Kounkey Design Initiative at the Kibera Slum in Nairobi

Kounkey Design Initiative at the Kibera Slum in Nairobi


Aerial view of KiberaWith the swift development of informal settlements in all major towns in Kenya, slum elimination in the urban Kenya sounds like a nightmare. Government programs like KENSUP are aimed at improving the squalid living conditions in the slums.

These efforts have been backed up by small interventions by private organizations have brought substantial improvement in these areas, helping locals upgrade their livelihoods and even acquire a form of decency.

One example is the Kounkey Design Initiative (KDI) at the Kibera Slum in Nairobi.

KDI is an international partnership specializing in the practices of architecture, landscape architecture, engineering and urban planning. The US based organization was formed by six Harvard graduates on a mission to conserve the environment and upgrade the livelihood of people by proper management of public spaces in their locality. They have extended their mission in Africa, with offices in Ghana and Kenya.

KDI works in partnership with residents of impoverished areas to develop and implement design solutions that improve physical, economic, and social quality of life by creating low-cost, high impact environments dubbed Productive Public Spaces (PPS).

A PPS is a community-driven, sustainable urban system that functions collectively to mitigate environmental hazards, provide public space amenities, build social networks and develop small business enterprises.

KDI incorporates participatory planning and design to ensure sustainable development, and organizes works collaboratively with communities from conception through to implementation.

KDI first requests for proposals from the community on what spaces they need developed. They then call for information meetings where the proposals are discussed and experience from previous projects shared.

Community groups are invited to submit applications for partnership. KDI then selects a group to partner with. They consult with group members to define needs and priorities in developing the master plan. Permission is sought from Local Authorities before construction commences.

During implementation, KDI assists with technical design while the community members do the construction work. Raw materials, mainly clay bricks are locally produced by community members as well as steel and timber works.

On completion, KDI conducts a support program for the responsible group by building capacity in the members in order to enable them manage and maintain the facility hence develop a long term vision for the site. This ensures a sustainable operation as community members can do business in the built facilities and earn income.


Kibera is among the largest informal settlements in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its 13 villages are home to between 600,000 and one million residents. Kibera has no formal trash collection system or dumping site and only one decent toilet per 75 people.

Land tenure in Kibera is interesting. The government owns the land, but structures are owned by middle-income Kenyans living outside of Kibera and rented to low-income Kenyans. Housing density reaches up to 930 people per acre, leaving little traditional open space for children to play or communities to gather.

In 2006, KDI set out to change these statistics by developing a bottom-top networked strategy for slum upgrading activities named as Kibera Public Space Project (abbreviated as KPSP).

KPSP is a network of transformed waste spaces along the tributaries of the Ngong River that cut through Kibera. This network of micro-spaces addresses macro-challenges facing the settlement, including insufficient income generating opportunities, poor sanitation, lack of recreation spaces and absence of reliable watershed management in urban slums.

So far, KDI has managed to create six complete PPS’s in four different sites. The projects are labeled in numbers as follows:


Kibera Public Space NetworkKPSP01 lies at the border of two villages, adjacent to the Nairobi Dam. Initially, the area was impassable on foot due to flooding from the bordering river. Deemed un-buildable by residents and used as a dumping ground, KDI partnered with the New Nairobi Dam Community Group to reclaim the site. Together they built a gabion system to control river flooding and a bridge to connect the two villages.

The reclaimed site became a community hub with multiple activities taking place simultaneously within a very small space.

The site hosts a community center, housing a school during the week, a church on the weekends and can be opened to serve as a covered stage with amphitheater seating for special events.

The same structure also harvests rain water for the garden and is clad with metal shelves for drying a plant fiber used in the women’s weaving coop on site.


KPSP02 was unbuildable due to flooding and erosion. Like KPSP01, it was used for waste disposal and had four make shift toilets that drained directly into the river.

KDI helped residents adjacent to the site form River Ufasi Group (RUG) with which they worked together to design and build several financially self-sufficient amenities. The group replaced the polluting toilets with a city connected sanitation center where for a nominal fee; residents can access exceptional toilets, showers and clean drinking water.

The revenue generated from this center covers all the operational expenses and generates income to maintain the public seating, playground and flood control system on the site. The vending kiosks on site also generate a rental fee.


KPSP 03The third project, KPSP03 is an environmental infrastructure design. It is located in the southwest part of Kibera, along a river crossing that serves as a key pedestrian access point into Kibera.

It is at a low point in the settlement, and as a result, a major catchment area for the waste from uphill neighbors.

KDI partnered with two community organizations, Kibera Christian Initiative (KCI) and Bridge, to design and build a Productive Public Space rooted in environmental restoration.

The site boasts a series of constructed, formal drainage channels and circulation bridges along the access road and a riverbank gabion system to control flooding and waste-flow into the area. These stabilization efforts have allowed the groups to add much needed income-generating and recreational amenities to the site.


This project lies at the border of the Lindi and Laini Saba villages, adjacent to a bridge and along the confluence of two tributaries of the Ngong River. The site is currently used as a pedestrian route to access the main road.

KDI partnered with three community groups: Slum Care, Ndovu Laini Saba/Lindi Development Group and Usalama Bridge Youth Reform – making it KDI’s first site with a large youth contingent. Their participation in the project helped KDI design a PPS that will greatly increase security in the area, decrease idleness, and improve economic opportunities for youth and women.

Together they managed to build a riverbank gabion system, a passive landscaped recreation area and improved drainage channels to reduce flooding and urban run-off. A sanitation block and water tap connected to municipal water and sewerage infrastructure. These two systems will act together and work with the existing PPS network towards watershed remediation.


KPSPKPSP05 site reclaims a marshy field that opens to a major pedestrian route running along the south side of the settlement. KDI partnered with EMCOF to develop the site. Residents living in Gatwekera village were geographically unable to connect to municipal sewer lines.

KDI and EMCOF managed to explore alternative sanitation provision for the future sanitation block. Potable water is provided through a municipal connection. A natural stream is cleaned and utilized for the showers and toilets; a compost system cleans toilet waste creating fertilizer for local agriculture.

The sanitation block is designed for installation of constructed wetlands that filter waste, stabilize the riverbank and contribute to habitat restoration.


One of the key challenges was lack of connection to municipal sewer lines. A sanitation block at the site was therefore one of the major priorities for the community partner – NNDC Group.

KDI and NNDC Group were able to identify a sanitation system appropriate for the project site.

Together, they have designed a UDDT sanitation block that provides needed services to the community center and passersby.

Bamboo has been planted along the riverbanks to stabilize the riverbed and prevent further erosion and flooding. The bamboo is also used as a source for new building materials that provide income generation for the group.


KPSP01, 02 and 03 were constructed in 2012-2013 designed with a focus on creating resilience in water systems to address the settlement wide issue of watershed management. The sites of KPSP04, 05 and 06 were chosen to leverage the change created by the three previous projects.

On each site, sustainable urban drainage systems composed of permeable surfaces and paired with planting and natural conveyance systems protect the riverine system, reinforcing the river edges to control flooding and reduce urban run-off as well as deposition of solid and human waste.

Each of the projects is financially independent with a percentage of profits from the new micro-enterprises going to site maintenance.

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