“From the design of the project, from the design of the tools, to implementation, to data collection and everything, the community should be at the lead, at the forefront, speaking about their issues”

ACRC research in Nairobi has brought together communities, academics, county and government officials and the private sector, to come up with actions that support communities at the city level. Jane Wairutu from SDI-Kenya, and Nicera Wanjiru Kimani and Nancy Njoki Wairimu from Muungano wa Wanavijiji, sat down with ACRC informal settlements domain co-lead Daniela Cocco Beltrame, to talk about their experiences of the first phase of ACRC research in Nairobi. 

They discuss the challenges of finding language to bridge the gap between academics and local communities, highlight the benefits of bringing stakeholders together outside of their silos, and stress the importance of enabling communities to lead action research and to have ownership of data for advocacy purposes.

Nancy Njoki Wairimu is a national federation leader for Muungano wa Wanavijiji and a community mobiliser, with a background in community development and as a community health volunteer.

Nicera Wanjiru Kimani is a woman leader in her community, a federation member at Muungano wa Wanavijiji and the founder of Community Mappers.

Jane Wairutu is a sociologist and programme manager at SDI-Kenya, working closely with data and project implementation teams.

Daniela Cocco Beltrame is a PhD researcher in development policy and management at The University of Manchester, and co-lead for ACRC’s informal settlements domain.


The full podcast transcript is available below.

Read now

Daniela Cocco Beltrame This is the African Cities Research Consortium podcast. Today we have Jane Wairutu from SDI-Kenya, and Nancy Njoki and Nicera Kimani from Muungano wa Wanavijiji, who are visiting us from Nairobi, Kenya. I am Daniela Cocco Beltrame part of The University of Manchester at the Global Development Institute and also part of the African Cities Research Consortium. So first of all, let’s talk a little bit about Muungano wa Wanavijiji. It means “united slum dwellers” in Kiswahili and Muungano is the Kenyan Federation affiliated with Slum Dwellers International, or SDI, and it is made up of local groups from cities and towns across Kenya. It’s a network of community-based organisations working towards improving the quality of life of slum dwellers in Kenya through a process of advocacy and through dialogue. So thank you for being with us today and congratulations on all of your hard work. In the past few years, you have been involved in the African Cities Research Consortium as a team from Nairobi. So please, if you could start us off by telling us a bit about the action research process in ACRC. How did you engage with stakeholders, such as government and community members, throughout the research? I don’t know who wants to start.

Nancy Njoki Thank you so much. For the action research with ACRC, so we’ve been able to engage a lot of partners. So what we did, we started with the stakeholders meeting, where SDI and Muungano wa Wanavijiji, our role was to coordinate these meetings and bring this consortium together. So we had several meetings before we started the action research and also with the kind of relationship we’ve had. So in each of the consortia, so each of the consortia was doing a different theme, so as SDI, we have been engaged when doing the research and as SDI and Muungano, we were the ones who are helping even in mobilisation and also coordinating the meetings with the government officials. So basically as SDI we’ve been really involved in the ACRC and then using the community to give feedback and also be part of the action research.

Daniela Cocco Beltrame That’s amazing. Nicera, is there anything that you want to say about stakeholder engagement in research processes in general? Either Nicera or Jane, whoever wants to go.

