SLUMCODE – Empowering Slum Communities

Albert Nashon Odhoji

… works as an independent development consultant. He is founder of THE SLUMCODE GROUP in Nairobi, Kenya.

You must give some time to your fellow men. Even if it’s a little thing, do something for others – something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it.
Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965)




SLUMCODE is a not for profit organization that develops strategies for community based social development in low income communities within Nairobi, Kenya. It does so through developing partnerships and networking to harness the potential of diverse ideas. Its vision is “A better person, a better place!”

SLUMCODE started out in Huruma, a resident-ial estate located in the northeast of Nairobi. Huruma is what the government calls an ’informal settlement’ – a village that has no official standing where people live in constant threat of eviction. Today close to 60% of Nairobi’s population lives in such areas while occupying only 5.84% of residential land in the city. In Huruma, the Luo, Luhya, Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii and other smaller tribes are living together. Most of the population is below the age of 25 years. And there are many more girls than boys.


A day in Huruma

I came to Huruma at the age of 7 and lived there for more than 25 years. At the end I had to leave because of the post election violence in 2007.But Huruma is still deep in my heart. It’s my soul. This is why I founded SLUMCODE. I go to Huruma every day to visit projects I hope to win support for and that we have helped to keep afloat. And every day it somehow looks the same.

Early dawn in Huruma, 5:00 am. The toots and hoots of matatus – a Nairobi-wide transport system – are gathering those preparing to go to work. Many work far away in an industrial zone. Few job opportunities, low wages – but only for those who have a national identity card. Some children lucky enough to have some place to call a “classroom” hurry in the morning darkness to a neighborhood school. 6:00 am: the terrible traffic snarl up along Juja Road builds up – but the price of a matatu ticket is still low – if you are lucky, you pay about 30 kshs (roughly 50 US cents). As it approaches 7:00 am the traffic becomes unbearable – and the cheapest tickets now cost the equivalent of a dollar. And if you don’t make it to town on time you risk loosing your job.

Back to us who operate in Huruma. 7:00 am: A few “stores” are open. Women are at their shops, young men pull carts to dispose of the waste and garbage collected overnight from the numerous high rise flats. Garbage and waste disposal, over flowing sewage and crowded narrow lanes that scare the hell out of anyone who ventures down them at night are normality here. The market place is awakening: pubs blare out their music, motor vehicles cruise up and down the street. Women are already returning to their small grocery stores from “Marikiti” and “Gikomba”, the retail markets where they buy vegetables. From food kiosks to grocery shops, local pubs, and neighborhood clinics to coffin-making carpenters and general ironmongers – business grinds on. Groups of young people linger like every morning in the estates looking for something to turn their hand to – they might end up as touts, bartenders, drug peddlers, garbage collectors, tinsmiths or carpenters. Some try out teaching in local community schools or hone their talents as artists.

When I stroll through Huruma many of these young people approach me. SLUMCODE is well known within the community. They want to talk to me, ask me for advice, ask me to pay a bill or two. Some want to sound me out on ideas like how to find a space to show what they can do best. Many of the people in Huruma have already given up, capitulated or are plain desperate. They see no hope – it’s a fertile ground for alcohol and drug addiction where crime is a daily occurrence.

All this makes me realize how fortunate my team and I are that we have managed to do what we do!

At lunchtime women are busy cooking at the roadside, preparing food for those who cannot cook at home. Selling food is a pretty good guaranteed source of income – even though prices can be as low as 30 Kshs. But food is quite affordable and there is even some variety in the menu.

In the evening those who work outside Huruma don’t head back home directly, Because their houses are overcrowded, and very poorly equipped they prefer to stay at the local pubs and drink away the stress of the day. They stagger home late at night when their kids are already sleeping.

