Nairobi: Innovative Technologies for a More Sustainable Future

By Seth Kerr

As Nairobi works towards implementing its mass rapid transit system and boosting its non motorised transport infrastructure, additional options are available to move towards a more sustainable city. These options include recycling tyres for pedestrians, energy generating sidewalks, solar powered bicycles lanes, water absorbing concrete and energy generating roadways.

Tyres for Pedestrians

Cities across the United States like Santa Monica, Seattle and Washington D.C. are using recycled tyres, and even recycled plastic, to build rubberized sidewalks. The idea came to fruition primarily in order to save trees from the damaging affects of concrete sidewalks. Small sections of rubber sidewalk are used near trees in order to save both the tree and the sidewalk from damage. Recycled tyre based sidewalks have a number of other benefits too:

  1. Flexibility to move not only with tree roots but also with shifting soil
  2. Safety by providing softer, smoother surfaces for pedestrians
  3. Porous material which allows rain water to reach the soil beneath the sidewalk
  4. Low maintenance requirements and often times low maintenance costs
  5. Reduced impact on peoples’ joints
  6. Environmentally friendly alternative to landfills and/or burning of discarded tyres

Now is an excellent time for Kenyan officials to look into how discarded tyres could help Kenyans instead of harm them. Kenya, as a whole, faces a significant problem from discarded tyres. In a report published in 2014 by the German company GIZ ‘34,000 tons of tyres were burnt haphazardly, dumped, destroyed or re-used by methods that pollute air, soils and ground water in 2010’. It is likely that these numbers have only increased since 2010.


Kenya generates tonnes of waste in the form of tyres that cause pollution Photo courtesy

GIZ partnered with Bamburi Cement LTD and other businesses to form Waste Tyre Management Kenya. The main aim of the partnership is to implement a sustainable waste tyre management system and to help the Kenyan government adopt an updated waste tyre regulation. The report states that ‘The cement industry is expected to be the main user for waste tyres in Kenya’ but why can’t pedestrians benefit from the re-use of discarded tyres too by turning them into sidewalks?

Problems to Overcome:

  1. For rubber sidewalks to be successful in Kenya, there would obviously have to be a market for them. City governments would have to be interested in purchasing them for installation. To date, there is no record of any Kenyan city using rubber sidewalks. With city governments becoming increasingly more cognizant of the need to provide quality infrastructure to pedestrians, this hurdle could likely be overcome with the right marketing especially with pedestrian oriented projects like in Ruiru, Kenya.
  1. Kenyan companies would have to produce these rubber sidewalks. Globally, there are many companies like Terrecon, KBI Flexi-Pave and Rubberway who make and sell rubber sidewalk materials but to import these to Kenya would be cost-prohibitive. Kenya has a burgeoning formal recycling industry and Kenyan companies like Eco-Sandals and Eco-Post  are already keen on ways to capitalize off of recycling. Why not add rubber sidewalks as one of many possible recycled-rubber or recycled-tyre product lines?
  1. The cost of rubber sidewalks is usually more expensive than brick or concrete sidewalks in the USA. This would likely be true in Kenya too. Many cities are investing in rubber sidewalks in small quantities because they are being marketed to have lower maintenance needs as well as to be more cost effective alternatives to traditional sidewalks. Evidence is showing that rubber sidewalks may not be as cost effective from a maintenance perspective in all cases.
  1. The main impetus for rubber sidewalks in the USA is the protection of trees. It is unclear how significant of a problem this is in Kenya especially outside of central business districts. Surely, the application of rubberized sidewalks can be up-scaled beyond just protecting trees especially in a larger scale effort to protect Kenya’s environment and people from improper tyre dumping and burning.

Recycling tyres generates business (Photo courtesy

Electric Generating Sidewalks

The company Pavegen produces flooring material capable of generating electrical energy through the footsteps of pedestrians. The technology has been used in plazas, train stations, shopping centers, airports and a variety of other locations across the world, including a project in Lagos, Nigeria. The technology can also be used to gather data on pedestrian or consumer behavior. In Nairobi, where nearly 50% of citizens walk and electricity is not always consistent, this technology could be incredibly useful in areas with high volumes of foot traffic or even in making shopping centers like WestGate mall more sustainable.

Solar Powered Bicycle Lanes

The Dutch town of Krommenie opened a bicycle lane constructed out of solar panels in 2014. In 2015, after a year of existence, the results came back positive showing the bicycle lane produced more power than originally anticipated; enough to power three households for one year.

Being so close to the equator, Kenya receives significant amounts of sunshine. Clearly, this technology could find fruitful application here. The real hindrance for this technology is that the construction costs are very high. As Nairobi and other Kenyan cities start to expand their bicycle lanes, this technology’s initial construction cost could be outweighed by the long term power-savings.


Cycle lanes and sidewalks can generate energy

Water Absorbing Concrete

Flooding is a serious nemesis to communities across Kenya. It causes significant amounts of damage, disruption, injuries and deaths every single rainy season. The company Tarmac, based in the UK, has developed a product that could significantly reduce the negative effects of storm water. The company’s product called Topmix Permeable Concrete can absorb 880 gallons of water (36,000 millimeters) every minute. This concept is relatively new and comes with some limitations. Applied with other well designed storm water management techniques, the system could help Kenyan communities combat the rainy season.

