Blocks of expansive flats, some eight floors high, welcome you to Nairobi’s Pipeline estate in Embakasi. It is broad daylight, but as you make your way up the narrow, steep stairs in one of these blocks, you are forced to use a light beam from your mobile phone because it is pitch black.
On the fifth floor, we find a “day-care centre”, where mothers who cannot afford a full-time minder leave their babies and young children yet to join school.
Inside the small poorly lit room are six children. A woman who gives her name only as Mama Angels explains that she charges Sh100 per day, per child, to babysit the children.
She knows the room is not exactly suitable for a day-care centre, but she points out that were it not for her, the mothers of the children she babysits would not be able to go to work. Neither would she be able to earn a living. The room doubles up as her home too.
On the balcony, the guard rails are spaced in such a way that a small child can easily pass through, falling to their death below. Such is the condition of many other apartment blocks in the area.
The poor roads connecting the estates are busy avenues where residents sell groceries and other food items and where mkokoteni pullers and hawkers ply their trade beside stinking garbage, with cattle and chickens feeding on rotten waste.
There are also hooting matatus and sometimes spilt sewage to contend with, turning the roads into a muddy mess. In spite of this, the roadside food stalls are busy, with sellers and customers going about their business, resigned to what they have been served.
There are no open spaces in Pipeline — the area is the same sea of apartment blocks duplicated everywhere. Not a single one has a lift, though many are between seven and nine floors high. The Building Code stipulates that any building above four floors should have a lift.
The one-room units rent for between Sh3,000 and Sh4,500, bedsitters for between Sh6,800 and Sh8,100.
“These are the most sought-after units here, only a few of the blocks have one and two-bedroom houses, and they remain vacant for a very long time,” says the caretaker, who insists that we refer to him as Jose.
Most of tenants fall in the low-income bracket, and are willing to put up with the “discomforts”, such as the filth that characterises this area, because the rent is affordable.
Almost every block we visit has a “medical clinic”, essentially three-room facilities that would not inspire confidence in a patient. Two of the four clinics we visit claim to be accredited by the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF). Some of the services they offer include “minor oral surgeries and tooth filling” and “obstetrician and gynaecology”.
Given their inadequate infrastructure, it is questionable whether such facilities meet Ministry of Health guidelines and licensing specifications.
For instance, where do such clinics dispose of their waste, since there are no formal systems of waste disposal in this estate? Moreover, none of these clinics has an incinerator, yet they are busy, going by the number of people that keep walking in and out, with some operating round the clock.
We were unable to reach the Nairobi County health department to inquire about the process of licensing such clinics and whether they all meet the minimum certification thresholds.
There are numerous private schools too, some just 500 metres apart. Some of the buildings, made of iron sheets, have multiple floors with narrow balconies and flimsy-looking guard rails.
We visited two such schools, their gates adjacent to each other on a muddy road where stagnant sewage and garbage have made a home.
We visited the once posh Buruburu estate too, which is nothing but a shell of its former self. A couple of years ago, this estate was a highly regarded middle-class residential area, just 10 minutes’ drive from the Nairobi city centre. It is where top civil servants called home, a quiet dwelling with green lawns and spacious compounds.
To make money on the side, homeowners have built business premises, such as kiosks, by extending rooms along their perimeter walls.
Others have built extensions next to the main houses, eating into their once spacious compounds. The lawns are no more, and Buruburu is gradually resembling a concrete jungle.
In some sections, one can spot the beginnings of illegal dumping, with garbage remaining uncollected for days.
Water rationing has become a way of life here, which was unheard of previously. As a result, rental income here has remained stagnant over the past three years.
“The selling point was the three-bedroom main houses coupled with spacious compounds with parking slots. Now tenants have to share the available space with occupants living in the extensions,” explains Mike Mulwa, a property agent.
Over the past three years, the rental cost for a two-bedroom house has remained at Sh27,000, with a two-bedroom extension attracting Sh20,000 in rent. “In such a location, one would have expected a rise of between Sh1,000 and Sh2,500 in each of the units. In some instances, homeowners have been forced to lower the rent,” he adds.
Buruburu is not the only estate in Nairobi grappling with lower property values. On the other side of Nairobi in Lavington and Kileleshwa, high-rise buildings have “disturbed” the life of the green leafy suburbs. Developers have put up luxury apartments, and with them new homeowners and residents.
This has seen an oversupply of rental space, with some houses remaining unoccupied or unsold for as long as three years.
In March this year, a Knight Frank Prime Global Cities Index (PGCI) report indicated that prime residential prices in Nairobi had slid by 6.5 per cent between March 2018 and March 2019. However, the report noted that the downward trend, which it attributed to an oversupply of prime residential space, began in 2017.
Perhaps it is time for Nairobi City planners and policymakers to sit up and take notice because the city is gradually losing its appeal in what could be attributed to poor management practices.