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As Kenya’s Cities Grow, Women Risk Being Crowded Out of the Economy

As delegates gather for this year’s World Urban Forum, one urgent question is how to ensure urbanization doesn’t make it even harder for women in the informal economy to earn money and support their families.

Written by Sophie Mbugua Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Over the last five years, as Kenya’s cities have grown at a rapid pace, the number of women-led households has increased by 15 percent.SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images

KISUMU, Kenya – When Vida Adhiambo, a 24-year-old mother of two, moved from Rarienda district to the Nyamasaria estate in Kisumu about three years ago, she hoped her degree in early childhood development would help her get a job quickly.

Instead, it took her two years to find a teaching position, which she eventually had to leave because the schedule was too demanding for a mother with young children.

Now Adhiambo makes a living running a roadside stand.

“I sell about 20 trays of eggs and two crates of tomatoes, making a profit of 1,500–2,600 Kenyan shillings ($15–26). It helps supplement my husband’s income and takes care of the daily household needs,” Adhiambo says.

From those profits, she buys necessities for her family. She also pays 50 Kenyan shillings ($0.50) a day to the Kisumu municipal council for a license to operate her vegetable stand.

But Adhiambo says she doesn’t see where that money is going. The county keeps promising to build three major markets to cater to the growing number of street vendors in the city, she says, but they haven’t materialized. So, every day, Adhiambo and her two-year-old daughter sell their produce at the side of a busy street, exposed to noise, sun, rain and traffic fumes.

Adhiambo is among the 1 million residents in Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city with a population growth rate of 2.8 percent annually. She is also one of an increasing number of women who are taking on more responsibility for the financial support of their families. In the past five years, women-led households in the country have increased by 15 percent, says George Wasonga, CEO of the Civil Society Urban Development Platform (CSUDP).

Many of those women, like Adhiambo, are eking out a living in Kenya’s informal economy, which makes up 75 percent of all work in the country. And as urbanization continues to spread, many are seeing their jobs under threat.

In cities where residents already struggle with too little housing, high unemployment and inadequate infrastructure, rapid population growth is making it even harder for women to care for their families and earn money at the same time.

Angela Mwai, leader of U.N.-Habitat’s Gender unit, which promotes gender equality in sustainable urbanization and housing, cites a number of factors affecting women in the city: “Lack of housing, job opportunities, lack of financial training, poverty – both financial and time, as women are responsible for household activities and unpaid extra work looking after children, the old and the sick,” she says. “Those are among the social disadvantages women are facing in growing cities.”

Building Fairer Cities

The importance of considering women’s social and economic needs when planning and investing in cities will be one of the issues on the table at this year’s World Urban Forum (WUF9), taking place in Kuala Lumpur on February 7–13.

It will be the first time a major conference has been dedicated to U.N.–Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, which countries adopted at the Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in Ecuador in October 2016.

Representatives from governments, NGOs and the private sector will gather in Kuala Lumpur to find ways to implement the agenda’s goals of equal rights and access to the benefits that cities offer by 2030.

The Kenyan government plans to address the housing shortage by building 200,000 units of social housing and 800,000 affordable homes within the next five years. (Sophie Mbugua)

Mwai says those goals are especially urgent at a time of such rapid urbanization: Estimates say that 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. As governments work to implement the Urban Agenda while also trying to deliver the African Union’s Agenda 2063 – a development plan that aims for an “integrated, prosperous and peaceful” Africa – they need to focus on improving equal access to financial services to women, especially low-income women entrepreneurs, she says.

And considering that, by 2050, 60 percent of Africa’s projected urban population will be living in slums, Mwai adds that countries also need to look at developing beyond the city limits, in the areas surrounding cities where geography and populations transition from urban to rural – if they want to build sustainable economies for women.

“Peri-urban areas are often the sources of food for urban populations. They also provide an economic livelihood for women farmers and small-scale traders who sell their produce in urban areas,” she says. “Therefore better infrastructure, with lighting and expanded roads to enable mobility and access to these markets, and providing financial education to these women is vital.”

New Homes and Better Marketplaces

For many experts and advocates, improving the situation for women in Kenya’s growing cities relies on better housing. “The policies are in place, goodwill should be there – both at the community and government level, as affordable housing is a stimulus to the economy, not only for women but all,” Mwai says.

The government already plans to build 200,000 social houses and 800,000 affordable homes within the next five years at the cost of 2.6 trillion Kenyan shillings (around $25.6 billion).

The majority of that money (60 percent) will come from private funding, 30 percent will come through the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) – a scheme that provides security benefits to Kenyan retirees – and the remaining 10 percent will come from the national treasury budget, according to Charles Sikuku, director of Kenya’s Slum Upgrading Program.

Helen Atieno, who sells groceries from her market stand in Kisumu’s Nyalenda slum, says her income has fallen over the past few years as overcrowding has pushed vendors and customers to the outskirts of the marketplace. (Sophie Mbugua)

“The government will finance the social housing to ensure vulnerable groups such as women living in the slums can acquire [homes] through long-term multigenerational mortgages,” says Sikuku.

But many women in Kenya’s cities say services should be the government’s priority if it wants to give more of them the chance to make a living. Helen Atieno, a 48-year-old mother of six, sells groceries at a market in the Nyalenda slum in Kisumu. Over the years, she has seen her income fall as urbanization has pushed vendors to the outskirts of the marketplace, allowing them to catch customers before they get to her stall inside.

“The stalls were once fully occupied, but as the population grew in the slums, space wasn’t enough. People started selling their goods outside the market and by the roadside, bringing business within the market to its knees,” she says.

Atieno blames the government for neglecting the marketplace. In a country where the majority of street vendors are women, every market area that falls into disrepair can result in dozens or even hundreds of women losing their only source of income.

“Business would improve if market areas were organized. Basic amenities like toilets, water, electricity and improved drainage systems would make it reasonable to pay to retain this space,” says Atieno, who pays the municipal council of Kisumu 30 Kenyan shillings ($0.30) a day for the right to sell her produce.

“We pay for space, why can’t the government improve on essential services?” she asks.

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