Solar Powered Roads                                                                                

Kenya shows no signs of slowing down on adding more roads and expanding existing roads. Why not make these roads more than just a way to get from point A to point B? Some countries like France are making their roads more sustainable and productive by turning them into solar panels to collect energy. France has an ambitious plan to install 1,100 kilometers of solar paneled roadways during the next five years with hopes of generating significant electrical power.

The company behind the technology, Colas, states that one kilometer of solar powered road is enough to power public city lighting for a city of 5,000 people. Again, with Kenya’s frequent sunshine, this technology could make a dent in Kenya’s growing power requirements. Construction costs are high with this technology too but over a number of years the power-savings could justify the business case.

So What?

Rubber sidewalks and other emerging technologies will not be a panacea for Kenya in creating more sustainable, equitable and safe cities. The difficulties in marketing, manufacturing and pricing of these different options may mean none of these technologies ever finds a home in Kenya.

Public awareness and research into these different technologies, however, could have a number of benefits:

1.) Business opportunities for Kenyan companies, investors and entrepreneurs

2.) Providing additional electricity

3.) Reducing the negative effects of flooding

4.) Improving non motorised transport infrastructure

5.) Protecting the environment and air quality

6.) Improving peoples’ health

Even if these technologies are implemented in Kenya, there is no substitute for applying the smart urban planning principles that make cities successful. It is true that Nairobi, and African cities as a whole, face unique challenges like informal settlements that require solutions designed and implemented by the local populace. However, many of the smart urban planning principles such as limiting sprawl and providing a number of quality transportation options fit Nairobi’s needs regardless of their western planning origins; these sustainable technology ideas could fit too.

Kenya has the opportunity to be a leader on the African continent; an opportunity to make Nairobi the example other cities strive to replicate. These technologies, and infrastructure as a whole, could help Kenya become a paragon of sustainability if the politicians, engineers and urban planners are willing to challenge the status quo and demand more for the health and vitality of cities and the people who inhabit them.

Seth Kerr currently works in the medical research field in Nairobi. He is an aspiring urban planner. He has written about Nairobi’s Non Motorized Transport Policy for The Global Urbanist. 



How elites and corruption have played havoc with Nairobi’s housing

By Jacqueline Klopp and Jeffrey Paller


Building collapse in Daily Nation 2 May 2016

Following a heavy downpour and severe flooding, a building collapsed in the crowded Huruma neighbourhood of Nairobi, Kenya, killing at least 52 tenants. Sixteen months earlier, a building in the very same neighbourhood collapsed and killed at least two people. In both instances, many more were injured.

Nairobi is rapidly urbanising, as the city is poised to grow to six million people by 2030. But its growth is driven in part by rural push factors rather than urban industrial growth, contributing to a large informal sector and stark inequalities between neighbourhoods.

After the first building collapse, Nairobi city county responded by fast-tracking a bill to fix the problem. The second was marked by a blame game. The public and the national government pointed fingers at the county government for failing to demolish the structure as planned. Others scorned the public for littering and building unauthorised structures on flood plains.

In addition, many pinpointed corruption as at least partly at fault for the crumbling infrastructure. Officers in the county government are accused of taking bribes to overlook building code violations. However, others have argued, these codes and penalties make no sense. The Architectural Association of Kenya has been drawing attention to poor development control frameworks for many years.

At root then is a complex set of failures that must be understood within the context of politics in historical perspective. Many current problems emerged at the very beginning of Nairobi’s birth as a colonial town: flooding, poor infrastructure, marginal “housing” for the majority that served as labour reserves, lack of development control, rampant “land grabbing” and speculation. Added to this has been the presence of a privileged elite who could not or would not conceive of a broader public interest.

As the insightful blogger and cartoonist Peter Gathara points out, many of these speculative land and real estate dynamics persist, distorting prices in the housing market and creating high rents, gluts on the high-income end and shortages on the middle- to low-income end.

The ‘low-quality, high-cost trap’

Nairobi’s long-term urban governance “failures” are symptoms of deeper problems. “Failures” are economic opportunities for others. Recently, Africa Uncensored’s investigative series, “Kanjo Kingdom”, revealed the way cartels operate to extract money from poor traders in Nairobi. Many of these traders have no space to operate because of the theft over time of public utility spaces meant for markets.

Low incomes and limited jobs in the formal sector, much as in colonial times, means that to survive people must rely on running small businesses in marginal spaces in the city that are not officially designated as commercial. The failure to allocate space to vulnerable people means they become prey to cartels linked to the City Inspectorate. This is the very antithesis of service provision – it is poverty production through perverse “planning”.

A similar dynamic is at work when we come to the problem of slums and affordable housing. Slums, which were founded as colonial labour reserves, still persist in their informal status and use as labour “reserves”. Many slums are on government or former government land that was misallocated. Instead of using Nairobi’s once ample public land as a way to subsidise affordable housing (or industry and commercial activities), cartels and government officials extract from the poor who are in search of housing and livelihoods.

In the film “Living with Corruption” journalist Sorious Samura shows, for example, how he had to pay at least US$300, much of that in payments to officials, to build a shack in Nairobi’s Kibera slum with insecure rights.

