Nairobi’s Emerging Cities Dilemma

By Raphael Obonyo

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.

Some of slum residents heading to work

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.

Some of the workers trying to catch train in Nairobi

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 harnessing 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 is a former member of the UN-Habitat’s Youth Advisory Board.

[Photos courtesy of Fredrick Ochieng]

Re-posted with permission from World Policy Journal


UN Habitat’s Youth Representative marks UN at 70 with children in Mathare slums

Raphael Obonyo, former UN Habitat’s Youth Representative marks UN at 70 with children in Mathare slums.

As part of his reflective work, the former UN Habitat’s External Youth Advisor, Raphael Obonyo joined children and young people in the sprawling slums of Mathare in Kenya to mark the United Nations seventieth anniversary.

Speaking at the function, the former UN Habitat’s Youth Advisory Board member called on young people to play a more prominent role in public life and development. “Let us stop being spectators, and play an active role in transforming our world for the better” he said.

He called on the Government of Kenya, businesses and development partners to invest in youth-the country’s greatest asset. Lamentably, unemployment and underemployment of youth remains a major challenge in the country.

“The success of the youth is critical for the success of any society” said Mr Obonyo.

According to the recent statistics from Brookings, Kenyan youths aged 15-24 years have unemployment rates of 25 percent—about double the overall unemployment of 12.7 percent for the entire working-age group (15-64).

Having grown up in the poor slums of Korogocho in Nairobi city, Raphael Obonyo who was named one of the 2014 Africa’s Most Inspirational Youth, chose to mark UN at 70 in the poor neighbourhood of Mathare informal settlement to inspire young people to take ownership over their own solutions.

“It is really important for the youth especially from poor areas like Korogocho and Mathare to understand that we have the solution to our problems” he said.

He also stated that he was aware of the hardships and odds that young people from poor neighbourhoods face, and the importance of encouraging them to keep their dreams alive. “I know your needs, and your challenges”. “Keep working hard to spark change and to make the world better” he said.

Calling the event to mark UN at 70 historic as it was held in the poor neighbourhood of Mathare where thousands of young people were living in abject poverty, Mr Obonyo lauded and urged the UN Habitat to continue with the good work of investing and supporting young people – the next generation of leaders.

New Youth Advisory Board elected!

On the first of October a new Youth Advisory Board (YAB) was elected through a competitive online election. Over 580 applications had been submitted and narrowed down to 59 shortlisted candidates. In the following online election, more than 93,000 votes were cast to elect the sixteen new board members.

The new YAB has a mandate of two years and the sixteen new members, aged 18-32, will in this time seek to increase youth involvement in UN-Habitat initiatives. The board has an equal gender balance and includes representatives from Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, North America, the Arab States, and Latin America and the Caribbean. New for this period are four additional advisory members chosen due to their expertise in the areas of housing, informal settlements, post-conflict and disabilities.

The successful new board members are the following.

