Nairobi's Emerging Cities Dilemma

Raphael Obonyo


By Raphael Obonyo, Raphael Obonyo is the external adviser and a member of the UN Habitat’s Youth Advisory Board. 

Kenya, like countries across the globe, must contend with the challenges of rapid urbanization. The dramatic spike in youth unemployment, slum populations, and poverty rates in recent years is cause for alarm, but the government has yet to tackle the issue. If Kenya’s rapid urbanization is left unmitigated, the country could see even higher rates of unemployment, specifically within its youth population. 

Kenya’s population has recently exceeded an incredible 43 million. Just a decade ago, Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, had a population of about 2 million. Today, the number of people who reside in the capital has doubled. The rapid growth of Kenya’s population is not commensurate with the country’s capacity to create jobs, not only in urban areas, but also in rural economies.

The issue has led to proliferation of slums and gross inequalities. About 60 percent of Nairobi’s 3.5 million residents live in slums where provision of public services are inadequate.

A significant number of Kenya’s population is composed of young people, often the most productive constituent of an economy. However, facing wide spread unemployment, many jobless and idle youth are migrating to urban areas to look for elusive jobs. Their desperate search for jobs continues to accompany natural patterns of urbanization in the country - overwhelming the country's cities.

Analysts project that soon, over half of the population will reside in the urban areas. Already, the country’s rate of unemployment stands at 40 percent. Even more grim is the fact that 8 out of every 10 jobless Kenyans are youth aged between 15-34 years. It is worth noting that urbanization poses additional challenges to the youth due to their limited access to resources, education, training, and employment.

The manner in which many African economies are structured makes urbanization inevitable. Urbanization, a natural demographic change, is not an unnecessary evil thing. It is lack of proper policies to manage its negative effects, which manifests in Africa that creates the problems.

Over the past decade, the government of Kenya has not created proactive measures to deal with the problem. Today, without a deliberate plan to tackle the problems facing urban cities in Kenya, the country faces imminent danger of an urban explosion. Most importantly, Nairobi, a central pillar to the Kenyan economy could soon become overwhelmed by a growing unemployed and underemployed population.

Development of a sound strategy to avert the impending demographic crisis would enable the government of Kenya to have integrated plans and programs to manage the country’s reality of continued urbanization. A crucial aspect of addressing problems of urbanization is reducing unemployment among the youth in urban areas.

The UN Habitat’s most recent report titled State of urban youth 2012/2013; Youth in the prosperity of cities gives worrying statistics that by 2050, about 50 percent of the world’s population will be living in the urban areas. Most important, the report notes that 60 percent of all urban dwellers will be under the age of 18 by 2030.

Kenya aspires to be a middle-income economy by 2030. But this cannot be achieved without an effective approach to control urbanization. As a starting point, the legislature must move with speed to put in place laws and policies that are required to govern and manage urban areas as provided for under the Constitution. For example, there is no sound explanation why Kenya has not put in place a disaster management policy. Such policy is critical to the country’s success is managing risks and disaster, particularly in the urban areas.

Kenya, as well as other African countries, must think of how to make urbanization work for their citizens, make their economy thrive, and create jobs for the youth. They must also focus on creating opportunities in rural and semi-urban areas to reduce stress on urban areas.

One initiative in Kenya called The Youth Enterprise Fund, offers an example of a positive and strategic investment in the country’s youth. It is a project that the government created in 2007, giving seed capital to young entrepreneurs. If properly financed and managed, the youth fund could support youth innovations and generate decent jobs.

The country has plans to build a number of resort cities along the new transport corridor to be served by the proposed Lamu port, which will provide many jobs. It is laudable that the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta has recognized the importance of paying attention and har

nessing the positive aspects of urbanization. To show his concern about urbanization, the president created a new ministry to handle urban development. However, an inclusive approach must be adopted to avoid replicating the problems Kenya is already facing.

Make no mistake, without managing urbanization and creating economic opportunities for young people, it will be hard to cub insecurity and high levels of crimes in the city centers. Investing in jobs for young Kenyans and supporting urban and rural employment initiatives could provide reasonable ways to mitigate a growing force weighing down on Kenya.


Raphael Obonyo