STANDING on a muddy patch of grass in Mathare, a district in the eastern part of Nairobi, Kevin surveys his handiwork. From an electricity pylon, a thick bundle of crudely twisted wire hangs down into a tin-roofed shack. From there it spreads to a dozen more. Single wires run perilously at eye level over open sewers, powering bare light-bulbs, kettles and blaring speakers. In exchange for a connection, Kevin and six of his friends collect 200 shillings per month each from about a hundred shacks in his corner of the slum. To protect the business, the gang pays off police officers and intimidates the competition. The connections, Kevin insists, are cheaper than official ones, and safer too. The rotting body of a fried rat near one of the lines suggests otherwise.
So goes the provision of public services in Nairobi’s poorest districts. These warrens of shacks and crudely built apartment blocks are home to 40% of the city’s population, according to one recent World Bank survey (others put the figure even higher). As the city’s population has exploded—from a third of a million at independence in 1963 to over 4m now—so too have the slums. Across Africa, they are the primary way by which hundreds of thousands of people have escaped even greater poverty in the countryside.
By 2030, half of Africa’s population will live in cities, up from a third in 2010. According to the UN, two-thirds of that growth will take place in slums. Between 1990 and 2014, the continent’s slum population more than doubled, to some 200m people. Finding ways to improve slums will be one of the most pressing problems of the 21st century for African governments.
There for a reason
Slums grow because they provide something poor people need: affordable housing near to work, schools and public transport. Perversely, for such a poor continent, African cities tend to be sprawling and car-dependent. From Lusaka to Lagos, suburban housing estates and shopping malls, seemingly transplanted from Houston or Atlanta, are springing up at the edge of cities. But the vast majority of Africans cannot afford cars. In Nairobi, slums are among the very few places close to jobs where it is possible to go shopping, watch a film and get a street-side meal, all without having to get into a vehicle.
The need to be near jobs helps explain why slums often sit next to staggering wealth. In Nairobi, Mathare is wedged between Eastleigh, a bustling Somali commercial hub, and Muthaiga, a luxurious country club popular with white Kenyans. Alexandra in Johannesburg, a township of tin shacks, is at the edge of Sandton, the city’s poshest office district. In Lagos, a megacity where two-thirds of people live in slums, Makoko, a collection of shacks built on stilts in the lagoon, sits under the city’s Third Mainland Bridge, across from which new office buildings rent for vast sums.
Africa’s slums are full of enterprising people. But they are also deeply dysfunctional places, where much of the population lives in a Hobbesian world of exploitation. It is not just electricity that is provided by violent cartels; so are water, rubbish collection and security. The state scarcely enters: in most slums, healthcare and education are provided privately or by charities, if at all. Diseases such as cholera and HIV are rife. There is often little in the way of a legal system to protect property rights. Instead, well-connected landlords make fortunes renting tiny patches of land to people who have nowhere else to go.
And slums are violent. In Nairobi the cartels fight vicious turf wars with each other. Some, like the Mungiki, a Kikuyu mafia, are organised on ethnic lines. In Lagos, local chiefs called “baales”, who dress like mob bosses and expect tributes from residents, run slums like Makoko. Cops are unwilling to go in, except occasionally to extract bribes or to shoot a suspect. Politicians do enter: an abundance of unemployed young men are easy recruits to gangs raised to intimidate opponents.
Perversely, slums are also expensive. In Mathare, options range from a shared space in a wooden shack on top of an open sewer with no water or electricity for Sh700 per month ($7) to a relatively clean room in a compound with a light bulb and a shared outside toilet, for Sh3,000. That may seem cheap, but slum landlords are doing much the same as Western consumer businesses do in Africa: packaging their product up in tiny enough bites for the poor to afford it. And just as a hundred tiny sachets of washing powder cost more than a single large box, so too with land. According to Jacqueline Klopp, a researcher at Columbia University, per square foot of land rented, Nairobi’s slum residents could well pay higher rents than some of the city’s wealthy expatriate workers.
Why can’t slums be cleared? African governments often see slums as an eyesore and would like to do just that. In Nigeria, the Lagos state government has become notorious for waking up slum-dwellers on the most valuable patches of land with bulldozers. When the government wants the land, people are simply kicked off and expected to find new homes. In Kigali, Rwanda’s spotlessly clean capital, taxi drivers point out patches of neat grass where slums have been torn up. Less authoritarian governments, such as Kenya’s, have tried to “upgrade” slums by building newer, better housing.
Yet when slums are demolished, other ones become more crowded. And new housing is often too expensive or isolated from services for slum residents to benefit. In Kibera, another Nairobi slum where the government has built smart apartments nearby, they are lived in by middle-class newcomers. Those few residents who were upgraded preferred to sublet their new homes.
According to Sumila Gulyani, a World Bank researcher, slums tend to improve when their residents have an incentive and the money to invest. If people either own their property, or rent for long periods, they spend more on improvements and take care of their surroundings. Over time, that can produce better areas. The problem with many African slums, she says, is that people rarely live in one place for more than a few years. While they are there, landlords and cartels, who have little incentive to invest, extract the money they make from them. In many cases, improvements—such as proper piped water—brought in by well-meaning outsiders, are vandalised by the cartels.
If government treated slums as real city districts, they might improve. In Mathare, there is some reason to be hopeful. Though shacks still predominate, some taller buildings have been going up, with more space. In his shack, Crispin Adero, a 20-year-old construction worker, has plastered the walls with posters of Manchester City football players. Music plays from a television connection to a satellite tuner. A ladder leads to an upstairs room, which Mr Adero shares with his wife. He built it himself, having made a deal with his landlord to share the costs. Life, says Mr Adero, “is OK.” But not everyone has such luck. And outside, sewage still runs in the street