  1. Hussein Nabil Murtaja (Palestine, Arab States) has a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering and a Higher Diploma in applications and Entrepreneurship. He is currently a coordinator for projects at the Gaza Group of Culture and Development and a Director of an economic empowerment project for poor families in Gaza Strip.
  2. Hung Vo (United States, North America) is a student of Urban and Regional Studies at Cornell University and a researcher in the field of community planning and development.  He recently co-authored a paper that appeared in the Journal of the International Society for the Prevention and Mitigation of Natural Hazards.
  3. Margaret Koli (Kenya, Africa) works with the Human Needs Project (HNP) in the Kibera informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. HNP is dedicated to building self-sustaining town centers in slums around the world—centers that will prosper far into the future by working in complete partnership with locals to find the best solutions for the unique challenges encountered in each center location.
  4. S M Shaikat (Bangladesh, Asia Pacific) is working in a youth-led organization and he has been working on youth leadership, economic empowerment and gender violence prevention, and human rights in Bangladesh for more than a decade. Through his leadership, SERAC was awarded the 2010 UN-Habitat Youth Fund grant which empowered 50 disadvantaged young women by providing life skills training.
  5. Katerina Gavrielidou (Cyprus, Europe) is a young leader, passionate about youth empowerment, urban affairs and youth participation. Katerina is currently a Learner at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). She has previously served as Youth Ambassador at the Cyprus Youth Council, representing Cypriot and European youth on local, national and international youth summits.
  6. Jonas Freist-Held (Germany, Europe) is a student of Political Science at the Free University in Berlin and the University of California, Berkeley. In high school, he founded the awarded youth magazine PUBLIK to amplify youth voices. Since 2013, he has been the representative of the youth advisory board of the child rights organization Plan International Germany.
  7. Maria Diffallah (Algeria, Arab States) is a young medical doctor and human rights educator. She was the founder and President of Setif Empower Youth Association (SEYA). Maria’s work with SEYA involves developing programmes for promoting sustainable education and entrepreneurial skills for young people from the area of Setif in Algeria.
  8. Badi Zárate Khalili (Mexico, Latin America) is a youth leader and community developer. He currently studies Urbanization at the University of Guadalajara and is the regional delegate for the National Design, Urbanization and Planning Student Association. He has served as a volunteer in the social action programmes carried on by the International Bahá’i Community for over seven years.
  9. Anoka Primrose Abeyrathne (Sri Lanka, Asia-Pacific), is an environmental conservationist, eco-social entrepreneur and youth policy advocate. She is the youngest female recipient of the Commonwealth Youth Award for Excellence in Development, and is also a Global Youth Ambassador with Office of the UN Special Envoy on Global Education.
  10. Debora Leao (Brazil, Latin America), is a social entrepreneur and youth advocate. She co-founded and is today fully dedicated to the development of Engajamundo, a non-profit youth-led organization that seeks to empower and engage youth in international policymaking processes that could shape our future.
  11. Olivia Labonté (Canada, North America), advises and works with a number of local and international institutions, including the OECD, the World Bank Group, the United Nations Foundation and the Parliament of Canada. In 2014, Olivia represented Canada at the Y20 Summit—a meeting of the official youth engagement group of the G20.
  12. Phares Monsan Josias Ambeu (Cote d’Ivoire, Africa) is currently the Internship Program Director with AIESEC in Côte d’Ivoire. He has over four years’ experience working on youth development and internships programmes. Phares is a Telecommunication engineer with interests in project management, digital marketing, administration and public relations.


  1. Julio Limo (Brazil, Housing Advisor) has worked along with more than 30,000 young volunteers that like him have the desire to change the world. He wants to continue this trail. He has a degree in IT for Business Management and has coordinated online courses for young social entrepreneurs.
  2. Amir Ben Ameur (Tunisia, Post Conflict Advisor) is a young social activist, who advocates for youth development and democracy. Amir currently studies Economics and Political Science at the American University in Cairo as Middle-East Partnership Initiative Tomorrow’s Leaders fellow.
  3. James Aniyamuzaala Rwampigi, (Uganda, Youth with disabilities Advisor) is a hearing impaired disability rights expert, researcher and independent advisor on accessible information and communication standards for persons with disabilities. He holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced Studies in Humanitarian Action from the University of Geneva, and a Bachelor of Arts in Economics as well as a Human Rights fellowship training certificate from Columbia University, New York.
  4. Lama AlGhalib Alsharif, (Saudi Arabia, Future Saudi Cities programme Advisor) Lama has led the volunteer-based life of a social activist. Since the age of seventeen, she has been selected as a youth representative of Saudi Arabia in major conferences including the Sixty-Third UN General Assembly Conference in New York, USA and the World Economic Forum in held in Amman, Jordan. Lama is a Poet and a graduate of Dar Al-Hekma University and Tufts University.

New Publications Out! Check it out!

Youth Led Development: A Case Study from the Mathare Slum, KenyaMathareYouth and their Needs Within Public Space

Youth Needs

Advancing Economic Citizenship for Children and Youth in Sub-Saharan Africa

Stories from the Field: The UN-Habitat Urban Youth Fund Becomes a Tool for Youth Empowerment in Kibera

Right to Participate: Report #1 Oslo Youth and Governance Platform

More published youth related materials from UN-Habitat can be found here.

Youth Participation in Habitat III High Level Regional Meeting


The Habitat III High Level Regional Meeting for the Asia-Pacific Region occurred on 21-22 October 2015, hosted by the Government of Indonesia to identify key issues and regional perspectives for the New Urban Agenda. Young people were strongly represented as a constituent group throughout these proceedings, with their activities coordinated by the UN Major Group for Children and Youth (UN MGCY).

A total of 30 youth participated in the High Level Regional Meeting: 18 from Indonesia and 12 from other countries within the Asia-Pacific region. These youth came from a number of major youth-led organisations, like the International Movement of Catholic Students – Pax Romana (IMCS), the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), Children and Youth International (CYI), the Japan Youth Platform for Post-2015, World Vision International (WVI), the Indonesian Green Action Forum (IGAF), and several others.