These transactions signify a larger problem with corruption in Kenya’s political economy. According to the 2013/2014 Auditor General’s report, 98.8% of the money spent by Kenya’s ministries could not be clearly and lawfully accounted for, contributing to significant barriers to economic development.

As Sumila Gulyani and Debabrata Talukdar argue, Kenyan slum residents – the same types of people who were victims of the Huruma building collapse – are stuck in a “low-quality, high-cost trap.” Housing is not affordable in Nairobi’s slums, infrastructure does not improve and people are stuck with poor and insecure living conditions. All because this is quite lucrative for many who get high rental returns for providing next to no services, including safe shelter.

Owning property in Kenyan slums requires political connections and payment of significant fees (and often bribes) to get a building permit. Coupled with that is willingness to bear the risk of loss of capital if the structure is demolished. But once the investment is made, landlords benefit from informality and ambiguous land tenure rights, and work very hard to maintain the status quo. Politicians use tenure insecurity as a way to mobilise voters, promising private goods in exchange for electoral returns.

The housing challenge across Africa

The housing and flooding “crisis” of over 100 years is not unique to Kenya. Flooding is one of the most deadly disasters that periodically hits African cities. Rapidly growing cities Kampala, in Uganda, and Lagos, in Nigeria, have experienced significant flooding in the past year, and Ghana’s Accra has recently been in the midst of terrible flooding. This is likely to get worse with climate change and rapid urbanisation.

As in colonial times, the urban poor often become scapegoats for broader structural and political problems. Slum dwellers get blamed for poor infrastructure and lack of sanitation, while politicians and municipal authorities fail to deliver the public services needed to keep cities safe. Municipal authorities often advance demolition and displacement as solutions, rather than in situ and creative upgrading strategies and increasing housing stocks by freeing up land on a citywide scale.

In Accra, poor urban residents face eviction threats every rainy season. When elections occur every four years, these threats are tabled until after the voting takes place. Politicians, their intermediaries and community leaders often take advantage of this insecurity to bolster their own personal power.

While many African cities are trying to deal with the urbanisation challenge by improving infrastructure, fixing drains and investing in sanitation, perverse incentives continue to hamper progress in addressing the deep causes of poor housing and services.

Secure and safe affordable housing is still very difficult to find in most African cities. Simplistic slum upgrading schemes are not enough. As Dr Joan Cloas, Executive Director of UN-Habitat recently said,

You need to build cities – not houses.

Building better, inclusive cities involves creating a politics that enables using public land, land value and taxes wisely to ensure more and lower-cost, high-quality housing and amenities for all.

This article is reproduced with permission from The Conversation.

Smart Air Quality Monitoring for Nairobi

by Priyanka de Souza

In 2014, the World Health Organization released a report stating that in 2012, exposure to air pollution was responsible for an estimated 7 million premature deaths. (3.7 million deaths due to outdoor air pollution, and 3.3 deaths due to indoor air pollution). This finding confirmed the fact that air quality is the world’s single largest environmental health risk. Addressing the issue of exposure to air pollution thus has the potential to save millions of lives. So- how do we go about this?

Many countries have recognized the importance of improving air quality and have put in place measures to reduce air pollution. These measures include instituting national air quality standards (South Africa has even defined the right to an environment that is not detrimental to health or well-being to be a constitutional right). However, despite the setting of standards, and the putting in place of policies, the prohibitive cost of reference air quality monitoring systems ($150,000 -$200,000) has prevented some countries from measuring air quality to ensure compliance with these standards. Further, even when monitors are put in place, they are usually located in relatively clean areas.


Currently Air Quality Monitoring is Missing in Many Cities Like Nairobi

Low cost sensors (costing a few $ to a few $1000) have the potential to help us move from a paradigm of high cost, highly accurate, sparsely located reference air quality monitors, to a dense, low cost, reasonably accurate air quality monitoring paradigm. However, when such sensors are brought up in meetings- especially those in which public officials are present, they are usually decried. Opponents say that there are currently no standards or certification criteria defined for such sensors. Further- the flood of low cost sensors in the market, make it very hard to determine the reliability of each model.

This is indeed a problem. In fact the deluge of data from uncertified sensors such as these, have been used to cast aspersions on initiatives such as the ‘odd-even’ Delhi car scheme, as data from some of these devices actually showed a rise in air pollution despite the reduction of cars on the road. Complicating the challenge of certification, cheap sensors from the same manufacturer often have different characteristics. The US Environmental Protection Agency has released a report that looks at some of the low cost sensors on the market. The EPA, however, has calibrated these sensors in the clean environment in North Carolina, and not much is known about how these sensors will perform in polluted, hot, humid environments in the developing world. Temperature and humidity affects the stability of such sensors dramatically. More work is definitely needed to quantify the accuracy of such sensors in different conditions.

Given this limitation, do low-cost sensors have a place in today’s world? I would argue that they are extremely important. This is because of three reasons: One- Low cost sensors can be used to further citizen science by providing citizens with tools to measure real-time air quality in their homes and work places. Thus, these sensors can be used as important awareness raising and advocacy tools. The European Environmental Bureau, for example, recruited influential members of the EU Parliament in Brussels to carry these sensors around with them for a day and report the data. The high particulate matter counts were widely reported on and galvanized action.

