Innovation in the Slums can bring Peace and Prosperity

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Rioting in Kenya has once again reminded people of the volatility of urban slums and the price to be paid if the dreams of those who live there are not met. As documented by urban development expert Jeb Brugmann, “mismanaged urban migrations have been a central part of political revolutions in our world since the 1960s.” In Kenya, “as elsewhere, these slums have effectively become huge, parallel cities, with their own economies, governance and social dynamics. Two-thirds of Nairobi’s slum dwellers eke a living in the underground informal sector. Ninety per cent of them are tenants. The poverty rate in Nairobi doubled, for instance, between 1992 and 1997.”

Slums are usually despised by the local urban authorities around the world. They end up either being totally ignored and seen as an embarrassment, or in more extreme circumstances like Zimbabwe’s slum clearance in 2005 – “Operation Clean Up Trash” – they are swept away (only to pop up somewhere else). Recently in Ghana, slums were cleared with flame-throwers, as residents were quickly cleared out of their homes to make way for a football stadium. Schoolteacher Ibrahim Addalah, who lost his home, said: “My school is gone. The community had bought us a blackboard; we had made a small school. It took us a long time to get all those things: the benches, the books. They gave us no time to leave; they just burnt our homes and our future to the ground. Now we are living in the rubble with nowhere to go.”

Over 900 million people – almost a sixth of the world’s population – now live in urban slums (UN). Improving conditions for these people is a Millennium Development Goal target. And half the world’s population will soon live in cities: already, in developing countries 43 per cent of urban dwellers live in slums – and in the least-developed countries the figure is 78 per cent. The UN has estimated it will take US $18 billion a year to improve living conditions for these people – and most of it will have to come from the people themselves.

An essential route to improving the situation is to give people living in slums the dignity and respect they deserve as human beings. Initiatives across the South seek to do this and turn the situation on its head: seeing slum dwellers as a valuable asset, not an urban blight.

The concept of ‘slum networking’ has been developed by Indian engineer Himanshu Parikh of Ahmedabad , a winner of the Aga Khan award for architecture. He starts from the point of believing there is no need for slum conditions to exist in India, but that slums do not need to be moved, just upgraded; and that good change can happen quickly.

He also sees the residents’ involvement and financial contribution as critical to the sustainability of any improvements. His approach has already helped one million people overall, including 8,703 families (43,515 people) in Ahmedabad in 41 slum communities. Slum networking does not depend on aid funds but is a self-reliant approach, in which residents make a partnership with private suppliers to get access to the most important services first: clean water and hygiene and sanitation.

Parikh’s approach involves providing channels for sewage, water supply and roadways in existing slum areas by exploiting the natural topography and pattern of development to provide the new infrastructure.

Parikh makes a detailed survey plan of the existing houses and divides them into groups based on the quality of construction. If they are of reasonable quality, they are left in place. Where possible, slum dwellers are allowed to buy the land they are squatting on. By buying the land, the owner now has a direct stake in its development.

“Working inside out, i.e. starting with quality infrastructure in the poor areas and working outwards to produce larger networks for the city or village, not only integrates the two levels, but actually produces far cheaper infrastructure at both levels,” Parikh told Architecture Week magazine.

In the slums of the Indian city of Indore, 181 slums were networked, giving the city 360 kilometres of new roads, 300 kilometres of new sewer lines, 240 kilometres of new water lines, 120 community halls and 120,000 trees. This transformed the two local rivers from open sewers back to water. According to the World Bank, fatal water diseases fell by 90 per cent.

“No project for their rehabilitation could be successful until they were involved as the capital partners,” Parikh told India’s The Tribune. Upgrading “the civic amenities, including sewerage, roads and water supply, was the need of the hour for better living conditions of the slum dwellers.” In South Africa, the country’s fast-growing tourism trade is being directed towards its slums, not just its game parks, wineries and cities.

The sprawling Soweto district on the outskirts of Johannesburg – the heart of the struggle against the former apartheid regime – has lured tourists to come and stay with its network of bed and breakfasts ( home-based places to stay run by families. Like many slums, Soweto is a heady mix of contrasts: from wealthy suburban homes, to makeshift tin shacks to outright squalor and destitution. But the B and Bs ensure tourists stick around and spend more money, creating lasting jobs.

Over 200,000 visitors a year tour Soweto to see where Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu once lived. And as with all success, it attracts more success: the international hotel chain Holiday Inn has just opened a 48-room hotel in Soweto.
Giving dignity to the lives of slum dwellers is the work of a do-it-yourself “TV station” in Kenya. Kenya’s dramatic turn to violence after recent elections has led to a myopic view of the country, according to the young filmmakers and photographers behind Slum TV ( Based deep inside Nairobi’s largest slum, Mathare, they have been seeking out the stories of hope where international media only see violence and gloom.

“We look at what is good and what is bad. We see what is behind the scenes. The international media only shows the negative side,” said Benson Kamau of Slum TV.
Slum TV is a group of young men in Mathare with only a two-week workshop in the basics of film shooting and editing. They pay their bills by doing odd jobs. A grant from Austria paid for their one camera and a computer.

They screen their films every month to the residents of Mathare on a giant white sheet hanging over some vacant land. They illegally tap an overhanging electricity line for power – few can afford electricity. The films document everyday life in the slum – a man selling dougnuts, women frying potatoes – and the locals can see their lives recorded and acknowledged.


1. Shelter Associates: established by Indian architect Pratima Joshi, it is an NGO working on slum rehabilitation.

2. SPARC: one of the largest Indian NGOs working on housing and infrastructure issues for slum dwellers.

3. Improving the Lives of Slum Dwellers: published by the Millennium Project.

4. For local bed and breakfasts in South Africa, click here, tourist information at

5. Slum Networking: Innovative Approach to Urban Development by Diane Diacon (editor). Website:

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© David South Consulting 2022

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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