What I find most striking in the census figures released by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics on Monday is the population growth rate in our capital city. The number of people living in Nairobi, now at 4.7 million, has been growing by almost a million yearly — a scale of rural-urban migration that is unprecedented in recent history. In the previous census, in 2009, the city’s population was 3.1 million.
The paradox is that the unprecedented influx of people into the city is happening in the context of biting urban unemployment, poor infrastructure, deteriorating quality of health and water services, chaotic commuter transport services and dilapidated housing.
Nairobi is buckling under the weight of just too many people. One sub-county alone — Embakasi, in the Eastlands — now has a population of 988,000.
This is part of the area that includes the sprawling concrete jungles in densely populated places like Dandora, Umoja, Kayole, Tassia, Obama all the way to Chokaa and Ruai.
It seems that complex urbanisation trends are unfolding right under our noses and the sprawling concrete jungles of poorly planned houses mushrooming faster than the traditional slums with mud and tin roofs and walls. It all points to the growing “informalisation” of the urban economy.
The informal economy is growing much faster than the formal one. Which is not a good trend, because the growing informalisation of the Nairobi economy is why we see a lot of chaos in the city: The way we drive unnecessarily aggressively and without regard to traffic regulations, our propensity to walk on the road rather than the pavement and the matatu playing loud music and making maximum noise with the horn in silence zones are all examples of lack of discipline in the contemporary Nairobi society.
The rapid population growth in the city and the rising number of people working in the informal sector therein has political implications.
Our national capital is becoming more vulnerable to protests and streets riots, especially during elections. The rapid informalisation of the economy of the city is a political time bomb waiting to explode into an Arab Spring.
Urbanising is nearly 10 per cent of the population of the country. Our people are moving into the city in droves and putting enormous pressure on services.
More than at any other time, Nairobi needs informed leadership. The pity is that the bureaucracy running the city right now — the county government under Governor Mike Sonko — has proved to be totally bereft of new ideas.
Instead of seeking to develop an organised commuter transport service system providing scheduled services in all parts of the city at competitive rates while ferrying large volumes every day, the leadership has allowed the matatu sector to entrench itself and dominate Nairobi’s commuter sector.
Older residents of Nairobi will remember with nostalgia the days when you would wait at a bus stop knowing the exact time the bus would arrive — and leave.
That system worked because the city authority was a major investor in the public transport system and co- owned the defunct Kenya Bus Services with an international player.
Long before public-private partnerships became a fad in this country, Nairobi was successfully running a working model with the British firm Stage Coach.
The city authorities’ record on markets has been utterly dismal. It long gave up the idea of building markets, hence the rapid growth and expansion of hawking. Unplanned kiosks are mushrooming at very corner.
Chaos bedevils the business of oil marketing. Instead of branded petrol stations operating with strict standards, what you see are “independent” petrol stations. In Eastlands, non-branded stations are being built in the backyards of residential houses in heavily populated areas.
Nairobi needs leaders with new ideas, which will not come from the populists and demagogues running the county government today.
Which brings me back to the latest census. In the context of devolution, a national census is today a politically sensitive affair because it forms the basis of evidence-based sharing of revenues between counties.
But critics should not worry too much because today’s technology has made it possible to test the results of the census. In the technological age we live in, data from the census can be tested against more regularly and updated with databases such as electoral registers, Huduma Namba, birth registers and mobile phone companies and customer databases of utilities such as power and water companies.
Therefore, if you don’t like the numbers, approach the issue scientifically — not with political noises.