More than half of the urban population in East Africa’s largest economy live in slums

Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, is one of the largest in Africa.
Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, is one of the largest in Africa.
Image: Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi
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By most appearances, Kenya seems to be doing pretty well. The East African economy is commonly sited as one of the few bright spots on a continent where some of the largest economies are struggling just to escape a commodity downturn.

The World Bank said this week that it expects Kenya to grow 5.5% in 2017 before picking up to 6.1% by 2019, helped by a healthy services industry, a growing tech hub, and major infrastructure projects. One of Kenya’s strengths is that unlike many of Africa’s powerhouse economies it is fairly diversified across several industries. This means the downturn in global commodity prices has not had as significant an impact on Kenya.

Yet, despite Kenya’s growth and status as East Africa’s large economy, 61% of Kenyans in cities live in slums, a figure that’s likely to get worse as Kenyan cities add 500,000 people a year. In Nairobi, a lack of affordable housing has made it one of the most expensive cities in Africa.

The country’s quick pace of urbanization is supposed to be an engine for growth. Yet, Kenya, along with almost every other country on the continent, doesn’t have enough jobs for its young people—those under the age of 30, who make up 75% of the country’s population and move to cities for jobs.

Every year more than 1 million young Kenyans join the job market and almost 50% of university graduates were unemployed in 2015, according to a survey last year by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University. Kenya has the largest number of jobless youth in East Africa.

It’s not just that there aren’t enough jobs. There aren’t enough good jobs. Less than a quarter of Kenyans in urban areas work in the formal job market. The rest are self-employed, take wages in informal odd jobs, or do unpaid work for family members in the retail or wholesale trade. And despite Kenya’s increasing levels of education, the majority of these jobs don’t use skills beyond basic numeracy, according to a World Bank report (p.11) last year.

Even young professionals who do find formal work are paid little. According to a recent survey of online job adverts between 2012 and 2016, 50% of jobs in Kenya’s five largest cities including Nairobi paid less than 25,000 Kenyan shillings (about $250) a month.