At night Huruma is in full swing. Literally every high rise flat has a bar on the ground floor run by families living in the building. Beer is cheap in Kenya since Kenya Breweries Limited has licensed it so that people can sell it very cheap. Alcohol is a huge problem in Huruma. And prostitution is linked in with it. For many women it’s the only way they have to make some money. The rate of HIV infection in Huruma is staggering. Poverty and the thread of addiction and prostitution are closely interwoven.

Security / Crime

Insecurity and crime are a constant threat as many of the unemployed young people with nothing to do idle their time away and come out on the prowl at night with mobile phone being the most prized catch. Even though they’ve grown rarer since the death of some of the most wanted hardcore gang leaders, gun totting criminals can still be see roaming every night. A government initiative dubbed, “community policing” failed to work in this area after it was infiltrated by rival gangs which made it an even worse threat to local residents.

But a police post nearby has made all the difference to Huruma residents and plans to have the area district commissioners establish an office in the area is real good news. Youth organizations have also become more aware and emphasize being watchful in the neighborhood. We can only expect things to get better.

Volunteer Work

Some SLUMCODE volunteers have made their way to Baraka Primary School a community project the SLUMCODE Group has supported since 2008. SLUMCODE has done this by mobilizing local resources to purchase desks, pay rent arrears, and buy books and meals for the some 150 children who cannot follow free primary school education due to the lack of space and money to buy official expensive school uniforms. Here they wear whatever they can afford and pay whatever they can afford in installments. Huruma has only 3 state-run schools which leaves much room for the ever increasing number of self help projects and non formal schools owned by community groups. I was surprised when I asked Mrs. Irene Agana the head teacher where the 150 or more pupils came from who filled the school within a month of her setting it up. She said their needs are diverse and that many of the parents are jobless because they lost their temp jobs or small businesses during and after the wave of post election violence in 2007 and can no longer afford to help pay for school desks and expensive uniforms as well as mandatory after-school tuition. And so such schools become an easy option for many who can part with around 40 Kshs a day to keep a child in school. The trend is growing rapidly as more and more parents find this a better option for educating their children.

VOLATILE is the word that springs to mind when talking about the post election violence in 2007. With my work at SLUMCODE and my personal leader-ship qualities, many of my close friends had encourag- ed and assured me of their support if I decided to take part in the national elections. So I took up the challenge. It was the kind of experience to write home about – and quite a daring one too.

But the worst was yet to come when everything turned dark after the fateful announcement of the incumbent president’s reelection. All hell broke loose and everything went up in flames. The selfsame young people I had known for so long turned against me just because I came from a different tribe. It became easier to count the machetes in the hands of youth than the loaves of bread brought home for family breakfast. For three days a dark cloud hung over our country and lingered on for months and years.

As a leader, I was a key target because I’d campaigned for one of the main political parties. One of the most dreaded vigilante groups in the country which also extorts money from the local households and businesses threatened to execute me just on hearsay. It had been reported that I had made certain statements about them to the authorities. But that was not true since I had spent my whole day on the streets trying to pacify mobs of rowdy youth hellbent on mayhem, robbing and burning down the houses of any Kenyans perceived to be from another tribe. I was very lucky to have escaped but I was ordered to leave Huruma, a place I had known for over 24 years. All my programs and organizational activities were focused there, but now the very people I had known and worked with through thick and thin just ejected me from my home along with all the other SLUMCODE members.

MOVING ON: Two years later we are back and once more serving our community. Many people have healed and now dread seeing politicians shouting each other down on national TV. The scars still sit deep. The volunteers are back at school teaching kids most of whom are so desperate, they probably haven’t eaten since the night before.

Dennis is a frustrated SLUMCODE volunteer as he feels his days are wasted with children who cannot understand as quickly as he would like, but then again he realizes that if he doesn’t do this job nobody’s going to do it. So together with Otieno, Eric and Mwai he struggles on teaching for another three months.

Meanwhile I try to get out there and see who can support them at school by at least providing lunch. Not many friends come to help me but life must go on. I must give them the optimism and hope that all will be well in the end.

