Voicing the urban poor: New report highlights experiences from an energy justice programme

A new report published in the Field Actions Science Reports aims at voicing the urban poor and their experiences from the Energy Justice Programme.

Authors David Sheridan the Slum Dwellers International (SDI) Energy Justice Programme (EJP) coordinator, Mwaura Njogu a Renewable Energy Engineering Consultant, Andrew Maki the Co-director of Justice and Empowerment Initiatives (JEI) and Frederick Agyemang the Project coordinator EJP Ghana all work within the SDI Network.

SDI is committed to project typologies that produce learning at scale around clean energy access as part of our informal settlement upgrading agenda and empower the urban poor. Since 2014, we have been actively involved in the field of access to energy in Africa, India and the Philippines with our SDI Energy Justice Programme leverages community-led collection of disaggregated energy access data, community empowerment programmes and pro-poor access models. With the growing need for access in slums, our model offers bottom-up, innovative and adaptable methodological options for catalysing pro-poor change at settle, city and global levels.

Read the full report here.

The EJP is a demonstrative case study of SDI’s actions to improve access to essential services in slums and thereby empower the urban poor. The programme uses all of SDI’s tools, including the Know Your City (KYC) data collection programme, to generate grassroots and tailor-made solutions to energy access in slums. 

Energy for the urban poor

Energy is a key condition for developing essential services in these neighbourhoods. SDI’s EJP has active projects in 12 countries, namely Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, India and the Philippines which has enabled affiliate federations to provide improved energy access. Approximately 25 000 distinct households with nearly 100 000 beneficiaries in total benefitting from the improvements. 

According to the report, lack of access to sustainable energy is a significant barrier to slum development. The EJP sets out to leverage SDI’s core rituals of community-led settlement profiling, women-led savings groups and peer-to-peer exchanges to develop innovative solutions to critical service delivery gaps and scalable energy access projects to integrate into wider settlement upgrading programmes.

Data products produced as outputs from the EJP, such as this report, are vital tools for influencing and negotiating with key stakeholders.

The longstanding work of SDI’s Kenyan affiliate with the Nairobi City County Government (NCCG) resulted in the Mukuru informal settlements being designated as a Special Planning Area in 2017. This breakthrough subsequently demonstrated the application of community mobilisation methodologies and participatory approaches to slum re-development planning and implementation. In collaboration with NCCG, Kenya’s SDI affiliate coordinated the work of developing a comprehensive spatial plan for the redevelopment of Mukuru.

This model is a great example of utilising SDI’s work as evidence and negotiating with influential decision-makers. 

The report highlights, that SDI’s Energy Justice Programmes ratchet effect which reveals that the evidence can be used to influence decision-makers, and cooperate with them (public, private, local and international), which can result in the adoption of contextual legal frameworks, just like Mukuru SPA and may assist in guaranteeing the institutionalised co-creation process in the long-term. 


The report emphasises some key learnings in terms of project design and impacts, which were identified between the inception of the EJP and now. According to the reports, there is no “one size fits all” approach to a project. The authors do not propose a unique solution to each context, but rather a strong methodology to legitimise each energy solution emerging from and required in a specific context. 

Savings groups can fund solar energy systems. Within the SDI network, savings groups have been particularly adapted to the improvement of energy access in African slums. These groups can be a practical financing solution, especially for the EJP, with the model itself being easily replicable and adaptable. 

Training community members on the technical aspects of solar systems is integral to the implementation plan. 

Solar energy systems have great spillover effects. The transition to low-carbon energy systems is increasingly considered an important point in delivering energy for urban-poor communities. This recognises that communities must play an instrumental role in the implementation and management of these energy transitions. Thus far transitions have been slow, but by including communities to drive and co-create the opportunities for energy transitions, the adoption of innovative technologies may be accelerated, and more inclusive in terms of policy development and it enables capacity and skills building to support new and current economic activities. 

Download the full report.

Responding to COVID-19 in a high-density low-income district in Mumbai

A representative from a grassroots federation in Mumbai describes how the community is self-organising for an effective COVID-19 response. This text is drawn from an interview with Selvi Manivanan Devandra conducted by Sharmila Gimonkarpril. Selvi is a community leader with Mahila Milan, a federation of women’s savings groups, active in housing and basic service issues. Indian Oil is the name of their cluster of tenements. Sharmila has been working with Sparc for the past 30 years.