Nicera Kimani So for me, you can say that looking at the ACRC and the engagement with government and also other stakeholders I would say that maybe if you allow me just to give a reflection of how it was delivered and also the terminologies, so when it was being introduced to us, there were so many domains that were coming up, like the structural domain, the health domain. But then for us, when we went back and reflected on what all this is, it was the work that Muungano was doing for a very long time, for a very long time. And it was just the names which were different. They had different names, but we were doing the same thing, because there’s a certain domain that was related  to  livelihoods. And there was a project that we did that was related to this domain, known as; the Safe and Inclusive Cities programme, whereby we are tackling two things: safety and decent work. So this domain was exactly what we were doing, the decent work. It was what the domain was talking about. But anyhow, we have done with quite a lot in Muungano as well and through the ACRC that brings now these stakeholders, the community which is Muungano now, we are doing the uptake. Bringing all these people together, the researchers, the government, I think it was so useful and also it was like a reflection and also a gamechanger on how things should be done differently, because for long we’ve been working in silos. Some organisations, let me say that, but then I think the ACRC brought something different on board. I can also say that also with the SPA, if I also go back to the SPA, the Mukuru Special Planning Area, I think it was something that was the same as what we were doing the SPA, where we brought about different consortium and we were able to mobilise a lot of organisations, big government officials, to come together and speak for the betterment of the community. And that was so useful because after collecting all these data, after engaging the community, there was the implementation. And when I look at the SPA, I think these are two things that I think people should focus on and also make sure that we borrow the model, the model of ACRC and also the model of SPA, so as we can be able to do things in a different way. Because these are two things that were done very differently and they were very successful. We await to see the second phase of the ACRC, what it brings on board, and also we await to see now the actual implementation to what happens with the ACRC. Are we going to go back two steps or are we going to go forward? I think it’s now broadening our minds and also like making sure that ACRC will not be just another project that comes and goes away and then we forget about it. You find even today people talk about SPA. We want ACRC, after we finish the ACRC, people to talk about the ACRC and how we can upscale it and how we can get more funding so as we can be able to continue working in cities. Look at the global North. We have cities, we have many cities, we have cities within the cities, but in some cities there is very little happening and that’s like we have forgotten some cities. And by the way, I’m sad because ACRC, I thought that instead of us focusing on very few cities in the second phase, maybe my thought was we were going to upscale the programme and also get to other cities.

Daniela Cocco Beltrame Actually, maybe we could. But on the topic of building coalitions and stakeholder engagement, I’m wondering, Jane, if you want to say anything to make us understand a bit more about the relationships and the networks that you have built, both, of course, as Muungano and also as SDI-Kenya, the coalitions that have been built through the process with diverse actors to disseminate the findings and make sure to facilitate uptake.

Jane Wairutu Thank you very much. Just to add to what Nicera and Nancy have been speaking about on the coalition building, I think, like Nicera mentioned, the first time we did a project where we brought in very many stakeholders was through the Mukuru SPA. And we were only focusing on one section within the city or one particular area. And it gave us a lot of learning in terms of coalition building. How do you identify the relevant stakeholders? So what we started with was mapping out stakeholders within the various sectors or the various consortiums within the process, seeing the strengths that they have and how they can support the work that we were trying to do. And from there, Mukuru SPA its been a learning and now when ACRC came in, at least we had made a lot of connections, especially with the city government or county government. We had made relationships with the various departments and we had even had a champion for the work that Muungano was doing. But initially it was just focused on Mukuru. But ACRC is a gamechanger, where they’re looking at the city level, looking at interventions that really look at the city level. The research that will focus and come up with actions that support communities at the city level, the research that can be used by organisations to implement various interventions, by the domains are there at the city level. So for us, we see that it’s moving away from just focusing on one area to the city-level conversation together with the county and other stakeholders. And again, ACRC was a gamechanger in another way, by bringing in the private stakeholders, the companies, people like Kenya Association of Manufacturers coming in and listening to the conversations of communities, which was not happening before, through the structural transformation domain. We had a lot of private individuals coming in to be part of the conversation. So I think that has been useful – the model that ACRC took up and we were able to implement. While another thing that we have done is ensure that stakeholders disseminate back the data to the communities. That data that is collected, the researchers are able to go back to the community and give back their findings and get opinions from the communities where they can. For example, in Mathare, where Nancy comes from, where they did the first phase of the research, so they’re able to come back and disseminate and build those relationships, even with the communities, from the researcher to now the community level and also having the county departments getting interested in their research. And most of them are eager for Phase 2, to see what happens. So I’m sure when we start Phase 2 and launch it officially, we are really eager to see how they can plug in as a department, which is, I think a success for the research, for ACRC.

Daniela Cocco Beltrame Yeah, and speaking about relationship with government and partnership with government, has the process in ACRC changed your understanding of the type of partnership or the way in which you could partner with government and with other groups or even Muungano’s strategy of working with government more directly, how are you thinking about working with government right now?

