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Focus on urbanization

Around 3.5 million people live in Nairobi. That is to close to a 10 percent of the entire Kenyan population.

The percentage of Kenyans living in Nairobi is, however, set to increase drastically. This is due to the rapid urbanization in Kenya that has seen more and more people move to cities.

“By 2033 the country (Kenya) will reach a ‘spatial tipping point’, when half of Kenya will be resid- ing in urban areas,” observed Wolfgang Fengler, the World Bank’s Lead Economist in Trade and Competitiveness for the Western Balkans. Moreover, at least 63 per- cent of Kenyans will be living in urban areas by 2050.

Considering that Nairobi is vast- ly more developed than other urban areas in Kenya, it would be in order to hypothesize that a greater volume of Kenyan rural-urban migrants will opt for Nairobi as opposed to other destinations. The question that this begs is whether Nairobi is in a position to handle increased flows. Similarly, it would also be prudent to analyze the implications that an expanded urban population will have on the country.


The first thing that comes to mind when analyzing Kenya’s urban situation is the issue of housing. Decent affordable housing is one of the foremost challenges in Nairobi and other urban areas. It is actually estimated that up to 60 percent of people in Nairobi live in infor- mal settlements where basics such as clean water, sanitation and elec- tricity are an elusive luxury. These informal settlements are not only an eye sore, but also a great threat to the social and economic integrity of Nairobi and the country at large.

The national housing shortfall is estimated at 200,000 units annu- ally, according to data from the Lands Ministry. This housing deficit could widen in view of the projected increase in rural urban migration. Construction of affordable homes is therefore something that the gov- ernment and private sector ought to take seriously. In the latter case, the incentive is far much greater as the huge demand for housing makes perfect business sense.

Unfortunately, building homes in Kenya, more so in Nairobi, is not such as straight forward matter. The price of land in Nairobi has increased astronomically in the past few years. An acre that cost around Sh30 million eight years ago is now selling at Sh170 million, according to a 2015 report by Hass Consult.

High costs of buying land dis- courage many developers from pur-suing residential homes but rather opting for commercial development, which has higher rate of returns. Even when developers build residen- tial homes, they restrict themselves to the high end of the market where home prices and rents can make up for the cost of land.

Another great concern is also the cost of capital. Interest rates have historically been high in Kenya. 2016 is not expected to be any better and could actually be worse. This is because the U.S. Federal Reserve has committed to a policy of “gradual increases” in lending rates, a devel- opment that could prompt central banks all around the world (Kenya included) to increase their rates as well.

Because of factors such as the cost of land and capital, not to mention high cost of building materials, the idea of rolling out afford- able housing on a wide scale is impractical, maybe even utopian. For instance, a home price of between Sh1 to Sh 5million, though acces- sible to lower and middle income segments, is often not even remotely sufficient to cover construction costs. However, regardless of how difficult it is to make affordable housing a reality, the issue of housing must be tackled one way or the other.

Equally important but less stressed in public discourse is the need to redefine the modus operandi of urban planning. There is current- ly a very narrow focus on proving affordable housing without factor- ing in the necessary infrastructure and models that actually making affordable housing possible. Current models overlook the fact that proper housing goes beyond a house and also includes installation of a func- tioning sewerage system, access to water, street lighting and so on.

As an example, only 12 percent of land in the city’s core has been allocated to streets. The figure is even smaller at 5 percent in suburbans, according to the UN. Yet the UN emphasizes that a well- planned city should allocate between 25 percent and 30 percent of land to streets in order to allow for water and sewerage systems to be easily designed along street networks.

The structural errors in Nairobi’s urban plan will come to light once the population grows—as it surely will due to urbanization. Interestingly, this is a challenge not only faced in Nairobi, but also other African cities such as Lagos. The issue is that the urban plans are outdated and not in tune with today’s realities.

“The ongoing issues that cities like Lagos and Nairobi currently face are the results of early plans that took no account for an urban African future, as well as decades of planning regimes incapable of managing rapid urban growth,” remarks Kelly Doran, manager of East African programs at US archi- tects MASS Design Group.

Ultimately, Kenya will need to rethink its urban plan. Without a good plan, the increasing urban population will overwhelm the city’s infrastructure, not to mention increase social and environmental degradation. A good plan will help curb many problems, including pol- lution and poor sanitation.

“Well-planned and designed urbanization in Africa can be an essential part of the solutions to many of the problems facing the continent today, such as inefficient transport, pollution, unemploy- ment and social exclusion,” said Joan Clos, the Executive Director of UN-Habitat, the leading UN agency for sustainable urbanization.


Sustainable development

The increasing urbanization rate in Kenya should also prompt the government to look at things in light of sustainable development. Sustainability is an eminent theme in the current global order and the United Nations has already adopt- ed the 17 sustainable development goals set to run through to 2030.