Photo 3 Selvi MM meeting1

My name is Selvi. For four years I have lived in Indian Oil building No. 8/C, room No. 304. Most residents of Indian Oil are people who were displaced by city and state government projects, including many pavement dwellers. Previously, I was staying in slums near Kokari Agar.

I have three children. One daughter is married, and my other two children are college students. My husband works as a security guard. I have been working with Sparc and Mahila Milan (MM) for the last 9 years.

Coordinating and communicating through WhatsApp

With the outbreak of COVID-19, all MM leaders took on responsibility for planning relief work in the area and to coordinate with Shekar from the National Slum Dwellers Federation and local politicians (Aktar Khureshi and Abbu Azmi). Most buildings have an MM leader, and each leader is in touch with a central committee. Previously, we were not involved with the central committee since we didn’t like the way they worked, and we worked to our own guidelines. But now with the challenge of COVID-19, we all agreed to come together and work for the people. We created a communal WhatsApp group, and whatever the committee decides, we come to know about it.

First we set about helping the many people who hang around because they don’t have any work. When the police visit our area, all these people run into the various tenement buildings. We decided to open the building gates at given times i.e. 8.00 to 11.30 in the morning and 6.00 to 8.00 in the evening. Now, with permission to enter buildings at certain times these people avoid running into trouble with police who are monitoring the area.

Photo 1 Tenements at Indian Oil Nagar

Supporting the vulnerable to self-isolate

Next we set about helping families in greatest need. This includes families that have been unable to pay maintenance charges for the last two months or so, those who are handicapped, medically unfit and senior citizens. Also those who share accommodation and have small children, and to such people and families, we give preference. Through the WhatsApp groups, we sent the list of these families to Shekar sir and the local councillor so the families can be registered as needing help. To minimise the chance of virus transmission we asked people, using WhatsApp, to stay in their houses and explained we would bring goods to their doorstep. The building president also takes responsibility for sharing all the information.

Approximately 10,000 families reside in Indian Oil, making up a huge population of around 25,000 people. The councillor provides only 200 packets per day; this is distributed to those families on the list provided by the society leaders. My son has been given an ID card (required to access subsidized food rations) and goes to Shivaji Nagar to get cooked food packets in the afternoon and at night. It is mostly families that live here. Of course, there were many men who used to stay alone here but now they have gone home, back to their families.

Shutting the local market was a priority: people were gathering around the shops or vegetable vendors and so risking the virus spreading. We asked the city government and police department to help us to shift the market to an open space nearby. It would open at specific times and the MM leaders would help check that people are maintaining a safe distance between each other.

A local politician (corporator) arranged for masks and for cooked food to be provided. And for food packets for 300 families including rice, dal (two types), sugar, wheat, oil and bottles of sanitizer. The corporator has also given equipment to sanitize our area, since the city government lacks this.

Photo 2 Tenements at Indian Oil Nagar

Trusted by the inhabitants and the authorities

Previously police would not allow us to leave our houses to check on families or bring food to their doors. We explained that if we didn’t, families wouldn’t get food, and that if we could deliver food to their doorsteps, they wouldn’t need to come out and risk virus infection. The police began to understand that we leaders have an important role. Now we help them maintain the law and deal with crime in the area. They regularly visit our areas which prevents people hanging around.

The MM leaders build lists of how many families are in crisis, what kind of job the head of the family does, and of how many family members. We have been working in this area for 4 or 5 years so are familiar with most of the families in our building and our neighbouring buildings. We open our office at certain times so all leaders can come and submit their lists. Then we sit with Shekar sir and decide how and when we can provide them with food grains.

Shekar sir informs us leaders of the time to come to the office and collect the food. With this crisis, we have started collecting names of those families who don’t have a ration card and those families who have ration card but are not linked  an Aadhaar card [identity card] which means that they are unable to get food grains from the ration shops. The crisis has made us aware which families in our area who don’t have an earning member in their house, and so don’t have easy access to food.

Alert to the dangers of fake news

Many news items are running around on the TV channels, but some news is fake. Some say that by taking certain tablets then we won’t be affected by the virus. My neighbour, who works in the housekeeping department of a hospital bought me some tablets, telling me if I took them, I wouldn’t fall sick. I urged him not to give the tablets to anybody, explaining that they could be dangerous, particularly for people with diabetes, heart problems or asthma etc. I told him no tablet can cure this disease and to take simple precautions: only drink hot water, take a hot water steam every day and gargle twice or thrice with hot water and salt. Wash your hands regularly, don’t touch your face and stay away from others. This is only practical advice, not medication, but it is possible for us to do this at home.

