What is incrementalism, part 2: Community-managed utilities in an informal settlement in Nairobi

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

Beyond informal militias and formal bureaucracies — bringing water to Kosovo

The divide between the “informal” and “formal” is commonly understood as that between risk and a sure thing. The “informal” is seen as messy and dangerous. But the story of Kosovo informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, shows that neither side of the divide can bridge the gap working alone.

We have written on this blog before about the need to understand incrementalism as a value for building inclusive cities and developing informal settlements in situ. The story of Kosovo shows how — step-by-step — informal communities and formal utility companies can work together to come up with innovative solutions to the provision of water, sewerage, and electricity.

Kosovo is one of 13 settlements that make up the informal Mathare region of the city. There are approximately 6,000 households in Kosovo.

Here, the Kenya slum dwellers federation, known as Muungano wa wanavijiji, has pioneered a solution that marries the ingenuity of the informal with the advantages of formalization. Provision of water in Kosovo had long been controlled by militia groups. In fact, says Irene Karanja, director of the Muungano Support Trust (MuST), “the militias had formed their bases around the services.”

For years, the Kenya Water Company had complained that they were not receiving revenue from Kosovo residents who had set up informal water connections. As Kosovo resident and Muungano secretary Jason Waweru describes it, “We said that both us have rights. So who is to say who has a more important right. So we opened a dialogue.”

Eventually, Muunagno and Water Company decided  on a system for reticulating the water to the community, facilitated by Muungano. “It wasn’t easy to come up with a consensus,” Waweru says. This “delegated management model” meant that the community in Kosovo would control all the issues surrounding distribution of the water, including communal collection of fees.

Yet doubts remained. “Everyone was scared,” Waweru says. “If we approved the delegated management model would it just allow more militias and gangs to step in?”

So Muungano and the Water Company agreed to first build a model kiosk in one lane of the community. This was a tough negotiation. The Water Company only wanted to install water points on the bulk pipes, and did not want to work with individual connections that hooked up to the bulk infrastructure. “We lobbied that every household should have its own connection,” says Waweru. “We were thinking of the old mamas that have to walk to get water.”

Without waiting for the Water Company, the community started to dig trenches to lay pipes for the individual connections. In doing so, they developed community structures dedicated to managing and maintaining the water supply. After the Water Company saw this work, it indicated its willingness to come on board.

In late May 2010, the community disconnected its informal water supply and installed the formal connections. 180 households now have individual connections, while the rest of Kosovo’s 6,000 households fetch water from kiosks, which serve community-determined clusters within the settlements.

For Waweru, this community-managed system was a big breakthrough for both the community and the water company in understanding how to deal with the gap between the way the two sides work. “When we were doing this project, it created its own community structure. You can see it working,” he says. “We broke the formal structure of administration, and the informal structure of the militia groups. Now we can see the community owning the process.”

A bridge yet to be built — formalizing electrical connections

When I spoke with Waweru in early March 2011, he pointed out that the achievements of the community of Kosovo to achieve sustainable access to services were only partial. “Currently the utility company has been arresting people for illegal electricity connections,” he says. “We are asking why people have illegal connections when there is a good electricity supply in the area.”

At present, the utility company has been uninterested in developing a system for formalizing the connections because the amount used per individual household is perceived to be too little to make the investment worthwhile. Yet, seen from the settlement level, the amount of electricity that the community uses is enough for the company to initiate raids by the police on a regular basis.

Muungano has worked with the community to do a survey of the way that electricity is used at the household level throughout the settlement. This has helped the community to begin negotiating with the electricity company to get enough supply into the settlement legally. The prices are not so high, only KSh 1700 per month (approximately USD 20).

So if the company would be willing to supply more amperes of electricity, community leaders believe larger informal businesses could grow in the settlement. Currently, there are only small business, says Waweru. When businesses want to expand they know that they have to go elsewhere in the city in order to grow.

The example of Muungano’s work regarding the water connections is serving as a powerful model for building trust between the community and utility companies, which is helping the ongoing negotiations. Before, “whenever the utility company would come to the settlement, people would run away, afraid of being arrested,” says Waweru. “Now people run up and ask how they can help.”

The challenge of going to scale

Muungano has been surveying the entire zone of Mathare at the rate of 10,000 households every 3 months. This is intended to contribute to a zonal plan, which is a joint exercise between the federation, MuST, and the planning department of the University of Nairobi. This will help figure out how to reticulate services through the whole Mathare valley, explains Karanja.

Although it is making significant breakthroughs in its work with the Kosovo community, the Water Company is realizing that it is not structured to respond to the scale of demand for formal services in informal settlements. Waweru explains that Muungano is employing GIS technology in its ongoing surveys in order to propose an alternative billing system that addresses the needs of both the communities and the Company.

