AUSTIN, Texas — More than 1 billion people around the world currently live in slums. These slums are settlements of informal housing that have a high population density, minimal public services and high rates of poverty. Almost a quarter of the world’s slum dwellers (238 million people) reside in sub-Saharan Africa, a region where more than half of the urban population lives in slums, with Kenya accounting for the largest of these slums. Here, an organization called Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) works to combat urban poverty and empower those living in Kenya’s slums.
Urban Poverty in Kenya
Approximately 56% of Kenya’s urban population lived in slums as of 2016. This equates to 14.1% of the country’s total population or about 6.4 million people. Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is the country’s largest city and it typifies the growth of slums in the rapidly urbanizing region of sub-Saharan Africa.
Nairobi’s population stood at just 293,000 in 1960 but has since skyrocketed to more than 5.1 million in 2022. Since this rapid urban growth outpaced the construction of affordable housing and infrastructure, between 60%-70% of the city’s population now lives in slums.
In Kenya’s slums, residents face a myriad of challenges. Firstly, homes are overcrowded and unsafe. These structures are often weak and lack windows, concrete floors or water-tight roofs and can easily collapse during storms or earthquakes. Due to scant infrastructure, slum dwellers also lack reliable access to basic services like electricity and plumbing, which promotes the spread of waterborne and respiratory diseases.
Secondly, these slums lack adequate systems of urban governance, which means slum dwellers have limited access to public services like health care, education and sanitation. It also means that the slums are separate from the formal economy, which makes it difficult for slum dwellers to find decent employment.
Kennedy Odede, founder and CEO of SHOFCO, grew up in Kenya’s Kibera slum (the largest slum in Africa with an estimated population of 1 million) where he experienced the complex realities of urban poverty. Despite the grim conditions, Odede recognized the potential of his vibrant and entrepreneurial community. When he founded SHOFCO in 2004, he aimed to harness this potential and catalyze systemic change. The Borgen Project had the opportunity to interview SHOFCO’s Chief Advancement Officer Katherine Potaski to discuss this incredible organization.
What is SHOFCO?
Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) is a grassroots organization that operates in urban slums across Kenya, although it focuses on a few highly populated slums surrounding the capital city of Nairobi. Its mission is to address the challenges of urban poverty and create a brighter future for those living in slums.
The organization does this by providing relief to slum dwellers and equipping them with the socio-economic tools to escape poverty. As Potaski put it, SHOFCO envisions urban communities where marginalized people “can meet their basic needs and have a meaningful set of choices to live with dignity, equity and opportunity.”
SHOFCO takes a three-tiered approach to achieve these goals, with each tier seeking to satisfy a different facet of urban poverty.
As part of the first tier, SHOFCO provides slum dwellers with the basic public services that most slums lack. These services include:
- Quality Health Care. In 2019, SHOFCO ran six health clinics that reached more than 106,000 unique slum dwellers. The clinics provided preventative care, pre and postpartum care, child immunizations, family planning, HIV support, child nutrition programs and cancer screenings.
- Access to Clean Water. In Kenya’s slums, a lack of quality infrastructure means that many communities lack access to non-contaminated water. To reduce water insecurity and curb the spread of water-borne diseases, SHOFCO provides clean water tanks, low-cost water kiosks and sanitary community latrines.
- Gender-based Violence Support. Despite a high rate of domestic violence, the slums lack social safety nets for victims of abuse. SHOFCO provides legal support, mental health counseling and temporary shelter for women who have been victims of gender-based violence.
In the second tier, SHOFCO empowers slum dwellers to exercise their collective power for change. SHOFCO accomplishes this primarily through its community organizing platform, the SHOFCO Urban Network (SUN), which provides members with services like:
- Communal Advocacy. SUN provides a platform for community members to chart the development of Kenya’s slums. Within this platform, SUN members can elect specialized committee leaders that concentrate on specific aspects of their development agenda. These committees advocate for community needs and hold government officials accountable through debates and public forums.
- Scholarships. SUN funds scholarships that allow impoverished children to attend school. In 2019, 254 students received SUN scholarships, which totaled more than $112,000.
- Employment Training. In 2019, SHOWFCO’s Employability Program trained 652 young people on job-readiness skills such as resume building, interview strategies, job-finding techniques and workers’ rights. SHOFCO also partners with local businesses that hire from the Employability Program’s applicant pool, which further helps slum dwellers find formal employment.
In the third tier, SHOFCO aims to empower women and girls, who have historically been at a disadvantage in Kenya’s slums. Since gender equality is one of the keys to long-term progress, SHOFCO uplifts girls through:
- Schooling. SHOFCO operates two Girl’s Leadership Academies in the slums of Kibera and Mathare, which had a combined enrollment of 547 girls in 2019. These academies are tuition-free and provide girls with a high-quality education from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The academies also offer students free meals, school uniforms and basic health services.
- Counseling. In these schools, girls receive professional counseling sessions with on-site social workers. This counseling provides an emotional outlet and an opportunity for personal growth that many slum-dwelling girls lack.
- HIV Support. In terms of prevention, an educated girl is “three times less likely to contract HIV.” For women who already have the disease, SHOFCO’s Women Empowerment Program teaches “income-generating skills” and provides “psychosocial support services” for women living with HIV.
Shifting the Development Paradigm
SHOFCO’s three-tiered approach differs from the traditional development paradigm due to its commitment to community-based solutions. SHOFCO believes that governments and the development sector must prioritize local voices to drive truly transformational change, which is why 52% of its own staff comes from the local slum communities that it serves. According to Potaski, local staffing offers the “lived experience required to ensure the voice of the community is reflected throughout our programming.”
This represents an alternative to the current foreign assistance dogma, which heavily favors state- and country-level actors. In 2018, less than 1% of all Official Development Assistance (ODA) reached local development programs. SHOFCO demonstrates the power of grassroots solutions and offers a blueprint for community-led development.
Such a blueprint will prove vital as sub-Saharan Africa’s population continues to grow and urbanize. As evidenced by its success in Kenya, SHOFCO’s model shows how community-based solutions can empower those living in marginalized urban settings across the region.
– Jack Leist