Two- by comparing data generated by different nodes in a dense, low-cost sensor network, pollution hot-spots and sources of pollution can be identified. This allows the development of pollution management plans. It allows us to move beyond compliance and litigation into a conversation about so what can we do/what should we do? This is important as the debate in most countries has moved beyond ‘Is air quality an issue’ to: ‘What do we need to do, and how much?’

If we had such devices at work-places, next to construction sites, near power plants, close to mines, management plans, emergency action plans could be developed in case pollution levels rose to levels that could have a serious impact on health. As air quality is an issue that impacts everyone: rich and poor, it has a lot of traction and can be a powerful tool to obtain changes in policy. These devices can thus be used to identify air quality baselines and to track the impact on air quality of various measures implemented by the government such as the promotion of non-motorized transport, the setting of fuel standards. The improvement of air quality can be a powerful catalyst for action.

Three- Air pollution is not the problem. Exposure to air pollution is. Maps of air quality generated from such networks can be overlaid on population density maps, and exposure maps can be created. Mobile low cost sensors can be used for integrated monitoring (both indoor and outdoor) air pollution to track the real air qualities that people are exposed to as they move about their daily life. Stationary air quality reference monitors cannot do this. Such an integrated approach can truly allow for the measurement of quality of air that is actually breathed in by people as they go about their daily lives, and can thus be used to pinpoint health effects.

The use of these sensors in measuring indoor air pollution is an important point, because indoor air pollution is responsible for roughly half of the total premature deaths estimated to be caused by air pollution. In addition, household air pollution is a major source of ambient air pollution, but the measurement of the same is focused on far less. A study in India conclusively links the health of babies with the quality of air breathed in by mothers during pregnancy (sensors were attached to the expectant mothers during their pregnancy).


Outdoor and Indoor Pollution are linked to adverse health impacts 

Another innovative and promising air quality monitoring technique involves estimating pollution via satellite imagerSatellite data can be used to estimate aerosol optical depths (AOD) over the entire globe. Particulate matter concentrations can be inferred from the AOD. In theory the resolution of such measurements can be done in areas of a few square kilometers, however, at such resolutions the error margins can be quite high. A limitation of such an approach is that such data is only collected once a day when the satellite orbits above a location. It is believed that the use of geostationary satellites will allow data to be collected whenever sunlight is present, and the location is not obscured by cloud cover, but this is yet to be seen. Data from satellites, however, can be used to identify districts in which air pollution is high and thus inform the placement of low cost sensors. Data from these low cost sensors can also be fed back into satellite driven models that can thus improve the model, and enable the generation of forecasts.

Thus low cost air quality monitoring solutions offer the developing world a wonderful opportunity to leap-frog the stationary, expensive air quality monitoring stations of the developed world, and help inform the making of policies to reduce air pollution. In 2014, Resolution 7 was passed at the UN Environment Assembly which set UNEP a mandate to help countries tackle air quality. UNEP noted that the first step in doing so was collecting data on air quality. It thus developed a DIY air quality monitoring unit costing ~ USD 1500. The unit makes use of low cost sensors manufactured by Alphasense to measures harmful gas (NOx, SOx, VOCs, CO, O3) concentrations as well as particulate matter count.

It made the blue prints public (The circuit diagrams +code can be found here) so that governments/citizens could assemble, use the unit and even modify it, as they see fit. The unit attracted a lot of attention in the press. Several countries contacted UNEP asking for help to deploy a network of such units. If the units are networked (i.e. calibrated against each other), and are deployed in a wide array of sites, then using machine learning, it is possible to filter out ‘noise’ in the data produced by the network resulting from interfering gases, changes in temperature and humidity. This would thus increase the accuracy of the whole network. Further research needs to be carried out on how many units need to be deployed to gain an ‘acceptable’ accuracy.

We at UNEP thus wanted to deploy a pilot network of air quality monitors to better understand what the process would entail so that we could share our experience with interested citizens and governments. Thus we decided to deploy a six node air quality monitoring network in the city of Nairobi which faces many air quality problems. As we wanted the network to be ready soon, we did not use the UNEP air quality monitors for the network, as the unit is not currently being commercially produced. Instead, we used boxes we bought from the company: Atmospheric Sense. These boxes were the ones deployed by Professor Rod Jones from the University of Cambridge in a Heathrow airport air quality monitoring network study, and employ the same sensors as the UNEP unit.

Deploying Low Cost Air Quality Monitors in Nairobi

The first step in deploying the network was identifying suitable sites for the units. Here the the wonderful NASA GLOBE program helped. NASA has developed a list of protocols for the conducting of measurements of various parameters of the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere. The GLOBE program trains teachers from all over the world in these protocols. These teachers then train their students to conduct measurements. NASA then uses the data from these measurements to validate and calibrate satellites.

I found that the Kenyan GLOBE program is very active. Several GLOBE schools in Kenya had weather stations which the kids work with. I therefore thought that it would be very interesting to co-locate our air quality monitors with the GLOBE weather stations in these schools. In this way, we could get wind speed and wind direction data along with air quality data, AND teach the children in these schools about air quality and about how to use the monitors.

