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Nairobi’s first birthday: What is really happening in the city

March 27 2014 is the first anniversary of the swearing in of the devolved Nairobi County government headed by Dr Evans Kidero.

In recent press articles, Nairobi has been touted as “Africa’s most expensive capital”, “one of the most livable cities in Africa” and an “emerging wealth hub” for ultra-high net worth residents.

In his recent “State of the County” address, Dr Kidero highlighted that Nairobi County generates almost  60% of Kenya’s GDP and Nairobi is “one of the most prominent cities in Africa both politically and financially”. But he was also candid about the immense challenges confronting his administration (and Nairobi residents).

The population of the county is growing at more than 4% a year and about 60% of the approximately 3m residents of Nairobi city live in informal settlements “where services are extremely limited or non-existent”. An estimated 8m people will live in the county by 2020.

The county’s budget for 2013-14 is US$290m, which will be used to combat the traffic congestion, expansion of slums and informal settlements, water shortages, garbage and storm water problems and shortage of health and educational facilities alluded to in the speech. Land rates will account for one-third of revenue.

Salaries absorb more than 40% of the budget, a figure which “calls for serious thinking” and needs to be reduced to less than 30%. Intriguingly, 2,500 of the 11,000 workers on the Nairobi city payroll are blood relatives according to an auditor’s report – and about 2,000 are ghost workers. Debt repayments account for a further 11% of the budget.

After the wage bill and debt repayments, the county budget amounts to about US$35 per inhabitant.

The urban road network is, with the exception of the addition of the Thika super-highway, largely the one designed in the 1970s when Nairobi’s population was only 1m. The number of cars in Nairobi is more than double the 2012 figure at 700,000. The increase has been matched by the costs and “inadequacies in the public transport system”. The World Bank estimates that the cost of “outrageous” traffic congestion in the capital is equivalent to 1.5% of national GDP per year.

A new city master plan will be completed by June 2014 and replaces a 1973 master plan which was never implemented. A five year strategic plan for the county is also in preparation.

Land issues – irregular allocations, scarcity and tenurial complexity – are acknowledged as being “of serious concern to citizens”. More than 850,000 households in the county require affordable housing.

The doctor to patient ratio in the county is 1:23,000 and the average number of beds per 1,000 people is 0.74, half the national average.

Demand for water exceeds supply by 50%.

60% of the working population is occupied in market trading, generating 20% of the county’s GDP.

The county’s largest foreign exchange earner is tourism which brings in US$1 billion a year.

“If Nairobi succeeds, Kenya succeeds”, Dr Kidero concluded. This is an interesting remark, given that one the purposes of the decentralisation now underway is to ensure that Kenya’s future is grounded in realising the potential of all 47 counties. While Nairobi’s primacy is a given and its development of critical importance, we should not forget that 90% of Kenyans live elsewhere in the country.

One of the key requirements that the governor has promised to address is the need for “dynamic, innovative thinking and planning”. This is good to hear. The shortcomings of urban planning and the need for new approaches are the focus of ARI’s recent publications “For Town and Country: A new approach to urban planning in Kenya” by Professor Peter Ngau, and “Who will plan Africa’s cities?” by Vanessa Watson and Babatunde Agbola.

Edward Paice is Director of Africa Research Institute