Selvi Manivanan Devandra is a community leader with Mahila Milan, a federation of women’s savings groups active in housing and basic service issues.

With thanks to Slum Dwellers International (SDI) for their support in developing this blog. Please keep following SDI as we highlight the initiatives of SDI affiliates across Africa, Asia & Latin America in the fight against COVID-19 to support the most vulnerable throughout this pandemic.

Regional Learning from the West Africa Hub Meeting in Sierra Leone

Kroo Bay, Freetown, Sierra Leone

By Mara Forbes, SDI Secretariat 

Thousands of people living in informal settlements lack security of tenure placing them at high risk for forced evictions. In the past few months many SDI affiliates in West Africa have faced evictions – Badia East settlement in Lagos, Nigeria, Adjei Kojo settlement in TEMA municipality in Accra, Ghana, and Kroo Bay in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Most of the SDI affiliates in the West African region began in response to the need to organize communities to stave off eviction threats. In 2003, the SDI methodologies for fighting eviction through community-based data collection were introduced to community members in Old Fadama, the largest slum in Accra. The community was able to organize itself and conduct an enumeration that indicated that over 79,000 people lived in the slum, a number that had been grossly underestimated by government. The federation used enumeration findings to negotiate with government to find alternatives to eviction. The Federation has gained recognition and legitimacy as an organized network of poor communities that work with local government towards pro-poor development strategies. The response in Old Fadama can not only help other settlements in Accra and the rest of Ghana but can also serve as a learning experience to other newer affiliates in the region.

From the 10-14 of February this year, SDI delegates from West Africa – Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Togo, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso met in Freetown to for their regional hub meeting. The hub meetings provide a platform for regional affiliates to create and strengthen links across the region, to share and learn from each other, as well as support newer affiliate countries in developing their own local processes. West Africa, the youngest of the SDI regions, is still developing how to best strategically use this space to strengthen and support the region. This meeting focused not only on deepening the SDI rituals that are crucial for federation development, but also key issues facing the region such as forced evictions. Delegates of the meeting were able to see first hand the challenges Sierra Leone is facing. Not far from where the meeting was convened is Kroo Bay, a settlement that has faced multiple evictions over the years and was the site of a recent eviction.  

Kroo Bay is one of Freetown’s waterfront slums. Slums such as Kroo Bay are situated on land in which the occupants have engaged in the process of land reclamation by slowly adding soil and sand to build up and create new land on the coast. Although this is done with the slum dwellers own resources and time, government frequently claims ownership of this land. According to Freetown City Council (FCC), Kroo Bay is prime land and Government has the mandate to take back the land at any given time. A section of Kroo Bay settlement is built along the boundary of the most prestigious schools in Freetown, The Prince of Wales Secondary School for Boys. This is a school in which many previous officials or those with influence have attended. On Saturday, 25th January 2014 the Alumni Association of Prince of Wales used its influence to hire police, military and other individuals to vandalize and demolish the houses in this area. The action was undertaken on the assumption that this strip of land belongs to the school. However residents assert their claim to this land through the land reclamation process and that their presence has protected the school from flooding and rising sea levels. 

Eviction Site, Kroo Bay Eviction Site, Kroo Bay

As part of the hub meeting delegates participated in a field visit to Kroo Bay. During this time delegates were able to talk to community members and gain a better understanding of the challenges they face. Following these engagements, discussions at the hub focused on how best to move from a reactive response to evictions to proactive strategies that engage local government.

Sierra Leone, as host of the regional meeting, was able to use this platform as a means to strategically capitalize on its engagement with government. In December 2011 the Sierra Leone affiliate began negotiations with local government over the provision of a piece of land for a community-led housing demonstration project to benefit the slum dwellers of Kroo Bay. A series of engagement sessions were held and site visits were conducted. Given the high demand for land within the city centre, government through the Ministry of Lands could not identify a piece of land within the city center and ended up allocating a piece of land (2.5 acres) in Grafton community for the project. After multiple attempts to engage with local government over this piece of land the process had stalled. By hosting the hub meeting the Sierra Leone Federation of Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP) and its support NGO, Centre of Dialogue on Human Settlement and Poverty Alleviation (CODOHSAPA) were able to demonstrate to local government the power and strength of a network of organized slum dwellers, not only just in Sierra Leone, but also across West Africa.

