Providing shelter in East African cities: what works?

Diane Archer introduces a new project that aims to identify the key determinants of access to shelter in East Africa's fast-growing urban areas.

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Insight by 
Diane Archer
Diane Archer is senior researcher in IIED's Human Settlements research group
22 February 2018
The UN estimates that a million Somalis were displaced during 2017. Many move to informal settlements on the fringes of the capital, Mogadishu (Photo: AMISOM Public Information via Wikimedia Commons)

The UN estimates that a million Somalis were displaced during 2017. Many move to informal settlements on the fringes of the capital, Mogadishu (Photo: AMISOM Public Information via Wikimedia Commons)

How do informal settlements come about in a city, and why do they form where they do? What other housing options do low-paid urban workers have? And in settings where years of conflict have caused mass internal displacement, where can internally-displaced populations live when they go to a city? To what extent will factors like access to jobs, and provision of basic services such as water and sanitation, determine where people chose to live, in addition to cost? And what role do politics, bargaining and conflict have to play in determining housing outcomes in urban contexts?

These are some of the questions that a new research project, funded by DFID through the East Africa Research Fund (EARF), seeks to answer.

IIED is leading a consortium of partners studying shelter provision in three very different cities: Nairobi in Kenya, Hawassa in Ethiopia, and Mogadishu in Somalia. Each city faces its own challenges in ensuring low-income population groups can access safe and affordable housing. Particular population groups may be especially marginalised, or vulnerable to homelessness or the risks posed by insecure housing – such as women in Somalia, which is a highly patrilineal society. 

Over the next two years, IIED will work with Social Development Direct, Tana, and SDI Kenya, to develop a citywide perspective of the ways in which people gain access to shelter (Of what kind? As owners or tenants?) and basic services such as water and sanitation.

The project will also examine distinct settlements in each city to understand the dynamics of access to shelter within an area, in relation to income, gender, ethnicity, and other contextually-specific determining factors. One specific question will revolve around understanding who the key actors are, what are their roles, and how relationships between them have shaped the availability and accessibility of shelter. 

Gatekeepers in Mogadishu

In Mogadishu, a city of 2.4 million residents, there are 600,000 internally-displaced persons (IDPs) after years of civil war. They face an uncertain future and the constant threat of eviction – such as in early January 2018, when more than 4,000 people had their homes destroyed.

A particular group of 'gatekeepers' has emerged – often former IDPs themselves, providing land and security for IDPs and facilitating service delivery, in return for a cut of humanitarian services received by IDPs or cash payments.

It is estimated that there are around 140 such gatekeepers in Mogadishu, acting as middlemen between IDPs and NGOs. They have emerged as powerful actors, stepping in where official structures have failed to meet the needs of IDPs. 

Housing Hawassa's industrial workers

Hawassa, a relatively small city of 335,000, presents a very different context. The opening in 2016 of the Hawassa Industrial Park (HIP), a key initiative within Ethiopia's industrialisation drive and the Growth and Transformation Plan II, has the potential to create 60,000 jobs – with consequences for the city's housing market.

With affordability a challenge in state-provided apartments, despite the government's role as a 'developmental state', will the city see expansion of its informal settlements on the outskirts, or is there a role for the private sector to provide housing for its workers?

Evidence from informal settlements in Nairobi

Finally, in Nairobi, the vital need for affordable housing has never generated greater policy attention, but access to affordable, high-quality housing has remained elusive for the low-income majority. Nearly 60 per cent of Nairobi's residents now reside in informal settlements, in places such as Kibera and Mukuru (a Special Planning Area since 2017, and the site of an in-depth case study for this project).

In December 2017, President Kenyatta announced plans to create 500,000 new homeowners and to facilitate affordable housing delivery. How the government directs this priority programme is critical, and our ongoing EARF research on shelter can contribute to shaping a better approach.

Over the course of this research project, we hope to identify what forms of interventions, engagement and influence have been most effective in improving shelter provision for low-income and vulnerable groups across the three cities, and the potential to scale them up.

Stay tuned over the next two years to hear about what we find, and what it means for ensuring improved shelter options for all, in African cities.   

Diane Archer ( is senior researcher in IIED's Human Settlements research group.