Rising urban population threatens education in informal settlements

A section of houses at Kibra slums, Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Young people migrate to cities and towns in pursuit of education, employment opportunities and better livelihoods.

This results in urbanisation, and the proliferation of unplanned and informal settlements, often dubbed slums. In 2019, the migration to Kenyan cities was 27.5 per cent, a 0.5 per cent increase.

This was lower than the predicted 40 per cent. This migration is projected to keep increasing, and by 2050, almost 70 per cent of the African population will be living in cities—and the situation will not be different in Kenya.

Increased migration from rural areas to cities, against limited employment opportunities is likely to affect access and quality of social services. Loss of income in households is likely to take the biggest hit, in turn, causing a ripple effect on socio-economic activities.

For instance, the income loss households in the informal settlements experienced due to effects of Covid-19 pandemic led to higher rates of school dropouts with 47.4 per cent coming from the poorest wealth tertile.

Economic shocks

This is worrying, as faced with serious economic challenges, schooling could be associated with higher opportunity cost, especially for learners able to engage in economic activities. If policy interventions targeting the most vulnerable are not put in place, more economic shocks could push some learners to drop out and engage in child labour to seek income-earning opportunities to supplement their household income, or support their families in some household chores.

Evidence from a study conducted in four of Nairobi’s informal settlements; Kibera, Korogocho, Mathare and Viwandani between August and October 2021 by the African Population and Health Research Center through the Center for Global Development (CGD) PREPARE partnership further showcases the impact of low cost private schools from the loss of income in most households from the pandemic - a similarity that is likely to be shared should the increase in urban population fail to match employment or economic opportunities among the households.

1km radius

The study involved 883 households randomly selected from 4,060 households with schoolgoing children aged 6-18 years that were originally shortlisted in Kibera, Korogocho, Mathare and Viwandani.

Data was also collected in all low cost private school (LCPS) and public schools in the four informal settlements and within a 1km radius from the boundary of the targeted slums, accounting for 471 schools in operation, and 24 schools that were permanently closed during the time of the study.

Findings of the study indicated that there was a higher preference by households to transfer learners from private schools to more affordable low-fee schools/public schools generally supported by the government capitation funds. However, considering the limited schooling spaces in public schools, high transfer rates in case of future economic shocks could affect the achievement of equitable access for all.

The market shift created by the effects of Covid-19 means that private schools have to cope with low enrollment as public schools cope with high student populations against limited infrastructure and human capital.

Many parents transferred their children from LCPS to public schools owing to lack of money to pay school fees. During the pandemic, many lost income or suffered reduced income-earning opportunities, especially during the lockdown. Faced with the realities of paying for living expenses and tuition amidst income loss, parents were more inclined to enrolling their children to schools they can afford, rather than deny them the right to education.

Notably, households in the informal settlements are characterised with limited financial resources against competing responsibilities to provide for key basic needs including education, health, food, housing, and clothing.

Coupled with the effects of Covid-19 on livelihoods and employment opportunities, continued lack of fees could spell doom to the LCPS market and further affect quality of education in both LCPS and public school systems.


Given the fees charged to learners in private schools support operations including teachers’ remuneration, transfer of a large number of learners is likely to affect the schools' income, their capacity to provide quality education and sustain school operations.

As we commemorate this year’s world population day, there is a need for policy-driven interventions in the basic education sector that adapt and meet the growing population, especially for urban informal households.

We need to ensure that learners from urban informal settlements, especially in Nairobi continue accessing quality education to allow improved livelihoods, economic development, and a break from the intergenerational poverty cycles amidst the increasing urban population.

-Dr Muchira is a postdoctoral research scientist at the African Population and Health Research Center