Throughout the forum, they worked hard to meet directly with Member States and stakeholders in order to advocate regional youth priorities and recommendations for the New Urban Agenda, in addition to maintaining two exhibition booths in the main foyer area to further highlight youth engagement. In addition, the UN Major Group for Children and Youth coordinated and hosted one side event about amplifying young Asian voices in the New Urban Agenda, whilst also having three representatives serving as panel speakers in two other side events.

On 22 October, young people’s voices were formally recognised in the meetings through the statement delivered on behalf of the Children and Youth Partner Constituent Group, a member of the General Assembly of Partners. UNMGCY, the chair of the Children and Youth Partner Constituent Group, delivered the statement which summarised the key priorities and recommendations of young people in the region on sustainable urban development, as outlined in the Asia-Pacific Children and Youth Position Towards the New Urban Agenda.


These positions were put together through the culmination of months of online and offline consultations facilitated by youth, in addition to the key themes arising from the Asia-Pacific Urban Youth Assembly (APUFY), which had gathered 300 young people together from the Asia-Pacific region earlier that week. In addition to making a strong call for children and youth to be seen as equal partners in the process, the statement also called for the right to safe and inclusive public spaces, a contextualised framework and new ways of financing sustainable urban urbanisation. It concluded by highlighting the critical importance of linking the New Urban Agenda with other intergovernmental processes to ensure coherency and build a more transformative, inclusive and sustainable future for all. You can see the full statement and the Asia-Pacific Children and Youth Position.

Overall, young people were highly engaged in this process, with many stakeholders voicing how impressed they were by the level and quality of youth engagement throughout the meetings. We were particularly pleased that most of the key points outlined in the Children and Youth Partner Constituent Group statement were incorporated into the outcome document of the meetings (the Jakarta Declaration), with stakeholder inclusion and participatory approaches strongly reflected in the language of the document.

Looking forward, the key regional youth priorities outlined in the Asia-Pacific Children and Youth Position Towards the New Urban Agenda will be used to continue to advocate the priorities of young people in the region with Member States and other stakeholders. In addition, the experience of meaningful youth engagement from this week will also be used to encourage stakeholders from other regions to prioritise youth participation and inclusion in all aspects of the Habitat III process leading up to Quito.

Data Innovation and Participatory Design: A Mash-up for Urban Development

APUFY has been a great success, to large extent thanks to our partners that put a lot of effort in organizing and running 12 parallel sessions throughout the day! While they were all amazing, have a look at the highlights of one of the sessions that focused on the importance of data innovation and participatory design in urban planning, through the lens of Lalitia Apsari and Kautsar Anggakara from Pulse Lab Jakarta:

Pimping Your City

The session highlighted the emergence of bottom-up data capture and participatory design processes that are empowering communities and better informing urban planning. But to attract the attention of the youthful forum participants we transformed Creating Cities for Everyone with Data Innovation and Participatory Design into #PimpMyCity.

The session was structured as discussion between the five diverse speakers with the audience raising questions through the hashtag on social media. We were graced by the company of:

Creating Cities with Everyone

When speaking of creating a city for everyone, there is a tendency for a ‘planning elite’ to take the lead. In a collaborative process, we shift from ‘designing a city for everyone’ to ‘creating a city with everyone’, combining both top-down and bottom-up approaches to understand the complex and evolving city system.

Mizah highlighted the complementarity of ethnography and data innovation, adding that stories offer meaning and context to the trends captured by the data. But, alas, it is not always easy to combine datasets, because, as Dr. Ying highlighted, big data is rarely open and open data is rarely big.

Gugun pointed out that open source and affordable technologies are empowering communities to develop highly relevant and granular data on their shared spaces and lived experiences. This is helping to address the data quality issues afflicting governments which was highlighted by Oshean.

Ahmad added that the validity of ‘bottom-up’ data collection processes is time and time again being demonstrated by urban communities, but that regulatory regimes make it difficult for governments to use the data. The audience agreed.

Empowerment is Key

Alas, it is hard to capture the depth of the discussion in a blog and we have certainly not done the speakers justice. But the questions and ideas flowing on Twitter was evidence that youth are more than ready to be engaged in collaborative processes of urban development.

The key point of the session was to highlight that while many different approaches to blending data innovation and participatory design exist within this space, the objective is the same: creating informed and empowered citizens and communities, both capable of better understanding themselves and of influencing decision-making processes.