Nancy Njoki So I think with ACRC, it has improved what had been done when we were doing the Mukuru SPA. So we continued building the relationship and also with the kind of relationship, because with ACRC we have a lot of researchers, the academia, so the level of engagement is a bit high. So it’s a very rich engagement and a very educated engagement, so with issue-based engagement, we are able to go with the researchers, doctors to the county government, explaining the results of what had been found in those researches. So I think we’ve improved, our level has gone a bit high. So also to say, these coalitions we built also in the informal settlements on the research from the ACRC, which was in the previous question. So I think we’ve had the USP, we used this research for other interventions. Apart from waiting for the next phase, we are still using the research in other interventions.

Daniela Cocco Beltrame It’s amazing. That speaks about the implications of research on the ground. Nicera, do you have any comments as regards the relationship with government, anything that you would want to add about relationship building and partnership building, not only with government, maybe with other actors?

Nicera Kimani Yeah. As Nancy said, it has changed greatly. And my mother used to tell us at times when you do things the same way, you might think you’re the best, but when you do things differently, things become better than what you used to do. So basically, to be honest with you, we’ve not had a project that brings all peoples together. At times we will find the community struggling on this side, and the researchers struggling on this side to get to the community. But then you find that there’s a lot of gap, in that things don’t happen the way communities or even the researchers at times want to happen. And I can say that one thing that I’ve seen in the ACRC is the level of engagement, the level of understanding, and even to the communities. You know, when it comes to language, it tends… the language is difficult, and even these wording, they are difficult, but you find that whatever the language the researchers use, if it is broken down, we understand it quite clearly. So the ACRC when it started was so difficult for us even to understand, but when we went on, it was so much easier. And also to engage with these professors, to engage with these researchers, it was easier to engage with them and also interact with them. And challenge them. Because in this type of set-up, for example, the ACRC and even the SPA, at times the researchers might think they are doing their best thing at times even these academics and professors, yeah they have gone through the academic way, we have the actual work, we have the community, what they need. So at times we challenge them in the ACRC, at times we tell them our reason, we as Muungano, we want these things done this way, we are the uptake, we are on the ground. This is the type of result we want to do, this is the type of things we want to happen, you know, informal settlements, because, yes, it is a city- wide research. But then in these cities, we have these communities, which are all together. That makes our city because it is the communities which makes the city. We have the rich communities, we have the informal settlement, we have the slum. So basically it’s like we challenge each other to come to a common understanding and we move forward. And that has been happening in ACRC and also with the government officials, they have listened to us, the researchers have listened to us, and that’s why you see we are, contrary to what they were saying, that when there was this proposal whereby we wanted to take the project to the suburb areas, but for us, we feel that it is very important for us to take this project into an informal settlement. I know we all matter in the city, but when they come to the services I think it is the informal settlement that needs these services the most, and also we need this data the most, so as we can be able to advocate for services and what we want as communities. Because if I’m coming to your area, for example, and you are paying, let’s say, for example, during the housing domain we had areas who are paying a rent of 1.5 million, that is in Nairobi. You are in a house that you’re paying 1.5 million, 400,000 Kenyan shillings, but we are the same city whereby we have an area which is paying 2,000 Kenyan shillings, we have an area which they are paying 500 Kenyan shillings. So that’s those dynamics, so where do we draw the line? So where do we put in the resources, where do we focus on? So there was the question of where do we do the piloting? And that is why we narrowed down to Mathare.

Daniela Cocco Beltrame Very interesting experiences in coalition building and building partnerships across actors in society. And you were talking a little bit about the difficulties in working with academics, right? We’ve been reflecting about this at ACRC constantly, I would say, in a healthy way. So I wanted to ask you, you are referring to certain elements, right, elements about having the opportunity to challenge each other and using language that works for all parties. What are other elements, I wonder, that make for a good relationship between academics and practitioners and communities on the ground?

