Government should move fast to bridge urban services divide

An aerial view of Nairobi's skyline showing parts of Kibera slums and Central Business District. [Davdi Njaaga, Standard]

If you live in Nairobi, you are likely to be three times wealthier than average folk residing in other parts of the country. According to the 2023 Gross County Product (GCP) report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, on average, residents of Nairobi are 2.7 times better off than an average Kenyan.

Cumulatively, the report shows that Nairobi City County is contributing more to Kenya’s economy than 29 other counties combined, highlighting the fact that Kenya’s wealth is concentrated in the capital. For that, the city attracted more than half of the 1.6 million Kenyans who moved to towns across the country in 2019.

Most of those who migrated to Nairobi that year cited economic reasons as the main motivation. These are eye-opening statistics about the allure of urban life, especially coming after the world celebrated World Habitat Day on October 2, under the theme, ‘Resilient Urban Economies: Cities as Drivers of Growth and Recovery’, which provided a platform to discuss how cities can position their economies to benefit residents.

In today’s urbanised world, cities are often seen as beacons of opportunity, drawing people from rural areas with the promise of a better life. But while cities indeed offer numerous advantages, they also hide a stark reality: The urban services divide which disproportionately affects the poor.

Access to essential services such as healthcare, education, transportation, and housing remains elusive for many urban residents, exacerbating inequality and perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

Even where such services are available, they are not affordable to the urban poor, especially in big cities like Nairobi. The GCP report shows that Nairobi, which controls Kenya’s manufacturing, construction and services industries, generated 27.5 per cent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) over the past five years, with its productivity growing by about Sh700 billion in the past two years alone.

The report also indicates that the share of wealth among Nairobi’s population – the GCP per capita – stood at Sh723,335 in 2022, against the national GDP per capita of Sh264,077. What this means is that on average, Nairobi residents are 2.7 times better off than an average Kenyan.

But all that may not mean much for most Nairobi residents who not only struggle to make ends meet but have to contend with living in squalid conditions. In most neighbourhoods, basic services such as clean water, sanitation, efficient transport system, and affordable healthcare are a major challenge for residents.

According to a UN Habitat report, without access to such services, the poor resort to self-provision using alternative arrangements, which can be exploitative and thereby aggravate their already precarious condition.

“Those who struggle to pay often spend the most for the same basic services,” says the report, noting that residents of Mukuru informal settlement in Nairobi, for instance, bear the brunt of what has come to be called the “poverty penalty”. It says residents in informal settlements pay over four times more for drinking water compared to those living in formal neighbourhoods of the city.

The trend extends to electricity and other basic goods and services. On transport, statistics show that over 60 per cent of low-income households in Nairobi, for instance, spend over 30 per cent of their income on transportation, compared to just 20 per cent for wealthier residents.

This financial strain forces families to make difficult trade-offs, often sacrificing basic necessities. Sometimes, lack of affordable public transport means city residents have to walk or commute long distances, paying multiple fares, even as they contend with Nairobi’s persistent traffic jams.

These have direct consequences on residents’ well-being. Studies have demonstrated that disparities in accessing essential infrastructure and urban services can have greater impact on lives, livelihoods and long-term prospects.

The disparity often results in poor health, inflicts environmental damage and locks people in cycles of poverty for generations. On the contrary, improving the quality, coverage, and affordability of basic services for disadvantaged neighbourhoods often results in citywide transformations.

For instance, extending piped water and sewer networks in low-income neighbourhoods improves public health, protects the environment and allows citizens to be more productive. Such transformations not only enhance equitable access to urban services but can also yield large dividends for the entire urban economy.

In its World Cities Report 2022, UN Habitat estimates that every dollar invested in developing water and sanitation infrastructure generates between $4 and $34 in benefits by improving health outcomes and boosting urban productivity.

Revitalisation of water and sanitation infrastructure in targeted neighbourhoods in Afghanistan, for instance, led to a 6.4 per cent annual increase in private investments in land, housing and real estate. That can surely happen in Kenya, too.

Having observed Urban October, which ended with the marking of World Cities Day on October 31, it’s important to focus on conversations and actions around building cities that offer equal opportunities to all residents, regardless of their socio-economic background, by bridging the urban services divide.