SLUMFEST is an annual community gathering hosted by the SLUMCODE group in low income communities and based on thematic objectives. This will be the fifth time after planning and successfully hosting the inaugural event in 2007.

This youth initiative aims to provide a space for many young people who have innovative ideas and take the initiative to network, share ideas and sell their products. They also take voluntary medical tests to find out about their HIV status. They attend business clinics we organize in partnership with stakeholders supporting the event.

Sponsors pay between Kshs. 5,000 and 100,000. For this they “adopt a tent” as we call it: organizations, companies and institutions pay for a tent space at and brand it during the entire event for marketing and publicity purposes while offering their services to the many young people who come along. We have seen the concept grow and hope that many will find this grass roots initiative well worth their support.

These young people hope to be connected to business, scholarship opportunities, employment and even mentorship and training. They also talk about issues of national importance and their own personal development. We introduce them to role models who all come from local communities and share what they have achieved and their motivation in achieving it.

POVERTY bites as youth continue to be relegated to the periphery of frontline development. Talking to Richard, a middle aged man selling groceries by the roadside in Huruma leaves me wondering how he can support a family of four with this kind of job. But he’s been doing it for over 6 years. He knows pretty well that he has to keep his expenses to a bare minimum if he’s to cater for the family. Besides which he, his wife and business partner also have to pay for the small trader’s scheme they have set up.

Elizabeth Akumu, a single mother of two boys, spends her entire day in a small shop selling products handmade by a young tinsmith – square metallic boxes used by school kids for clothes, energy saving cookers (jikos in Swahili), frying pans and mouse traps. Often she is there for 8 hours on a stretch without a single customer appearing. It’s out of desperate situations like these that innovation is born. SLUMCODE set up a resource centre where these products can be displayed daily, posted on a website and published in brochures, hence saving the young artisan the cost of hiring space and staff, paying for licenses and better security which are now all covered by the SLUMCODE centre’s logistics. All they have to pay now is a small fee for space so they can do more marketing.

This initiative is the first of its kind in Huruma – a sure way of curbing poverty by promoting innovation and entrepreneurship. Elizabeth also gets a chance to train other interested in trade.

COMMUNITY DRIVEN DEVELOPMENT is an approach I advocate to encourage people to participate in social projects. With many still living on less than one dollar a day, challenges must become opportunities and avenues for empowerment that tap the potentials of the highly pragmatic youthful demo- graphic. For many years the population continued to grow and nobody bothered about family planning. Structures and institutions were put in place to deal with the expected pressure on resources such as schools, housing and employment caused by the population explosion.

We young people sat down to form self help groups for self-empowerment, growth and development. This was after crime rates, deaths from HIV, and substance abuse hit record highs in communities like Huruma, Dandora, Kibera and Korogocho. They saw a great influx of people migrating from rural towns in search of work and swelling the slum population as decent affordable housing is a luxury.

Having seen my own brother succumb to drugs, leaving 6 children behind, some of whom I have to fend for, I have encouraged my team to initiate a program that targets children. Mtoto Palace is a child support project that keeps our children happy and focused and we now teach them poetry, character building and class work for school excellence.

We must curve new dimensions and our diversity must be fed into our community programs by our young and ambitious, open minded and charismatic reformers. We are changing perceptions of how communities view themselves in order to take part in development.

Youth-led initiatives can transform communities. Young people are agents of peace, not proponents of violence. SLUMCODE wants to see them as leaders in sustainable development, not as risks to society. SLUMCODE volunteers are a case in point showing that we young people are no longer ignorant and unaware of what goes on around us.

INNOVATION and creativity is what I see in many of the eyes as we sit in the SLUMCODE office, a small room with some photos on the wall and just space enough for a table. We wonder what the next step will be – always confident that we will make it somehow.

