Case study: Urban problems in Nairobi, Kenya

By Matt Burdett, 7 May 2020

In this article, we look at Nairobi in Kenya has a case study of the incidence of poverty, deprivation and informal activity (housing and industry) in urban areas at varying stages of development

Nairobi: A brief introduction

Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya, with a population of 4.4 million according to the 2019 Kenya census (Kenya Bureau of Statistics, 2019: p7), but this expands during the day to over 6 million people due to incoming workers (Nairobi City County, 2019).

The city was founded in 1899 as part of the colonial British government’s development of a railway. It attracted a greater population due to the cooling effects of altitude and the availability of a continuous water supply, owing to its location on swampland (Nairobi City County, n.d.).

  • Map showing the location of Nairobi in Kenya. Source: TUBS, 2012.

Nairobi itself is officially known as Nairobi City County. The city is split into seventeen electoral constituencies as shown on the map below, with each area represented by a member of parliament.

  • Constituencies in Nairobi. Note the incorrect spelling of ‘Kibra’ which should read ‘Kibera’ to the west of the centre of the map. Source: Nyanchama, 2019.

Poverty, deprivation, informal housing and informal industry

Poverty in Nairobi

As a country, Kenya is successfully reducing poverty with a decrease of the number of Kenyans living under the international ‘dollar a day’ poverty line decreasing from 46.8% in 2005-06 to 36.1% in 2015-16 (World Bank, 2018), although there is still massive inequality in incomes in different parts of the country and amongst different groups of people. Within Nairobi, the situation is less severe than in other parts of the country: in fact, by 2016, Nairobi had the lowest rates of absolute poverty at 16.7% of the population compared to the national average of 36.1% (Kenei, 2018).

The distribution of poverty is quite evenly spread over the city, with slum settlements found in almost all parts of Nairobi. The map belows the variation in income. It’s notable, however, that the lack of poverty – i.e. higher incomes – are not evenly spread and are strongly found towards the central areas, around the Central Business District. However, in this area there is a juxtaposition of rich and poor, with some of the highest income areas located next to slums.

Causes of poverty in Nairobi

Nairobi’s population has grown exponentially since the 1960s, adding about a million people in the decade 2009-2019, as shown on the graph below. This has brought enormous problems as the city struggles to satisfy the needs of its inhabitants, but also economic opportunities too.

Even so, the increasing population puts a strain on the ability of the city to deliver services to its population. This inability of the city’s systems to meet the needs of its population is known as ‘urban stress’. (Note: urban stress is incorrectly defined in some sources as the emotional and bodily stresses that come from living in an urban area, but this is not a geographical definition.) As more people require resources, it means that the amount of resources per person is less, which means that some people remain in poverty.

Patterns of deprivation in Nairobi

Deprivation relates to lack of person’s access to the things that people in a society consider to be normal, such as diet, clothing, housing, as well as healthcare, education and recreation, among many others (Mack, 2016).

Across Nairobi, general welfare conditions significantly. Dr Villa, a researcher in the University of Manchester, proposed a new way of measuring deprivation in 2016 called the “Living Conditions Score” (LCS). The LCS gives a score between 0 and 100. The higher the score, the better the household’s provisions in terms of “dwelling materials, provision of electricity, water and sanitation, household composition and endowment of education attainment” (Villa, 2016). The map below shows this variation very clearly: levels of deprivation – as opposed to simply measuring poverty through income – are generally worse towards the centre of the city, and slums near the centre are the most deprived.

  • Living Conditions Score across Nairobi, Kenya. A high score indicates better living conditions. Source: Villa, 2016.

The explanation for this may lie in population density. Although incomes may be better in some parts, people still do not have access to appropriate sources of water, housing and so on, and this is what causes deprivation to be high. These areas largely correspond with high population density, which may indicate that people are paying a high proportion of their income on housing in order to be near their location of work.

Deprivation: Lack of access to water

A specific issue in Nairobi is access to water. Much of the city does not have piped water directly to the house, and rely on either local water sources such as rivers and boreholes, or water that is brought in by truck. The map below shows this distribution which follows very closely the population distribution. The most densely populated areas (especially slums) are more likely to lack access to a stable water supply.

  • Water coverage across Nairobi as a percentage of households with piped water. Source: Ledant, 2013.

Deprivation: Lack of access to healthcare

A further issue is the lack of access to healthcare. Facilities are spread throughout the city, with the main concentration in the CBD. Notably the facilities are generally distributed in the higher income areas.

Kenya currently (at time of writing in 2020) has a mixture of public and private healthcare provision, with the aim of achieving universal healthcare, i.e. government-funded healthcare for everyone, by 2022, and in 2018 only 19% of people had private healthcare insurance (Barasa, 2018). This means the majority use a public health system which struggles to cope with the demands made upon it.

Informal housing

Informal settlements are “areas where groups of housing units have been constructed on land that the occupants have no legal claim to, or occupy illegally” and unauthorised housing is “unplanned settlements and areas where housing is not in compliance with current planning and building regulations” (OECD, 2001).

