alexa How numbers game turned Kibera into ‘the biggest slum in Africa’ - Daily Nation

How numbers game turned Kibera into ‘the biggest slum in Africa’

Sunday September 12 2010


It is now official: Kibera is not the biggest slum in Africa. The 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census shows that one of the world’s most famous slums houses just 170,070 residents, not one million, as previously believed.

While many may dispute these figures, I find it highly unlikely that the margin of error in the census was so huge that the population of a settlement dropped dramatically to one-fifth of its previous estimate in just a few years – unless the drop can be explained by a natural disaster or epidemic.

The more likely scenario is that, in the absence of authoritative statistics, the population figure for Kibera was entirely made up to suit the interests of particular groups. And because no one publicly challenged the figures, a lie became the truth.

Let me confess at the outset that I am among those people who have published inflated population estimates for Kibera without having any solid evidence to back up the figures.

In the 2007 edition of the ‘‘State of the World’’ report published by the Worldwatch Institute, for instance, I stated that population estimates for Kibera ranged from 400,000 to 600,000.

These figures were based on documents published by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), where I had worked for several years.


One such report published jointly with the government in 2001 estimated Kibera’s population to be 377,624. This figure was close to the one cited by the then Permanent Secretary for Planning, Mr David Nalo, who, in a 2002 unpublished technical report, estimated the number of Kibera residents to be around a quarter of a million.

The latter figure is close to that of the Map Kibera Project, which in 2009 used a mapping technique to come up with a fairly accurate population estimate of between 220,000 and 250,000 for the settlement.

But some time after 2004, when the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (a project implemented jointly by the government and UN-Habitat) was launched, population estimates for Kibera started to rise dramatically, and before we knew it, the slum was being touted as one of the largest in Africa, a claim both UN-Habitat and the government appeared to endorse.

A UN-Habitat brochure entitled “UN-Habitat and the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme” published in 2007 states that “Kibera…is the second largest informal settlement in Africa” and “the estimated total population in the settlement ranges from 600,000 to 1,000,000 inhabitants”.

NGOs added fuel to these figures, and by 2009, Amnesty International was reporting that one million people lived in what had by then probably become the most filmed, researched, photographed and visited slum in the world.

Before we knew it, the figure spread like a virus, giving Kibera the unenviable reputation of being the biggest slum in Africa, if not the world.

However, even within UN-Habitat, there was no consensus on what the actual figure might be, nor was there any attempt to conduct a survey to determine the population. Quite often, the figure varied depending on which section of UN-Habitat was publishing it, and for what aim.

This problem was compounded by the fact that there was no official publicly-available database within the organisation that could provide numbers for the settlement, which meant that different sections within the same organisation used different figures.

The inflated figures were not challenged, perhaps because they were useful to various actors. They were useful to the government and to UN-Habitat, who probably used them to solicit more donor funds for slum upgrading.

They were particularly useful to NGOs, which used them to “shock” charities and other do-gooders into donating more money to their projects in Kibera.

(In a brilliant expose of the numbers game, Nation writer Muchiri Karanja found that there are between 6,000 and 15,000 NGOs working in Kibera alone. In other words, there is at least one NGO for every 30 residents.)

Journalists too, used the figures to write up stories on the horrors of urban Africa.

But these “stakeholders” need not lose heart. As a Nation reader satirically stated, if they try hard enough, they can still “uplift Kibera to be the biggest slum in Africa”.