Jane Wairutu At times yeah we have challenges, at times, working with academia because of their theoretical way of doing things. And the biggest challenge that we had had at the beginning, for many years, was community research being accepted by the academic institution, being seen, citizen science being seen as academic, like communities, even collecting data, having communities who can collect their own data. You know, it was something that is very contentious at some point with some of the researchers. And, with time, like Nicera said, we had these conversations to ensure that communities are able to collect their own data, they are able to articulate their own issues, even though they wouldn’t use the best English, the best phrases, the best terminologies, but they are able to use very simple terminology to articulate their issues. So I think the biggest role that academia has is to interpret the issues that are coming up and bring interventions through their spaces. They interpret this simple information and make it complex, easy to complex reports that are maybe needed at the academic space, but, you know, they’re the ones to try to interpret what the community is saying and doing. And they’re able to influence other academia, on the role of communities by just showing what communities have done on the ground. So we have had issues in terms of the methodologies, in terms of the tools that we use. At times, they might be too long, they might be too complicated, too many questions. So those are some of the things that we at times face. And also the terminologies that Nicera had spoken about, like ACRC at the beginning, it was very complex for everyone. And now it’s reached a point now the local researchers, or the lead researchers within the domains, they had to interpret those terminologies for communities and even other stakeholders, because you found even some of these terminologies, even the county governments, need to understand what we were speaking about at the beginning. So a lot of back and forth in terms of trying to understand what is the project about. And eventually they have come to understand and really support now the programme for Phase 2.

Nancy Njoki Also, when we were beginning, it was a bit difficult for the researchers to just appreciate that the community is able to take quality data. So I think over time we’ve been able to bridge that out. So at least for now, when we’re doing our last researches, so communities were very much involved with collection of the data.

Daniela Cocco Beltrame And did they refer to any issues working with academia, anything that your broader communities brought up to you and mentioned, something that maybe they didn’t like or would like to see done differently? You mentioned a bit about the language and tweaking the methodology and having a say, you know, in the process. Is there anything else? I’ve heard you yesterday in one of the classes that you were giving, talking a little bit about data ownership and the need to go back to communities with the findings and share it with them. Is there anything that you would like to say about that or about anything else?

Nancy Njoki So I think as communities, what we like when we do this research, something that should be done is after we collect this data from the community members, and also if community members had been involved in writing a blog, done some interviews, just the recognition of that community member or that community in the writeups, in the briefs, in everything that is put up, and also taking that data for validation back to the community, so this one will help the communities own this data. And also they can use this data for the other advocacy issues. So once you are given the data, they’ve identified what intervention can be done in consultation with the community. So this data, apart from being used by the researchers, maybe for the academics or papers, can also be used by the communities for their own benefit.

Daniela Cocco Beltrame Nicera, is there anything that you would like to add about the relationship between academics and communities, especially in the ACRC project, but in general, is there anything that you think makes a good relationship between academia and communities? Anything beyond what we’ve been discussing about being respectful and using language that makes sense to both parts? Then we were referring to going back to communities for validation and for feedback. Is there anything else in that relationship?

Nicera Kimani I think the trust. I think when the community is trusted, they can do wonders. And also, like Nancy says, I think it is, and regardless of what kind of data you have, because I know you have this satellite imagery, if you have that image and you want to do an intervention around that, come back to that community. Discuss that image with that particular community. If you have any kind of data, just go back to community and have a conversation, even before you think about publishing the findings or sharing the findings with the peoples who you want to share with. Because generally, and even yesterday by the way, there was a question around that, whereby students were asking if someone was not counted, maybe by default or maybe something happened and that person was not there, so what happens? And he or she must appear in that datasheet. So if you go back, the community will tell you and also advise you where to find that person and you’ll be able fill in the gap, instead of you publishing data that is not accurate, because if the data is not accurate, by the way, of course, we have a lot of data which is not accurate, that is making rounds, but then for the ACRC and also for us as an organisation, Muungano, we advocate for quality data that’s why we say community should be in the forefront. Even if you are going to interview the president, who do you call then? The key informant interviews. I know that is where the researchers draw the line. The researchers think that because we are going to interview those big people, communities cannot appear anywhere, but then we forget that this community, they’re the same who want these services to be done. And if you involve these communities in the designing of this questionnaire of the key informant interviews, you might end up having a more quality research, as opposed to whereby you sit down and design the questions yourself. So I think the involvement of community from the word go, it is very important, regardless you’re going to interview a key informant, regardless you are going to interview the community, I think when it comes to research, communities should be put at the centre stage. And we are hopeful that the ACRC in the second phase, that is what is going to happen and it is happening already and we need more of that and we need more trust. And also and we need even when they are going to interview the key informant interviews, let community to be there.