After seeking permission we had to choose optimal sites for the monitors. The units we deploy were designed to be powered from the mains power supply. They had batteries that could last for 3 days. We thus had to ensure that our units were sited close to power sources. We wanted to measure air quality at the height at which people breathe. However, we did not want them to be in reach of anyone who could tamper with the units. We therefore deployed all units at the height of 2-3 m above the ground. We had wanted the units to be pole mounted so that they could have access to pollution from 360 degrees. However, the units were designed to be wall mounted and therefore we had to identify walls on which the units could be mounted so that they would face the general wind direction. Finally, the Atmospheric Boxes do not function well in rain or high temperatures. Although the units came with their own sun shades, we had to make sure that the units would be adequately protected from the elements in order to minimize exposure to the elements.

We finally found sites to deploy the air quality monitors in UNEP: Alliance Girls School, St Scholastica, All Saints Cathedral School, the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy and the Lunga Lunga community center. Alliance Girls School in Kikuyu was our urban background site. St Scholastica is a stone throw’s away from Thika Highway- a road notorious for traffic jams in Nairobi. All Saint’s Cathedral School is close to Mbagathi road and several small shops and industries. Kibera Girls Soccer Academy is situated right near a garbage dump site that we thought would be useful to monitor.

Further, on Saturdays, I teach kids at the school how to use the simple computers called Raspberry Pis, and thought it would be a very wonderful thing to show the children how to play with the air quality data on the Pi. For our last site, we had originally chosen Moi Forces Academy in Eastleigh. However, we later decided that we would learn nothing more by installing a monitor in this location as the schools is situated far away from the main road. We therefore decided to look for a site in the industrial area to get a true picture of air quality in Nairobi.


Low Cost Air Quality Monitor on a School

I was in touch with the community center in the Lunga Lunga slum about installing a Raspberry Pi there. We asked them if we could also install the air quality monitor and they agreed. The Lunga Lunga site is situated close to a factory that manufactures chemicals for the production of tear gas, a factory that produces electrical components, Oshwal Chemicals industry, and an open garbage burning pit. It is also close to to Lunga Lunga main road.

Atmospheric Sense shipped the units to us. We finished the deployment of the units in the first week of May. The data is streaming from these units to Alphasense servers. The first 3 weeks worth of data was presented at the Science Policy Forum of UNEA by Professor Roderic Jones of the University of Cambridge. Even with 3 weeks of data, by plotting the filtered measurements against wind speed and wind direction, potential sources were identified.We are currently working on automating the data collection, post processing and then visualization in order to make the data available on UNEP’s website UNEP Live so that the results are understandable to people. Please do check the website or email me for updates about this.

The last step of the process involves holding workshops in each school to educate the children about the unit and the importance of air quality. We will be doing this in the next few months. We learnt a lot from deploying the network. We learnt that the cost of the units is a small fraction of the total cost of network deployment. This is because maintenance of the network, as well as the analysis of the data is time consuming and  expensive. However, given the valuable insights we obtained from the data, we believe that such low cost networks are important tools for governments to use to collect air quality data in the future.

Priyanka deSouza graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in 2013 with a Bachelor and Master of Technology in Energy Engineering and a minor in Physics. She then went on to study at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and read for an MSc in Environmental Change and Management and an MBA. She is currently a consultant at UNEP and an Energy Research Fellow at Project Drawdown. She will be joining the MIT Senseable Lab as a Research Fellow in September 2016. She can be reached at .

How Nairobi Can Become a “Smart City”

By Jacqueline M. Klopp

We hear a lot about “smart cities” these days.  Even though endless terrible crashes on the roads, poor services and the recent flooding of Nairobi does not feel “smart”, a movement is afoot that could help to make city planning “smarter”.  A bottom up movement to use technology- especially the cellphone-to help see and understand Nairobi’s problems is occurring. The idea is that data can help in the push for problems to be fixed. This movement has the potential- if embraced by government and citizens- to make the city better if not “smarter”. In this NPI blog post, I review some interesting recent examples from the transportation sector and at the end invite you to participate in this movement by providing feedback on some exciting new projects.

A lot of transportation “planning” in the city is currently done in the dark with little or no data to inform it-even with all the consultants around for “capacity building”. This means a lot of talk and no action on specific priority areas that need addressing. At the same time,  around 300, 000 Nairobians are using the popular app ma3route everyday to provide streams of data via twitter on topics such as traffic conditions, police behaviour and crashes. Recently, former MIT student Elizabeth Resor, working for ma3route took the crash data from tweets from May 2015 through October 2015 (7,817 reports about 3,941 unique accidents  and validated 1,900  of them) to make the very first Nairobi accident map . This helpful map reveals some of the serious black spots that need redesign. It also shows that PSV vehicles get in a lot less crashes than cars and trucks, but they affect more people because they carry more people.


The Nairobi Accident Map created by Elizabeth Resor in collaboration with ma3route is very helpful in identifying clear problem spots on the roads that need to be redesigned for safety.

Another project that helped Nairobians and planners is the Digital Matatus project that mapped out the matatu routes, made the data open and created a public transit map for people in the city.


The Digital Matatus project made matatu route and stop data open and the public transit map is freely downloadable at

This data also put Nairobi transit on Google Maps, a first for any African city. This allows you to find how to get from one place to another in Nairobi by matatu. However, the data needs to be updated continuously for it to be accurate. In most cities in the world, a transit agency usually collects this data or mandates that operators collect and share this information as a passenger service, but this has not yet happened in Nairobi. Instead, Digital Matatus is developing some creative strategies to keep this data live by engaging Nairobi citizens.