The zonal plan will allow for a more holistic view of the challenges that exist in this populous region of the city. Step-by-step, the formal and informal worlds are letting go of their preconceived notions, and beginning to implement real, sustainable solutions. When informal settlement communities like that in Kosovo organize around concrete developmental objectives, they show the way forward for a formal world that is too often hoping for top-down silver bullets that never appear.  Together they are changing what informal settlements can mean to the development of cities.

What is incrementalism?


Pictured above: Residents of the Kambimoto incremental housing development in Huruma, a slum area in Nairobi, Kenya.

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

Top-down strategies for “eradicating slums” are seemingly always in vogue. Planners, government officials, commentators, and most non-governmental civil society actors, all aim for State-conceived, State-driven solutions to the “problems” of slums. Occasionally, we might hear about the potential of the social energy and even the density of informal settlements. But the solutions, we hear, must always come from the State.

But we can consider for a moment where these “formal” actors are headed, and from where they get their ideas. It is not the State. Governments of the Global South are quite evidently incapable of conceiving and implementing solutions without the people such policies are intended to address. The slums of the South are growing. And in the absence of effective State interventions, the poor — the world of the “informal” — are providing the vast majority of shelter solutions.

So “formal” actors — the State, planners, etc. — are getting their ideas from those who populate the world of the “informal” — the urban poor themselves. Instead of centrally-planned, greenfields housing developments, governments from South Africa to Kenya are talking about “slum upgrading” or “informal settlement upgrading.” In India, the term that most closely mirrors this is “redevelopment.” To varying degrees, policies that deploy these terms in each country are rooted in “informal” practice. Improvements in the living spaces where people already live.

But “upgrading,” while a step in the right direction towards more people-centered kinds of urban policies and planning, is often too vague. It can still mean big projects that results in the removals of many shack dwellers to new slums outside of the city to make way for improvements that often accrue only to a few of the original residents of the area. The goal of any kind of urban policy will always, at some point, mean fully-serviced and titled top-structure housing with secure tenure. Given the capacities of all the actors involved in the policies that would address that kind of goal, in addition to the magnitude of slums in most of the cities of the South, such achievements are still far off in the future.

The poor know this, and address it on a daily basis in the only way they can: incrementalism. To build incrementally is to live within one’s means, adding on and improving one’s dwelling and environment bit-by-bit. There are obstacles to this approach, namely lack of security of tenure. How can a person save to upgrade when he or she faces the constant threat of being evicted? But even without total security of tenure (i.e. full title), the poor are willing to build incrementally.

I wrote a couple months ago about the Federation incremental housing project in the Kambimoto neighborhood of Huruma in Nairobi, Kenya. There, each homeowner is building the floors of their houses day-by-day, making their own laddi bricks — an alternative egg-shell shape of bricks used for ceilings and floors for the first two floors of the houses — through exchanges with SDI-affiliated savers in India. The residents of this project do not have full title. What they do have is a memorandum of understanding with the city council approving the project. They also receive municipal services. This is just one example about how the poor are leading the way towards new understandings of tenure arrangements and how such attempts to provide security to the poor achieve great things on the ground.

The key is to enable the poor to enact the solutions they already have at their disposal, not to run over them with State-developed, new top-down plans. Even though “formal” actors are beginning to adopt the rhetoric of “upgrading,” they usually stray from its original “informal” meaning. “Informal settlement upgrading” still means programmatic, State-driven responses to urban poverty. The “informal” does not fit so easily with the strictures of the “formal.” Incrementalism gets brushed aside in favor of rhetorical slights of hand that only glance at the true intentions of “informal” solutions.

The issue of incrementalism got a high-profile mention this week in an article in the Financial Times’ latest installment of its special issues on cities. Heba Saleh reports on development plans in Cairo, where slum dwellers are getting pushed further and further out of the city, while more poor people push back into the city for jobs:

The result is that Cairo is ringed with extensive areas of densely inhabited slums, where the streets are often too narrow for cars to pass and no land has been allocated for services such as schools, hospitals, markets or parks. But affordability and proximity to jobs in the central parts of the city continue to attract people to these neighborhoods, where homeowners build cheap but sturdy housing, adding extra rooms or floors whenever they have the cash.

Laila Iskandar, a development expert who heads CID Consultants, argues that the dynamics in the slums have much to teach government planners when they lay down their schemes for the expansion of the city. “All they are thinking about is how to send people to live in the desert [around the city],” she says. “They still have a top-down European view of the city and they deny that migrants from the countryside need a style of housing that they are not planning for.”

“These people do not have lump sums to pay for flats, and mortgages are out of their reach. Rent is also too expensive for them. They need to be able to build their homes incrementally.”

In the coming months, we will explore this theme further, analyzing examples of incremental solutions, and the ways in which the “informal” world can lead the “formal” world to actionable solutions to the problems of urban poverty. Your comments are, as always, most welcome.