Our approach is more and more to support community programs that promote the tenets of true entrepreneurship and local solutions. Help people to help themselves. We want to include the idea of sustain-ability in our concepts – not only to get funding for an idea but to make the idea sustainable on the longrun. We look at how to best mobilize resources and make our programs work. A good example for that is SLUMFEST.

CHALLENGES facing organizations like SLUMCODE must always be seen as opportunities we can learn from. Working as a grass roots organization brings us into contact with all sorts of people and characters. We know how to handle different challenges from different backgrounds. Youths from low income communities are poor and prefer projects with quick financial gains. Very often young girls resort to prostitution as a means of day to day survival which makes it difficult for them to get out of. Abortion quickly becomes the norm as sex is a tool of the trade and no longer for pleasure. Nor is it safe as the act is performed when many of the girls are half drunk or worse. They’re hooked on drink as a way of numbing themselves to pain. We’ve helped a 14 year old in a state of total bewilderment as she tried to come to terms with the reality that she is HIV positive. Ann Mbugua, another SLUMCODE volunteer, leading a women’s HIV program takes up her case to see that at least she gets psychosocial support.

With our Slumedia™ project (= a video production project) we target school leavers who are the group most at risk from sexual abuse. So we helped a lady with two children. Her elder daughter has just sat her class eight exams and she had to figure out how to get the girl into secondary school. Missing such an opportunity means that sooner or later the girl will be yet another rape victim, single parent or prostitute. We were more than happy that she engaged in Slumedia™ and joined us to drive further change.


Dennis Okoyo – is a young man who recently completed secondary school and joined SLUMCODE as a Youth Program Coordinator.
He says: “Through this organization I have realized my potential to think critically and manage a program at a very early stage. Some of the things I do today would never even have crossed my mind as a young person outside such an organized group.
But the group’s spirit of innovation and the way it teaches you to lead yourself and others has made me a much better person. I now help to develop the talents of other young people by working with children aged 10 – 18 in the Mtoto Palace program.”

Ann W. Mbugua – who leads SLUMCODE’s women and girls program, says:
“Over the years as a person who also helped to found the organization, I have experienced what it takes to make an impact in communities.
I have dealt with some extremely desperate situations involving young mothers, women with children orphaned by HIV and no regular means of earning a decent living. We have mobilized support for such women and are currently working on a plan to create employment for less privileged women by teaching them video production and documentarymaking for which we need funding”.


Facts about Kenya – according to Wikipedia:

The Republic of Kenya is a country in East Africa.
Nairobi is its capital. Lying along the Indian Ocean to its southeast and along the equator, it is bordered by Somalia to the northeast, Ethiopia to the north, Sudan to the northwest, Uganda to the west and Tanzania to the south. Lake Victoria is situated to the southwest, and is shared with Uganda and Tanzania. It has a land area of 580,000 km2, a population of nearly 39 million residents and is a country of 47 counties each with its own government semi-autonomous to the central government.

Its economy is the largest by GDP in East and Central Africa and Kenya’s capital,Nairobi is a major commercial hub. The country traditionally produces world renowned tea and coffee. Recently it has developed a formidable horticultural industry thereby becoming a major exporter of flowers to Europe. The service industry is driven by the telecommunications sector which is one of the most innovative in Africa. The economy has seen a broad-based expansion and its foreign debt was greatly reduced. But poor governance and corruption have had a negative impact on growth, making it expensive to do business in Kenya. According to Transparency International, Kenya ranks poorly in the corruption perception index though there have been significant improvements in recent times.

Compared to its neighbors, Kenya has a well developed social and physical infrastructure making it an attractive alternative location to South Africa for major corporations seeking entry into the African continent. Nairobi continues to be the primary communication and financial hub of East Africa. It enjoys the region’s best transportation linkages, communications infrastructure, and trained personnel.

Some 73% of Kenyans are under 30. The internet penetration rate is 10.0 %.



2 Comments

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