Out of this problem, ma3route with the Civic Data Design Lab (MIT) and the C4D Lab at the University of Nairobi, both key partners in the Digital Matatus project, collaborated in the class called the “Crowdsourced City” taught by Sarah Williams, MIT Assistant Professor of Planning and Urban Studies. After many conversations with matatu drivers, citizens and policymakers including the National Transport and Safety Authority which is also developing some important new e-services, the students in this class developed some innovative apps to help generate more valuable information for Nairobi citizens and planners. They are currently testing them out and welcome your feedback. 

First, check out ma3tycoon where you can help verify matatu stop data and then compare your answers to others. This little game is designed to help keep up-to-date information on the matatu system. Next, how about ranking your matatu driver? Or if you are a matatu driver and want to brag, check out SemaMa3 which also gives you crash information from ma3route. If you want to see the tweets from ma3route on a map, then Ma3Map is for you. In once glance you can see what people are saying at specific locations. Finally, check out Twiga Tatu which will help you share fare information and as you do so, we can accumulate important information on what matatus are really charging. Clearly, there needs to be a discussion of this issue. All these apps are in testing mode and open for feedback.

So with citizens and cellphones, we can move towards making Nairobi smarter by providing better information and sharing this information for the public good. With advocacy, this shared data can help to make the city function better. For example, if large numbers of Nairobians suggest a problem with the same matatu, then there is an opportunity to take up the issue with the SACCO and NTSA backed by numbers and data. We can also keep transit data updated for travelers and share information about problems through ma3route which can later help us figure out when problems like crashes keep recurring and demand road redesign for safety.  Ma3route data was even used to figure out how well Kidero’s drums worked on traffic flow!

Ideally, the Nairobi City County and the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure should take a lead towards collecting the data needed for transportation planning and make it widely available for citizens and researchers in an open transport portal through the Kenya Open Data Initiative.  But for now, these growing efforts at being a ” smart city” from the bottom up are showing that a lot can be done to start to understand the city including its transportation. Crowdsourcing data can be a helpful way for citizens to help each other, contribute to planning and  push in an informed way for concrete, targeted changes that need to happen on on the ground.




Interview with Ibra Maina, Kounkuey Design Initiative Kibera

Recently, Nairobi Planning Innovations caught up with proud Kibera resident Ibra Maina. Ibra has been involved with the Kounkuey Design Initiative  (KDI) in Kibera for many years. KDI is an innovative international partnership that draws on architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, and urban planning to build partnerships with residents to create low-cost, high-impact built environments (Productive Public Spaces). You can review some of their projects here. Ibra recently conceptualized and help catalyze the production of a moving film “We have  Life”  which won the Rockefeller Storytelling Challenge. We recommend you watch it!


The Kibera Public Space Project has created beautiful and useful public spaces

NPI:  You are a proud resident of Kibera. What about your neighborhood do you like the most?

Having been born and brought up in Kibera, I am really proud to be a Kibera resident. For me, I love our unity and the social life within us that you can’t find anywhere else. The strength and power that exists amongst us is unlike anywhere else. We are very creative and motivated, and most of all we are very passionate about positive change. More than anything else, these are the very important things that make us feel great about our great neighbourhood called Kibera.

NPI: What would you focus on to improve your neighborhood?

To improve your neighbourhood, you always need to have a positive approach towards development. Perfection is impossible, but progress is always promising. You should be real and remain focused towards real issues that can cause change, and always be confident in your work and ideas.

NPI:  You have been critical of the way the mass media tends to portray Kibera and this helped inspire the beautiful film “We have a Life”. What advice would you give journalists who wish to cover Kibera’s affairs?

Over the years, there have been many stories written about Kibera and its residents. These stories often portray the settlement in very negative way. My experience living and working with communities that are pro-development in Kibera tells a different story about my beautiful settlement. In “We have a Life,” we embraced the positive, community-led change in Kibera. Just like any other city we, the residents of Kibera, face a few challenges. Even in the city of New York for example people face challenges like crime and poverty, homelessness and hunger. My advice to learned journalist is focus on sharing positive initiatives and changes that showcase that we all have a life and that we all have ideas and solutions to the challenges that face us all. The people of Kibera have taken the responsibility to advocate and drive development that they wish to see. The youth and women, the residents and leaders are becoming the change they want. They have shown the capacity to manage projects that continue to positively impact their communities. Writing such stories demonstrates that we are not just improving our city of Kibera, but offering solutions for the same challenges in other parts of the world.


Public art is part of the Kibera Public Space Project

NPI: You have been centrally involved in long term and award winning work to improve the quality of public space and facilities in Kibera through the Kounkuey Design Initiative. Can you describe this work and what it means to you?

To realise this dream and vision, we have always worked very, very closely and collaboratively with the communities and residents to empower them to physically transform their environment by building what we call productive public space projects. Our process is community-driven; this process empowers the residents to participate and ensure that the end goal is accepted, owned, and sustained by the community. A challenge is complex: it is economic, social and physical. Where possible, we connect residents to local and county-level institutions that ensure that their work is rooted in networked and sustainable change.

