Poor economy, transport drive Nairobi's poor to the brink

Saturday June 15 2019

Residents of Huruma Estate in Nairobi walk to work while others go about their business on June 2, 2019. Economic inequality is straining many families. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Mr Bernard Aduwa, 38, a resident of Mathare North in Nairobi’s Eastlands area, walks for nearly 30 kilometres every day to and from work.

The painter who works along Mombasa road, about 15 kilometres from his residence, cannot afford to pay daily fares amounting to Sh300, as that is half of what he earns in a day.

“Many times in a month, I have to walk to work. I only take matatus during the first four days after earning my salary, but in the remaining days I choose to trek so as to save for food and school fees for my children,” the father of three said.

He longs to shift his family to a house closer to his place of work, but he does not have the means.

“I don’t know whether this situation will ever change. The population in the neighbourhood is growing by day, economic times are becoming tougher; yet we hear each day that monies are being stolen by the corrupt in the government,” he laments.



Mr Aduwa is one of the millions of Nairobians who walk to work, either because they cannot afford fares or due to the disorganised nature of the public transport system.

The irony of the city under the sun, where traffic snarl up is the biggest nightmare, yet approximately half of the residents walk to work.

Much as Nairobi is known to be the London of East Africa, disorganised public transport system is the bane of its development as depicted by the recent report by the United Nations (UN) Habitat on “Urbanisation Trends in Kenya”.

Mr Thomas Chiramba, a senior regional settlements officer at the UN-Habitat, said that people walk because matatus and boda-bodas are not always enough and affordable for low-class citizens.

Those affected are mostly slum dwellers and youth with no gainful employment. “Majority of the trips made in the cities are on foot, estimated at 47 per cent in Nairobi due to inefficient public transport,” said Mr Chiramba during the first UN-Habitat assembly that took place in Gigiri two weeks ago.

Walking to work has become a norm for a number of residents of Kibera, Kariobangi, Mathare, Huruma, Kiamaiko, Baba Dogo and generally youth with no gainful employment.


The affected told Sunday Nation that they walk to work to save some money for food and to sustain their families.

Mr Daniel Ochieng, 37, has had to learn to race almost half a marathon every morning, from Huruma area to Lungalunga road where he does informal jobs.

“We walk for 18 kilometres every day. As if that is not enough, we also skip lunch, not because we like it. Life has pushed us to the wall, yet our families are looking expectantly at us for various provisions,” said the father of three.

He and his friend at times have to time long distance trucks heading to Industrial Area and clutch on the metal bars at the hind without the knowledge of the drivers.

“Have you ever seen people hanging behind fast moving trailers? Those are us. We wake up so early to catch a free ride and if you arrive late, you will be unlucky,” he said.

Ms Daisy Awuor makes broken trips, part of it in a matatu, walks some distances and uses whatever other means is convenient to get to her destination on time.

“I run a hotel in Mathare, and I have to go out every morning to shop for the day. I often make broken trips to Burma market, walking for some distance, using a matatu for some kilometres and sometimes using boda-boda to get my goods to the hotel on time,” she told Nation.

“On a good day, you’d find matatus, but at times you have to wait for several hours due to poor connectivity in this area,” she said.


She recalls a day she had to walk her children to school in Pangani, four kilometres away, because there was a traffic snarl up that lasted many hours.

Mr Raphael Obonyo, a policy specialist and member of The UN-Habitat youth advisory board, said the inequalities whereby the rich have several cars causing a jam, and the poor have no means to move around is as a result of poor planning.

“It is important to take into consideration the various groups of people and demographics — youth, women, senior citizens and people living with disability,” he said.

He said the country should make deliberate efforts to invest in safe, secure and reliable public transport.

“Unreliable transport is what pushes everyone to rush to buy a car. Those personal cars populate the city, but majority of the residents don’t even have proper lanes to ride bicycles as it happens in London and other cities,” he explained.

Affordable public transport is one critical aspect the UN-Habitat is keen to fix in the New Urban Agenda.

It is also keen on eradicating slums, affordable housing and sustainable planning of towns with a focus on proper sanitation.


The urban trends also show that 34 per cent of the Kenyan population currently live in urban areas and the rate is growing at five per cent per annum.

Further, a whopping 56 per cent of the urban dwellers (6.4 million people) live in slums.

There is an annual deficit of 200,000 housing units pushing most people to live in the slums. Main cities and urban areas in Kenya account for 70 per cent of the Gross Domestic product.

Urban population with access to improved sanitation is 29.8 per cent, while the urban population with access to improved water sources is only 27 per cent.

About 50 per cent of the population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050. “If current problems are not solved, with the anticipated population surge it’s going to be impossible to live in Nairobi,” said Mr Obonyo.

At the UN-Habitat Assembly, a high-level panel chaired by UN Resident Coordinator Siddharth Chatterjee, discussed how to eliminate such societal inequalities.


They cited a World Bank report indicating that a million of Kenya's youthful population (65 per cent) enter the workforce annually, but only one in 10 of them find gainful employment.

Due to lack of job opportunities, the average age for employment of youths is also delayed up to the age of 30.

Mr Chattarjee said that the urban transformation agenda would be incomplete if the youth are left out.

“We have to look at urbanisation from unorthodox way, whereby we transform the suburbs by generating job opportunities, knowledge and equity so that people will not see the need to go to town to work,” he said.

“Let us embrace urbanisation that takes technologies and innovations to actual places where people live, so that a young farmer in Eldoret has the same pride as a young doctor in Nairobi. Without which we will have an overpopulation of the city,” said the UN resident coordinator.


But as the city’s population rapidly grows, one concern that seems to defy every strategy is the heavy traffic.

Most Nairobi residents dread mornings and evenings due to impossible gridlocks.

Roads have been expanded, bypasses constructed at a cost of billions of shillings but the problem does not seem to go.

The latest proposal is the much touted Bus Rapid Transit expected to increase transport reliability, reduce travel time, cut air pollution and generally improve the quality of life for commuters.