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Preparing Informal Settlements; What is critical for Informal Settlements (An African Perspective)

Updated: Jun 23


The Covid-19 pandemic which continues to overwhelm global countries, has transformed the way that we live, work and even interact within cities and communities. A major part of this transformation, are the measures that most countries have undertaken to ensure that their citizens are safe. In order to mitigate the daily rising numbers of infected people, most countries across the globe have initiated full or partial lock downs. Who would have thought that at one point in our lives housing would become the front-line defense against a pandemic? The “stay home” legislation is based on the assumption that one’s home provides protection against the contracting and spreading of the virus.


However, this isn’t always the case, at least not for the most vulnerable communities in the cities.  Globally, approximately 1 billion people are living in the informal settlements/ encampments/slums. From this 1 billion approximately, 238 million people are from Africa. In the best of times, conditions in the informal settlements are often grossly inadequate. Families living in these communities are over-crowded with no adequate water or sanitation and regular income. They are disadvantaged with little opportunity to protect themselves through social distancing hand washing or staying at home, which are the main elements in COVID-19 prevention.


Consequently, various organizations and even individuals are taking urgent actions to assist the families living in these communities, but most organizations are testing the waters to see what works and what doesn’t.  Some are adapting already existing measures to better suit the crises, but all are piloting and pivoting as they go. With African countries facing similar challenges, from poor and ill-equipped healthcare systems to overrun informal settlements and congested public transport, we see a great opportunity to learn from each other, within and across the borders of Africa, to tackle COVID-19.


AVPA in partnership with Sankalp Dialogues, kicked off a webinar series, to find out what various organizations across the continent are doing to #CrushTheCurve. The virtual convening aims to:

  • Share examples of how implementers are responded to the outbreak, ranging from preparedness, response and mitigation

  • Hear from voices on the ground and discuss how best to address upcoming challenges and reduce post-outbreak implications

  • Share Solutions that can be easily embraced and implemented effectively, efficiently and with speed.


Before we could talk about what organizations are doing, we took a chance to find out what is most critical for those living in Africa’s informal settlement. A few things came up during the conversation;


1. Access to food: Most of the people living in informal settlements live from hand to mouth. In the face of Covid-19 where people are on lockdown, businesses are either slow or at a standstill. This translates to no cash to buy food for the family, for those with little that they may have saved up, there is currently an inflation of food prices which makes it hard to survive. The most common theme that arose was: which is better? Giving food versus cash to the families most affected, seeing that donors want verification on funds provided.


2. Security: In the face of unemployment, incredibly increased stress levels, and families being at home all at once, the level of insecurity is rising. This also translates to gender-based violence and especially domestic violence that is on the rise. Another form of insecurity translates to people hiding the symptoms that they may already have due to the stigmatization that they may face.


3. Reduced income opportunities through loss of employment: Most of the individuals working in the informal settlements are day laborers. With the economic slowdown in countries and the issue of social distancing, most work places that utilize day laborers have been forced to shut down and send people home until further notice. Additionally, most organizations are still trying to maneuver taking their businesses online and hence there are no work opportunities for informal workers.


4. Access to education: Most schools have moved their education to online platforms until further notice. However, some families living in informal settlements have no access to electricity, internet, or devices to enable e-learning. This inequitable access to online education will only exacerbate the gap between the poor and the rich.


5. Social distancing alternative: Families living in the informal settlements are faced by overcrowding in two fronts. Most of them have six or more individuals living in a small space, making social distancing impossible. Additionally, the housing in informal settlements are built closely together. In these areas social distancing is impossible.


6. Information on Covid-19: There is so much information about the virus from different sources being circulated that the truth about mitigating the spread of the virus has been obscured. One person suggested that there should be specific messaging channel for the informal settlement individuals. Tunapanda Institute, an organization that we hosted during this webinar, is coming up with a digitized manner to spread information.


7. Access to health, water and sanitation: In an effort to provide relief to the informal settlements, it is important to note that food is not the only necessity that most families need. We need to ensure that families living in the informal settlements have access to health facilities. Perhaps we could start with getting medical expertise on a distance (telemedicine, phone consultation/advice). Additionally, despite being an essential to prevent the spread of the virus, Water and Sanitation is the least in the list of concerns to families living in the informal settlements. However, Safe Hands Kenya, an organization that was formed in March 2020 by an alliance of Kenyan companies is deploying free sanitizers, soap, face masks and surface disinfectant to the families in Kibera (largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya) as a first line of defense against Covid-19.


As local governments try hard to flatten the curve, the timeframe is being elongated for Covid-19.  This means that people in informal settlements will continue to bear the hardest economic impact, and we don’t know for how long.  So, the biggest question remains, what can we do to ensure that we are providing adequate support to families in the informal settlements?



About the Author: 

Margaret Nakunza is from Intellecap Africa passionate about development work.

“I feel, sharing stories of individuals and organizations’, resiliently fighting different problems in the formal/informal sector, using their unique solutions, across Africa, can offer learnings and hope, in the times of COVID-19 pandemic” She’s worked on different projects- event management for a Kenya-based charity organisation, HESICH; Social Impact Award program for youths in Nairobi and handled communication and marketing strategies for grassroots organizations of Kenya. She is currently an Associate at Intellecap, responsible for communication and marketing at the Sankalp team. Additionally, she is also part of the team that is handling the communications and marketing for a project with World Bank and the Government of Kenya.



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