NPI: The National Youth Service has been heavily involved in projects in Kibera. How has this been going from your perspective as a long time resident and designer? What advice would you give to the NYS to improve their work?

Personally I like the idea of NYS projects in informal settlements. The program managed to bring a number of youths together to provide organised manpower. The NYS program created job opportunities for the youths and the residents, while reducing idleness amongst the youths and crime. Our environment was conserved well through the cleaning activities that were being undertaken by the youths. What I would advise is that the programme should detail and implement a strong exit plan so that the projects and its programmes that benefit the community are well transitioned for ownership and sustainability. Through a community-driven process, the programme should have carefully measured community needs through a baseline survey and need assessment strategy prior to commencing any physical interventions.



Investment in Non Motorized Transport Key to Addressing Transportation Challenges in Kenya


Many Nairobi roads have little to no facilities for walking and cycling

By Henry Ochieng, Chief Executive Officer, Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations

Kenya, like many other African countries places much emphasis on moving cars when developing road infrastructure as opposed to moving people.

This has resulted in construction of roads without provision for non motorized mode of transport such us walking or cycling. Little attention has been accorded to the needs of those of who walk or cycle every day yet these are the most common modes of transport in Kenya. In Nairobi for instance, 50% of the population either walk or cycle to their destination every day.

Non Motorized Transport (NMT) users are exposed to fast, aggressive and at times careless motorized transport users resulting to high number of road crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists. According to National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), an estimated 3,000 deaths occur annually as a result of road crushes and 40% of these are pedestrians.

In Nairobi, out of the 668 road crash deaths recorded in 2015, 497 were pedestrians – a whopping 74%. These high pedestrian deaths can largely be attributed to lack of NMT facilities that leads to a scramble for existing road spaces between the motorized and non motorized transport users.


Cyclists have long been ignored on Nairobi’s streets-yet cycling is a healthy way to travel that reduces pollution and congestion

These statistics firmly justifies the need for Kenya to have a paradigm shift and start focusing more on facilitating movement of people and not just vehicles. Besides reducing road fatalities, investment in NMT facilities has many other benefits. NMT is environmental friendly and is a zero carbon transport mode thus resulting to less air pollution.

There are also health benefits as less air pollution reduces incidences of health complications such as respiratory disease. NMT improves affordable access to vital services such as health, education and employment. Major towns in Nairobi have been grappling with heavy traffic on the roads leading to loss of productivity as several hours are wasted on traffic jams. This is partly attributed to the fact that there are too many vehicles on the roads. Investment in proper NMT facilities is a good incentive for people to walk or cycle to their destinations hence reducing the number of vehicles on the roads.

In more advanced cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, walking and cycling are the preferred modes of transport and are given right of way. This is mainly because they have adequately invested in NMT infrastructure and it is not only safe but convenient to walk or cycle.

At a national NMT stakeholders workshop held in Nairobi in November last year, participants were unanimous on the need for Government to prioritize and increase investment on NMT facilities development in Kenya.

It is comforting to note that the leadership of Nairobi County is gradually appreciating the importance of NMT and putting in place mechanisms aimed at improving investment in NMT facilities. Last year, Nairobi City County Government in collaboration with The Kenya Alliance of Resident Associations (KARA) and United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP) developed a Non Motorized Transport Policy for the County. The policy is awaiting adoption by the County Assembly.

Given the urgency and importance of developing NMT facilities, we expect that the Nairobi City County Governor, Dr. Evans Kidero will take personal interest in the policy and lead its implementation. It should not be yet another policy document gathering dust in the shelves. The County should also fast track the development of the streets and roads design manual (taking into consideration provisions for NMT facilities), to guide planning, design and management of all transport facilities and amenities within the County.

Until deliberate and drastic steps towards investment in NMT is taken both at the National and County level, more NMT users will continue losing their lives, there will be more negative environmental and health impact caused by emission of carbon and green housse gases and the traffic congestion challenges will persist.

This was reposted with permission from the author.

Interview with Chairman of the Public Transport Operators Union, Joseph Ndiritu

Nairobi Planning Innovations recently spent some time with Joe Ndiritu, Chairman of the Public Transport Operators Union and matatu expert. We asked him to share some of his insights into the sector from a driver’s point of view.


Joe Ndiritu discusses issues in the matatu sector with students from MIT and University of Nairobi

NPI: How did you get into the matatu sector?

I joined the matatu sector while still at school at a tender age of 14 years. Back then, matatus were being operated by young ones and you could hardly see an old or aged person working as a conductor. That was in the year 1990 and peer influence drove me to the sector as it was by then. Today, it has grown to be an industry controlling billions of shillings . Before joining the matatu sector then, you were vetted by the senior workers in the industry and we used to pay royalties to them. When you were new in the industry you were branded names such as njuka, kamande, ka-fala, fariso, ndemwa, mgeni etc, and names according to the route you operated on. It was a form of “monolization” or initiation, which I later on came to learn was to instill “discipline” in the sector;  you were supposed to respect your elder workmates and society (neighbours & passengers) who were friendly to the matatu.

NPI: What are the main problems you face as a matatu driver?

