development.

The aim of these designs is to build as part of the city, rather than to look at it in isolation. The buildings become a manifestation of the slum dweller’s contribution to the city, solidifying their presence. And these tested community initiatives can serve as the basis for reorganizing cities, as the aim is not to simply construct houses, but to build the community and networks.