The Deputy Minister of Lands, Country Planning, and Environment, Hon. Ahmed Kanu, paid a courtesy visit to the hub meeting where he expressed a recommitment to the project on behalf of government and the Ministry of Lands.  He expressed his delight to be part of the movement and shared how it fits into the country’s “Agenda for Change” program that aims to alleviate poverty, in which affordable housing is a key output. Additionally to show his support a meeting was held the following day to discuss the piece of land as well as an ongoing partnership with FEDURP and CODOHSAPA. A smaller team from the hub attended the meeting with the Deputy Minister and two surveyors to solidify the commitment from the Ministry. At this time the affiliate presented the Ministry with a communiqué calling on the Municipality to support pro-poor policies and practices by working with the federation as well as fulfill its promise and materialize its commitment by providing a piece of land for an affordable housing project. Media personnel were also present and captured the engagement, which ran on the evening news as well as in the local papers.

Awareness Times Hub Article

This momentum has opened doors to the Ministry and they now need to deepen and strengthen the relationship through continual engagement, not only around the piece of land but to strategically include the Ministry as a partner in other projects. Having an ally in the Ministry can allow the federation to scale its activities and projects from a settlement level to a citywide level.

Conversations are currently being held in Sierra Leone to think through how to strategically use this piece of land to promote a pro-poor urban development agenda. How this piece of land and housing demonstration project can be used not only to push the their agenda but to also be a precedent setting project that allows the federation and government to invest in similar upgrading projects across the city as well as in other cities. 

Through platforms like the hub, communities are able to share challenges and lessons learned to develop strategies that are responsive to their own local context. More established affiliates such as Ghana and their experience of engaging government around alternatives to evictions can be a tool to others who are still developing their own strategies. Crucial to this meeting was understanding how communities must evolve from short term reactive responses (providing relief after eviction) to a long term proactive strategies to engage and negotiate with government prior to evictions and develop pro-poor inclusive alternatives. 


Better Measures for Urban Quality of Life: The View from Below

**Cross-posted from Development Progress**

By Sheela Patel, SDI Secretariat & SPARC India

The current debates around the post-Millennium Development Goal development agenda include a vital focus on measuring change and — hopefully — progress. But there is an unspoken tension: the reality of local contexts is becoming less and less visible to increasingly globalised development agendas.

Social movements of the urban poor find themselves caught in the cross-fire of such debates. I have dedicated the past three decades of my professional life to working with the leaders of many such movements around the world, and this has been my experience. Real people, real families and real lives are subsumed into aggregated figures that mask local variations.

Almost all countries in the Global South, especially in Africa and Asia, are undergoing historic urban transformations. Yet many have national leaders elected from rural areas, and political parties whose leaderships persist in 19th- and 20th-century perspectives principally addressing rural development. We need measurements to assess whether politicians and administrations’ development policies are pro poor in urban areas.

International-development investments are focused on rural development, based on theories rooted primarily in rural experiences. Cities are seen by many as locations of economic growth, not locations for aspiration, opportunity, equity and inclusion. We need measurements that can inform indices for desired ends such as equity and inclusion.

I am not advocating that we throw out all existing poverty indices. Rather, I am absolutely convinced that these indices need to be adapted to meet the challenge of linking traditional measurements of poverty with new approaches to measuring urban quality of life. The prevalent informality of habitat and livelihoods in developing-word cities mean it is crucial to develop both measurement benchmarks and practical policy initiatives that make cities work for all who live in them. We cannot benchmark what is not comprehensively measured.

Another flawed global measurement concerns the universal dollar-based poverty line. This measurement has barely any relevance to the experience of people who contend with the twin challenges of poverty and inequality. Measurements of urban subsistence must be linked with macro-economic and financial trends such as inflation. Just one example is food inflation. In my country, India, the sudden quadrupling of potato and onion prices, due to an increase of fuel prices and speculative practices, has had a significant impact on what and how much the poor eat. The increasing number of malnourished children in urban areas makes this clear. However, universal poverty lines do not capture this very real effect.

Informal shelter strategies in cities are also invisible to such universal measurements. Those who live in homes with insecure tenure, under the ever-present risk of demolition and eviction, often use soft, impermanent material for house construction. These may have to be rebuilt after a monsoon, or on a seasonal basis, depending on the local climate. Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), the global network of grassroots urban poor federations, estimates that over 25 years, a family could build one good-quality home with those labour and material costs. This indicates there is an urgent need to measure the impact of evictions and of the destruction of habitat and livelihoods, often brought about by government agencies.