The main problems I face as a matatu driver are brought about by corruption of some state departments that regulate the industry. These state departments are directly involved in the daily activities conducted in the matatu industry, and others are indirectly involved. The state department that hinders the growth and development of matatu workers is the police department which is supposed to serve and protect lives and property. It is this department that harasses matatu workers, intimidates and demands and coerces for bribes. Police instill fear in matatu workers, mostly because most workers do not understand the Traffic Act which the police enforce.


County inspectorate askaris also harass transport workers when enforcing by-laws. Many of these by-laws we do not understand or have access to. Some are outdated and do not conform to the demands of cities and urban centres.

Another issue is with the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) which has allowed cartels to collect illegal tax on matatu workers, and we end up paying a lot in illegal taxes rather than what we would have paid the taxman. KRA has mechanisms to address this issues and collect tax from matatu workers in the form of pay as you earn (PAYE) or income tax or any other form of tax that would work in the sector. 70% of matatu workers have a Personal Identification Number (P.I.N) and have at least an employer who is supposed to remit tax to KRA.


We also wish the labour department would help us. It is supposed to advise other state departments, inform, educate and enforce labour laws and related matters. They have totally ignored the transport industry in Kenya or have not been engaged by the state. The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) is desperately trying to address labour issues affecting matatu workers without the input of labour department.


Another problem I face as a matatu worker (driver) is when my colleagues overlap in traffic or when they are arrested and coerced to give bribes. It makes me feel that I am part of that problem collectively, and it paints a bad picture of me as an empowered matatu driver.


There is a health problem that we have as drivers and is not spoken about. This problem is back pain and headache that is an effect of long driving hours and most drivers abuse a pain relieving drug called Diclofenac  because of lack of medical cover. We also have pneumonia that is associated with exposure to extreme cold and poor air quality and has killed many of our drivers and conductors. Another health problem is H.I.V. Despite national campaigns, matatu workers have not undergone sensitization seminars, hence exposing them to the dangers of the epidemic.


Poor air quality and other public health problems impact matatu drivers

Bad roads, goods roads and poorly maintained vehicles are also a main problem to most drivers. Bad roads and poorly maintained vehicles increase risk of crashes but good roads can also cause problems. Most drivers have not undergone refresher courses or defensive driving courses despite improvements on road infrastructure. Our employers and governments have not invested in us (workers) in terms of facilitating improved learning through such courses.

 NPI: Tell us about the Public Transport Operators Union that you chair. What are you aims and why should the public support your efforts?

Public Transport Operators Union (PUTON) is a trade union registered in Kenya under the Labour Relations Act of 2007 to represent the interest of informal transport workers in Kenya. It was registered on 12/02/2013 through a court order after the registrar of trade unions in Kenya had initially refused to register the organization. Informal transport workers in Kenya are estimated (yes estimated) to be 300,000 of which 200,000 work directly as drivers and conductors and the 100,000 are indirect workers.

Our aims are found and elaborated in our union’s constitution.

They include but are not limited to:

To provide a basis for the establishment of sound traditions, good culture and fair solutions to disputes.
➢ To promote, improve and develop responsibility, interests and aspects of life and contribute towards a healthy social life among workers.
➢ To provide and avail means to the workers for expression, views and decisions upon matters affecting the interests of the public transport industry.
➢ To participate in all matters calculated to lead to the improvement of the matatu transport and to promote the establishment of a system suitable for our unique system of public transport.

➢ To provide effective representation of matatu operators in the government, National Transport Authority, Public/Private organizations/institutions, NGO’s or any recognized agency where such representation may be required.

The public should support our efforts because we need a win-win situation where all stakeholders are responsible enough for their actions when providing service. Matatu drivers have been for a very long time been on the receiving end because of being voiceless.

NPI:  What improvements in the routes and passenger services would you like to see implemented and how can matatu drivers help push for these changes?

  • Route re-design on the existing framework that will also lead to people shifting residence to far areas outside the city centre e.g. Thika, Ruiru, Mavoko, Limuru etc.
  • Allocation of new routes within the city and combining some routes to give better services. This means that some existing routes will become obsolete.
  • Public safety e.g. by not carrying excess load and passengers
  • Conducive working environment will improve service delivery
  • Devolving public transport to county level.

NPI:  What do you think the government could do to build a more cooperative relationship with the matatu sector?

  • Engage all stakeholders in transport
  •  Improve infrastructure
  •  Invest in policies that will guide the future of the matatu industry e.g. up to the year 2030 and beyond when we shall have an improved transport system.

This policy must take into account the interests of informal transport workers together with the potential of loss of livelihood, especially with the introduction of the Bus Rapid Transit system which is being promoted by the World Bank, Matatu Owners Association and others.

NPI: What is your vision for transportation for Nairobi?

My vision for Nairobi’s transportation is a mass transport system, because the city is developing so fast and has become the hub for doing business in the region. Many international organizations are setting their regional offices in Nairobi, and our transport will need to accommodate the middle/working class. There should be a public transport system to accommodate this class and encourage the use of public transport alongside other modes of transport e.g. Non Motorized Transport. Otherwise if P.S.V/matatus don’t change with time, then there might be a death knell in the industry (e.g. like the current case of taxis and UBER), just the same way the telephone booth died with the introduction of cellphones in Kenya.