Daniela Cocco Beltrame I couldn’t agree more. So unfortunately, this is all the time we have. But I wanted to to close us off by offering a bit of space for any final reflections, especially on the ACRC research process. Anything that you want to share with anyone listening about learnings or reflections or ideas moving forward after this phase of ACRC research?

Jane Wairutu So I think there has been a lot of learning, like my two colleagues have mentioned, in terms of relationships with the county government, just deepening relationships with county departments and county governments. And then the key role that the academia plays when it comes to bridging relationships between communities in the county government or city government. We found that the academia also plays a big role because the findings or the research that is done in collaboration with communities and the academia, you find that the research is well taken up by anyone easily and especially their government. So having those coalitions of where you have communities, academia, researchers, and also another thing that has come out – the need for us who are working in this space to also engage the private sector in our conversations. Because some of these interventions that we are trying to come up with, the private sector also plays a role, in terms of giving us feedback on maybe the process we are doing. When asked, even the community gets an opportunity to even challenge the private sector in these forums and also share the issues they are facing because of maybe even manufacturing companies that are, for example, polluting, you know, sending all their waste to the informal settlement. So they have that opportunity to also share with them. So one thing that was different was the engagement of also the private sector in the research. And, like Nicera and Nancy, I think the communities should take a lead. I say, they do not be at the centre, they should take a lead. So from the design of the project, from the design of the tools, to implementation, to data collection and everything, the community should be at the lead, at the forefront, speaking about their issues. Meaning that the researchers and academia and the institutions have a big duty of returning back data, communities and reports that they can use for that particular research advocacy and any other projects that might come up in the future.

Nancy Njoki So I also think with the first phase, so the ACRC consortium was able to come up with different PCPs [priority complex problems]. So these PCPs from different domains, I think we can use them to fundraise or to get some funding from the government, from local stakeholders, from international stakeholders. We can be starting, we can start doing something for our communities because already we know there is this challenge and we can move forward as we wait for the next phase of the ACRC.

Nicera Kimani From where I sit, I want to see more in this project, more in the sense that whatever is being done in communities, in our cities, it’s beneficial and that will happen when we engage more the community and also with their trust, with the confidence from the community and also the stakeholders, I think this will be achievable. And yes we’ve seen good things come out of ACRC and we are hopeful that we’ll see much more in this second phase and as the second phase comes in. Personally, I’m happy about this ACRC and I’m happy to see that we can be able to sit down with all these stakeholders on one table and discuss about the good of our cities, similar to what’s happened in the SPA programme, although it was being done in just one area. I think now we have an opportunity to upscale and do something great.

Daniela Cocco Beltrame Thank you so much, Jane Wairutu from SDI-Kenya, and Nancy Njoki and Nicera Kimani from Muungano wa Wanavijiji from Nairobi, Kenya. Thank you for sharing all your wisdom and your experience with us. I hope our listeners enjoy it as much as I did.

Nicera Kimani Thank you.

Nancy Njoki Thank you.

Jane Wairutu Thank you.

Daniela Cocco Beltrame You’ve been listening to the African Cities podcast. Remember to subscribe for more urban development insights and interviews from the African Cities Research Consortium.

Sign up to ACRC’s e-newsletter for future updates:

Header photo credit: Chris Jordan. Jane Wairutu, Nancy Njoki Wairimu, Nicera Wanjiru Kimani and Daniela Cocco Beltrame in Manchester.

Note: This article presents the views of the author featured and does not necessarily represent the views of the African Cities Research Consortium as a whole.

The African Cities blog is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0), which means you are welcome to repost this content as long as you provide full credit and a link to this original post.

Creative Commons License