Transformative Adaptation in Informal Settlements: The Case of Kounkuey Design Initiative in Kibera, Nairobi

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For her dissertation research, Maryrose Bredhauer, a Master’s student from King’s College London, travelled to Nairobi late last year with the aim to explore the scope for transformational adaptation in the urban informal settlement of Kibera slum, one of the largest slums in the world.

Squatter settlements such as Kibera have continued to expand in African cities due to a lack of affordable housing, adequate services, and sustainable urban development policies. Nairobi has grown to have an endemic slum problem, with 60% of the city’s population living in slum settlements characterised by poverty, food and water insecurity, overcrowding, and poor sanitation. Climate change impacts only exacerbate the problem, as settlements such as Kibera are stressed even further by water supply fluctuations and flooding. Focusing on transformative change in development is key to tackling the issues that generate vulnerability in the first place, and towards more equitable and sustainable development pathways. Additionally, special attention needs to be paid to slums, as they become home to an increasing majority of the urban population in developing countries, and are more often than not the frontline of dangerous climate change impacts.

In order to identify the practices, processes and relationships that might strengthen or hinder transformative change, I utilised a relatively new research framework titled ‘adaptation activity space’, developed by some of the leading theoretical minds in the disciplines of climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction (Pelling et al, 2015). This framework breaks down an extremely complex issue into seven components, or ‘activity spheres’ – discourse, individuals, behaviour, livelihoods, environment, technology and institutions. Using these components as the starting blocks for my research, I worked to analyse the flows, blockages and interactions within and between them, which either strengthen or hinder transformative change. In order to narrow my research, I focused on the activities of Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), an NGO that partners and collaborates with impoverished residents in Kibera to design and implement participatory projects, specialising in urban planning, landscaping, architecture and engineering. KDI staff supported my research immensely and in many ways. They welcomed my probing interviews with enthusiasm, and facilitated my interviews with community leaders, often translating Swahili to English. Their passionate input and their depth of knowledge into the intricacies of the many complex problems within informal settlements allowed for an enriching research experience.

In-depth interviews with KDI staff revealed the organisation’s strategies towards implementing transformative change in Kibera, which were many. I also undertook in-depth interviews with Kibera community leaders, which allowed me to gain an insight into the coping mechanisms and adaptation strategies of Kibera’s residents and community groups. Although the scope of my research did not allow me the time nor the resources to also interview local government, participant responses allowed an insight into government activities and interventions. After conducting qualitative analyses of the transformative impacts and/or potential of coping mechanisms and adaptation strategies in Kibera, key recommendations were suggested towards a more transformative agenda in Kibera’s development.

Adaptation in Kibera was found to be conducted in varying degrees by a multitude of individuals, organisations and institutions. The study revealed that most of KDI’s transformative potential lies in their process of participatory community development. This process was found to have strong influences on all ‘activity spheres’, and opens opportunities for transformative development at a local scale. The study also revealed that, while incremental adjustments were the dominant form of adaptation in Kibera, transformative potential can be found within and between all components, again at a local scale. It was suggested that in order to increase the scale of transformative impact in Kibera, and to begin to address the underlying causes of vulnerability, there needs to be increased and improved stakeholder engagement, coordination and collaboration. Ultimately, partnerships between government, community groups and local NGOs are key to transformational change.


Pelling, M., O’Brien, K. & Matyas, D. (2015) Adaptation and Transformation, Climatic Change, 133: 113-127.