One prominent theme in sustainable development is that of cli- mate change and the impact it has. Expectedly, climate change is strong- ly tied to urbanization. Cities, which cover less than 2 percent of the earth’s surface, consume almost 80 percent of the energy worldwide, and account for more than 50 percent of emissions.

One cannot therefore speak of urbanization without mentioning cli- mate change mitigation. For Africa, the stakes are particularly high as the continent is one of the most adversely affected by climate change due to a variety of factors, most notably the lack of effective and well-funded response mechanisms.

Carlos Lopes, executive secretary of the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Africa, projects that by 2025 Africa’s doomsday scenario could happen (rising sea levels, 20 percent loss of biodiversity and chaotic city life). This is, of course, assuming no serious action is taken to mitigate against climate change.

Despite the strong correlation between urbanization and climate change, slamming the brakes on urbanization is not really a solution. First, urbanization is actually a fancy name for migration. Migration is an inherently social and scientific process that is complex and intricate. It cannot therefore be stopped by policies—maybe influenced, but not stopped. Second, urbanization does have its benefits.

Cities are drivers of growth, par- ticularly with regard to providing a sizeable market for the retail sector and enhancing innovation. In the lat- ter instance, Nairobi provides a per- fect illustration. The city has become the one of the most eminent techno- logical hubs in Africa. “It is time to overturn negative perceptions and recognize that cities are also drivers of growth,” said UN-Habitat’s Clos.

Moreover, cities are centers of scholarship and advanced academic pursuits. Universities should there- fore look for solutions that pro- pose ways in which urbanization can be pursued with minimum environmental impact. Government can also pursue policies that allow for sustainable industrialization, so to speak. This can mean placing emphasis on greener and renewable energy such as solar. It can also mean encouraging practices such a water recycling.

Ultimately, the issue of tackling climate change within the context of urbanization requires political will. This is because it requires setting checks and balances that may be unpopular within the business class but ultimately beneficial for every- one in the long run.

In Rwanda, for instance, devel- opers of real estate projects are opt- ing for local construction materials rather than high carbon, imported materials. Understandably, there was initial resistance to this policy from developers, but sustained political will led to adoption. Similar policies would require even greater political will in Kenya as Kenya’s political environment is fundamentally differ- ent from Rwanda’s in that it allows for more debate.


Job creation

Another important discussion that cannot be pushed to the fringes when talking about urbanization is job creation. Growing urban popula- tions need sustainable employment. Failure to get work can translate into the usual but deadly social scourges of gangs, drugs and other vices.

Kenya already has a high unem- ployment rate, estimated at around

40 percent by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS). This rate could go higher if the over- whelming number of people moving to the cities are not absorbed into the job market.

How exactly the rural-urban migrants will be absorbed in to the job market is up for debate. What is clear is that there is very little room in the formal sector, which accounts for about 20 percent of the country’s economy. 80 percent of the rest of the economy is driven by the infor- mal sector.

The country therefore needs to place a sharp focus on small and medium sized enterprises and the broader informal sector. In this regard, the ease of accessing as well as cost of capital needs to reduce.

Another thing that must be con- sidered with regard to urbanization is that the trend often exacerbates existing inequalities. This is because it sustains the growth of a middle class while all too often pushing large swathes of the poor to the peripheries—at least this is what has happened in many countries with a large middleclass, with the notable exception of Scandinavian countries and Japan.

The outcome of this deeply entrenched urban inequality is that there are quite often two very differ- ent classes of people living in cities; one class has good education and competitive job skills while the other has limited skills and sometimes even more limited education.

A good job creation policy should therefore factor in the diversity of skills and differences in education level in the city and provide jobs for all skill levels. Only then can there be equitable distrubution of opportuni- ties and consequently more political stability.

Unemployment is an even graver concern when viewed within the con- text of global terrorism and radical- ization. Many unemployed youths, disillusioned and looking for mean- ing, often end up on the wrong side of history. Some join local terror groups such as Al-Shabab while oth- ers go a step further and align with far more sinister international outfits such as the Islamic State (IS).

A recent report by the Soufan Group, a consultancy, estimates that the cumulative number of foreign recruits to IS has more than doubled since June 2014, to a total of 27,000- 30,000. These foreign recruits have come from at least 86 countries, indicating the global appeal of terror to unemployed youth while at the same time challenging countries with soaring unemployment rates and growing and globally exposed urban populations to compound their job creation efforts.

Ultimately, the issue of urban- ization is one that requires deep thought. Its benefits are clear: larger market for retailers, bigger work force (and hence cheaper labor) for industries and so on. Its threats are also clear: pressure on housing and basic infrastructure, environmental degradation, and introduction of for- eign and hostile cultures, among others.

Such a complex issue   such as urbanization cannot be left to chance. “We (UN-Habitat) strongly believe that effective urbanization is a social achievement that is not reached by chance but by design,” says Clos. There simply has to be a very deliberate and guided response to the trend