The global economic order is based on upfront capital investments that sit uncomfortably with urban-poor strategies to upgrade their lives incrementally from survival to stability. Households consolidate their home structures and upgrade them, especially those who have de facto security of tenure. In the absence of state support, this is how almost all informal households create shelter to meet their needs. But almost all government standards for habitat and all capital-investment strategies of accessing subsidies and finance for households needs, require capital to be ‘collected’ upfront and then repaid over 10 to 20 years. This is only possible if lending institutions feel secure in the applicant’s financial situation; and they are never satisfied if the applicant is employed in informal livelihoods.

Basic amenities such as water, electricity, sewerage and sanitation remain a major problem for most urban households. As long as informality renders urban populations invisible, data will be skewed and investment delayed. In some cities, the poor only began to receive water and electricity once state and private-sector companies realised that the poor were ‘purchasing’ these amenities from informal cartels at higher rates.  The Department for International Development and the World Bank have begun to incentivise electricity providers to reach the poorer consumers .

Measurements of sanitation access for the poor are incomplete. Further, aid agencies and foundations have worryingly chosen to focus on technical solutions to deficits in access to adequate sanitation. In so doing they ignore the primary drivers of the financial and political relationships that determine the extension of services.

More and more urban workers are employed in the informal sector. Where are the measurements of their impact on GDP, or to demonstrate that most poor people end up working from their homes? Furthermore these informal entrepreneurs are often vulnerable to a city’s punitive anti-hawking rules and can lose their capital investments when their goods are confiscated.

Governments are almost completely unaccountable to their poorest citizens. This is because they are disenfranchised in an underground system and the logic of cities is not easily accepted and measured. Corruption in high places is measured and quantified quite well. But the extent to which the poor pay for this in order to survive is rarely calculated in measures of governance.

Thankfully, I see practical seeds of hope every day amongst the communities in which I work. The poor survive often through collective processes, while governments and external investments in development overwhelmingly target individuals. Social movements [add link] of the urban poor are emerging mainly because urban changes are not impacting their lives. All over Asia, Africa, and Latin America, those fed up with systems are exploring different ways to seek change. Many have been patient for too long waiting for their national governments to wake up. Others, especially young people, are getting impatient. The poor may increasingly turn to violence as the only way to get the attention of their governments.

What the world needs now — and urgently — are new ways to track these processes, and to develop new paradigms of development that work for the poor, their communities and their cities.

Sheela Patel is the Founder-Director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation that has been working on housing and infrastructure rights for the urban poor for the past two decades. She is also chair of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI).


SDI Council affirms program of in situ upgrading, community planning, learning


By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

SDI renewed its commitment to a program of community-driven slum upgrading, planning, and learning, at the meeting of its slum dweller governing Council. The gathering of over 40 leaders of urban poor organizations from 13 countries in Africa and Asia, took place on 2 to 4 March in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Council is the governing body of SDI, and is made up entirely of community-based leaders in affiliated “mature” federations. During the meeting, the Council agreed that the SDI network should support a sustained process of action-based learning around in situ slum upgrading.

In many countries in the Global South, much of housing development that is designed for the poor, provides shelter at the periphery of cities, and often uproots communities. Further, these developments tend not to put a dent in the scale of informal housing that accommodates the poor in cities.

SDI’s Urban Poor Fund International (UPFI) provides finance for projects that affiliate poor people’s federations undertake to build a practical set of experiences for community-driven urban development. As a program of SDI, the Council agreed that UPFI must focus on projects that prioritize in situ solutions, including incremental provision of services and shelter improvements.

UPFI funds will also be used to support the emergence of “centers of learning” in seven cities throughout the SDI network. This means that federations will use funds to create a set of projects at sufficient scale to show how people’s organizations can work with their governments to begin addressing the monumental challenges of urban growth, and prevalence of slums.

Methods of community-driven development planning are an integral part of the upgrading projects that SDI-affiliated communities pursue. The Council therefore approved a program of exchanges around large-scale enumeration, self-survey, and mapping activities that are taking place in six cities in Uganda, Lilongwe (Malawi), and in the Philippines.

The Council also approved the induction of its 14th member, the Uganda Slum Dwellers Federation, which is active in 6 cities in the country (Arua, Jinja, Kabale, Kampale, Mbale, and Mbarara). Further, the Sierra Leone Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor will be invited with observer status at the next Council meeting.

The two-day Council meeting included a meeting of the Board to approve the Council resolutions, and was followed by a one day meeting of all the federations to discuss community-driven methodologies for monitoring and evaluation of their work. It was agreed that, in order to reach meaningful scale, federations have to continuously be self-critical of their methods for capturing learning, monitoring work, and then evaluating results.