If you’ve ever visited the megalopolises of Nairobi, Lagos or Johannesburg, you are no stranger to the sprawling slums, shanties and make-shift housing on the outskirts of the cities. Although rapid, large-scale migration to urban areas in Africa is not a new phenomenon, the scale and pace of current urbanization is unprecedented. Africa’s population is predicted to explode to around two billion by 2050, almost double the current figure. By the mid-2030s, approximately 50% of all Africans are likely to live in a city – almost three times as many as in 1950.

According to UN-Habitat, around one billion people and a third of all urban dwellers in developing countries reside in slums. They are also most likely to be youth between 15 and 24 years of age. The biggest regions impacted are the megacities of Asia and Africa, where citizens face similar issues of access to quality and consistent services.

Although the rate of migration to slums in Asia is greater or equal to the pace of slum expansion in Africa, residents of informal settlements in sub-Saharan African are the least likely to reach development goals. Furthermore, in 2014, 25-35% of city residents lived in slums in Asia compared to 55% of urban residents in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the proportion of residents in slums decreasing, the overall numbers have increased.

As a result, migration to African cities has exponentially boosted the population of existing slums and created new informal settlements in urban capitals. These are essentially unregulated and semi-permanent residential areas. The result is overcrowding, increased pressure on basic services such as water and sanitation, housing, and transport, often leading to inequality of access and distribution, as well as health and social welfare issues.

Slums Are Not Simple

A slum household does not meet minimum standards, such as the ability to withstand extreme weather conditions, sufficient living space for all residents, and quality access and availability of water and sanitation services. Slums are also generally typified by lack of secure tenure. Municipal and national governments continue to struggle to provide sufficient services, both in terms of availability and quality. Some even deny the existence of slums or try to get rid of them by forced resettlement.


Considered one of the five worst slums in Sub-Saharan Africa, Misisi Compound in Lusaka is home to between 80,000-90,000 people. Misisi Compound, Lusaka, Zambia. CC by Adam Ojdahl.

The international and regional community are not blind to the difficulties that rapidly expanding informal settlements pose to cities. The inclusion of Sustainable Development Goal 11 to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable,” is testament to this, as is the African Economic Outlook’s focus on sustainable cities and structural transformation in 2016. Yet informal settlements are unlikely to be completely formalized and regulated, even with the maximum amount of government support and systemic infrastructure changes, largely due to the scale, scope and speed at which migration is occurring to and within African cities.

Acknowledging that slums are not just temporary, but will continue to be a normal result of the constant evolution of migration and change in rural and urban areas is the first step to finding workable strategies to manage them. First, it helps to understand the many factors that go into migration to slum areas. Some move to urban areas for greater job opportunities and to increase their social networks, while others are driven by the perception that basic services like housing, water, electricity and transport are of better quality and more accessible in cities than they are in rural areas.

Movement to urban slums is often seen as the first step towards getting out of rural poverty – a hope portrayed in many stories from the Slum Film Festival, which held its sixth edition in Nairobi, Kenya in June 2016, the theme being innovation and entrepreneurship in slums. One story is that of Nichanor Ochieng from Gitare Marigu Village in Dandora, Nairobi, who started a designer shoe collection inspired by football uniforms and gear. A tailor, he got the idea from observing fans and their clothes and shoes at matches. Realizing that they all had different shoe styles and colors, he went to get a pair made and closely followed the shoemaker’s technique and workmanship. He invested Ksh1,500 (around $15) to buy fresh, bright bold African print material and made his first pair.

Since 2014, Ochieng’ has had constant growth, with the majority of his customers being from the youth male demographic who play football. He has big plans: “I want to open my own factory where we will produce the shoes and other accessories in bulk so as to meet the high demand,” says Ochieng, adding: “I also want to employ youth so as to reduce joblessness which increases crime in my neighborhood.”


One of Lagos’ most famous slums, Makoko is built entirely on stilts on the Lagos Lagoon. Initially  founded as a fishing village, Makoko has since become home to upward of 80,000 people. CC by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

Yet the diversity of the different types of slum areas and the needs of the people living in them, as well as the ever-changing nature of migration, requires more than just the ambition of local residents. While slum residents must often be resilient and resourceful, they still require external assistance to provide opportunities and stability in terms of access and availability of basic services.

It’s not as if policy-makers haven’t tried to solve the issue. Resettlement schemes, upgrades to formal tenement housing and land titling projects have all been proposed as potential means to alleviate the challenges posed by slums. However, policy-makers may not succeed, as there are benefits as well as drawbacks to living in slums. In fact, many people opt to live in slum areas rather than formal areas for more than just economic reasons. Some of the benefits that do not exist in formal residential settings include positive features that are lost in the upgrading process rather than protected. Additionally, the burden of taxation and paying for services is often perceived as too high risk by those at the margin.

Secure Land Tenure & Slum Upgrading

Christine Wayua, a resident of Mukuru slum in Kenya, wants a firmer commitment from the government that their land is secure. “We need more guarantees that we will be able to occupy this land in the future,” she says. Joining forces to establish a Community Land Trust is the first step Mukuru’s citizens are working towards, which they believe will assist in protecting their rights to housing, water and sanitation services. This should lead, they hope, to stronger land tenure.

However, since slum areas are dynamic and fluid, the movement of people is constantly changing, and so are their needs and demand for services. This makes it difficult to collect information that is current and accurate. Also, many residents lack proper documentation for identification purposes, complicating matters and restricting effective planning. However, there are informal settlement communities that have robust local committees to manage the ins-and-outs of the residents and can provide some basic data, or sufficient proxies for the necessary data.

Governments also need to have the political will and capacity to implement policies that restrict private and commercial interests from impinging the rights of informal residents. Although slum areas often spring up in low-value, under-utilized spaces, many later become highly valued property earmarked for commercial development, and without protection, residents can be evicted.

Given these challenges, the social networks in slum areas should be fostered and harnessed in any plans for upgrading.


Nairobi’s Slum Film Festival. Courtesy of SFF.

Celebrating Colorful Slum Culture

Informal settlements may seem like disorganized and uncoordinated spaces, but there are often effective systems and processes in place in informal urban areas that may not be apparent to outsiders. In slums, diversity and resilience should be fostered and celebrated, not destroyed and homogenized. The African Slum Photo Festival held in December 2016 by the Mwelu Foundation was one such initiative to showcase not just the harsh realities of living in slums, but the vibrancy, joy and inspiration of being part of a dynamic community.

The challenge now for African municipal governments is to protect the social fabric that fosters positive relationships between different slum resident groups, yet disrupt the dynamics of criminality, monopolization of space by private or exclusive groups, and excessive commercialization of property at the expense of social and economic equity.