There are many informal settlements in Nairobi, which reflects both the poverty levels and the rapid expansion of the city, as newcomers are forced onto marginal land (land which no-one else wants to use). Around half of Nairobi’s population is believed to live in areas such as these, but the estimates can vary wildly due to the lack of accurate data.

Conditions in the informal settlements are generally very poor. In Kibera, one of the largest slums, there are upwards of 170,000 people in just 250 hectares. You can read more about the conditions in Kibera elsewhere on this site (scroll to the last section on the page).

Informal industry

Informal industry is part of the shadow or hidden economy. It takes place when economic activity is not monitored nor taxed by the government, which means many workers do not have access to basic rights such as protective equipment or sick pay.

Data on the informal industry in Nairobi is, therefore, by nature hard to gather. It is likely that a lot of workers actually work in the formal sector, but may do so on casual terms – such as a labourer being hired on a construction site for a day. Kenya’s employment is almost entirely in the informal sector, accounting for up to 95% of entrepreneurship. Across Kenya as a whole, up to seven in every eight of the 800,000 jobs created in the period 2013 to 2014 were in the informal sector (World Bank, 2016). It is reasonable to suspect that owing to Nairobi’s dominant position in terms of government and economy that the informal sector is very strong in Nairobi.


Barasa, 2018. Kenya National Hospital Insurance Fund Reforms: Implications and Lessons for Universal Health Coverage. Full suggested citation: Edwine Barasa, Khama Rogo, Njeri Mwaura & Jane Chuma (2018) Kenya National Hospital Insurance Fund Reforms: Implications and Lessons for Universal Health Coverage, Health Systems & Reform, 4:4, 346-361, DOI: 10.1080/23288604.2018.1513267. Available at Accessed 7 May 2020.

Boniburini, I. 2015. Production of Hegemony and Production of Space in Nairobi. Territoire en mouvement. 28. 10.4000/tem.3110. Accessed 7 May 2020.

Kenei, 2018. The needs of Kenyans by county: exploring the latest poverty data. Accessed 7 May 2020.

Kenya Bureau of Statistics, 2019. 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census Volume I: Population by County and Sub-County. Accessed 7 May 2020.

Ledant, 2013. Water in Nairobi: Unveiling inequalities and its causes. Accessed 7 May 2020.

Mack, 2016. Deprivation and poverty. Accessed 7 May 2020.

Murphy et al., 2017. Estimating the need for inpatient neonatal services: an iterative approach employing evidence and expert consensus to guide local policy in Kenya. Full citation requested as follows: Murphy GAV, Waters D, Ouma PO Health Services that Deliver for Newborns Expert Group, et alEstimating the need for inpatient neonatal services: an iterative approach employing evidence and expert consensus to guide local policy in KenyaBMJ Global Health 2017;2:e000472. Accessed 7 May 2020.

Mutisya & Yarime, 2011. Understanding the Grassroots Dynamics of Slums in Nairobi: The Dilemma of Kibera Informal Settlements. In International Transaction Journal of Engineering, Management, & Applied Sciences & Technologies Volume 2. Accessed 7 May 2020.

Nairobi City County, n.d. History of Nairobi. Accessed 7 May 2020.

Nairobi City County, 2019. Growing Nairobi population an indicator of more opportunities – Sonko. 7 May 2020.

Nyanchama, 2019. List of Nairobi County wards. Accessed 7 May 2020.

OECD, 2001. Glossary of statistical terms. Accessed 7 May 2020.

TUBS, 2012. Kenya, administrative divisions.,_administrative_divisions_-_de_-_colored.svg Accessed 7 May 2020.

Villa, 2016. A note on the new proposed welfare prediction method for Kenya’s cash transfer programmes. Accessed 7 May 2020.

World Bank, 2016. Informal Enterprises in Kenya. Accessed 7 May 2020.

World Bank, 2018. Poverty Incidence in Kenya Declined Significantly, but Unlikely to be Eradicated by 2030. Accessed 7 May 2020.

Case study: Urban problems in Nairobi, Kenya: Learning activities


  1. Describe the location of Nairobi. [2]
  2. Define ‘poverty’ in the urban context. [2]
  3. Describe the pattern of poverty in Nairobi. [3]
  4. Identify at least two features of urban deprivation in Nairobi and for each, describe its distribution. [2+4]
  5. Outline the health issues that are likely to stem from urban deprivation in Nairobi. [4]
  6. Explain why it is hard to present information about the informal sector in Nairobi. [4]

Other tasks

Conduct an image search for Kibera, one of the slums in Nairobi. Annotate the images to show the features of urban deprivation. Consider whether the image is balanced: are there also reasons to suggest that the areas of greatest urban deprivation are positive in any way? How far do any positive features balance out the negative aspects of urban deprivation?

Going further

These two documents contain a wealth of information about the informal sector in Kenya and specifically Nairobi.

Click to access Draft_Report_-_Exploring_Vulnerability_of_Informal_Traders_in_Nairobi.pdf

Click to access 106986-WP-P151793-PUBLIC-Box.pdf

© Matthew Burdett, 2020. All rights reserved.

All secondary material on this site is clearly referenced and may be subject to copyright restrictions by the original authors. All original material on this page is subject to copyright.