Innovation on the fringes


 Kibera is the slum, the shantytown that—in the Western mind, at least—defines the grotesque poverty of the developing world.


Rusting corrugated roofs sprawl to the horizon. More than 200,000 people live here on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. Residents walk alongside open sewers and learn to navigate a mazelike arrangement of shacks and semipermanent lean-tos. In some areas, construction is so dense that corridors must be taken sideways. 

It’s easy to think of slums like Kibera only in terms of the hardships their residents confront: ad hoc shelters, inadequate sanitation, rape and other violent crimes. These challenges abound and life in slums and informal settlements is difficult and at times nightmarish. 

But that isn’t the whole picture. Slum dwellers, confined by tough environments and often untouched by municipal oversight, have also proven themselves masters of improvisation and innovation. Now governments, non-governmental organizations and social entrepreneurs are paying attention to this creativity and working alongside slum dwellers to tackle a host of challenges on both sides of the developmental divide. The solutions they’re coming up with are innovative, sustainable and scalable.

That’s a good thing, because urban poverty is a pervasive and growing problem in the developing world. By 2050, the combined population of the world’s poorest countries will climb to just less than 8 billion, an increase of 2.2 billion inhabitants. Most of this growth is expected to take place in informal settlements, as existing slums expand and impoverished rural dwellers migrate to the peripheries of urban areas. Governments are being overwhelmed by this growth. “There’s an inherent difficulty that goes along with government action,” explains Tom Fries, editor of, a Bertelsmann Foundation-funded website that studies the effects of policy issues on global challenges.

In Nairobi, for example, where the local government has not provided basic services to slum dwellers and relocation campaigns have proven controversial and minimally effective, some organizations are making headway by engaging existing slum economies. In Mukuru, a slum that sprawls over an industrial area south of the city, population fluctuation combined with pressures on children to bring in money makes traditional schooling largely ineffective. A group of Catholic nuns known as the Sisters of Mercy, however, has had success delivering education services to previously unreached residents. Dressmaking and hairstyling are valued entrepreneurial skills in slums, passed down from mothers to daughters or acquired through informal apprenticeships. The Sisters of Mercy combine free classes that teach these skills and others alongside more traditional instruction to enable slum dwellers to seek employment and advance beyond primary education.

Find out why creativity & innovations originating in slums might prove relevant for society at large. Click here, get your free digital issue of the November/December issue of The Intelligent Optimist and read on.

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