Community-led planning and transformation: A conversation with Charity Mumbi and Jane Wairutu

Dec 14, 2022

“It’s not our data as SDI, it’s not ACRC data, it’s not their data. It’s the community’s data. So you have to have that understanding that, at the end of the day, it has to benefit the community.”

In this episode, Miriam Maina talks to Charity Mumbi and Jane Wairutu from SDI-Kenya about community-led mapping and data collection, participatory planning processes, and the role of research in inclusive urban transformation.

Charity Mumbi is an urban and regional planner and a project officer at SDI-Kenya, supporting community-led planning, research and data management activities.

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

Miriam Maina is from Nairobi and is a postdoctoral research fellow at the African Cities Research Consortium, working on the housing domain.


The full podcast transcript is available below.

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Intro Welcome to the African Cities podcast.

Miriam Maina Hello everyone and welcome to the African Cities Podcast. My name is Miriam Maina and I’m a postdoctoral researcher at the African Cities Research Consortium. And today I’m here with two young women who are urbanistas and passionate, passionate about this city. And we are going to be talking about planning and transformation in the city and some of the work you’ve been doing. So please introduce yourselves and some of the background to the work that you do. 

Charity Mumbi Hello. My name is Charity Mumbi. I am an urban and regional planner by profession. I work at SDI Kenya. I have been privileged to be in the institution since 2018 and I am a project officer within the organisation. So I do support a lot of community-led planning within the organisation, research and general data management and also design work. 

Miriam Maina Awesome. 

Jane Wairutu Hi everyone. My name is Jane Wairutu  working with SDIKenya. I am a sociologist and within SDI Kenya I support or manage the programmes department and we work together with the data teams and the project implementation teams within our department. 

Miriam Maina Awesome. Thank you very much. So Nairobi is a very diverse city and it presents a very rich template of neighbourhoods, of communities, all manner of investments and a lot of global attention in terms of transforming the city to become something that is whether it’s a world class or a first class city. And all these conversations really affect planning, especially in planners, but even sociologists, in terms of how we understand how the city functions. So, first of all, tell me, what excites you about being a young planner or a young woman working in the planning field in Nairobi as an African city? 

Charity Mumbi OK. What excites me about being a young woman? Well, that’s an interesting question. I’m not sure if it’s safe to say any more that it’s a male-dominated field, we’re seeing a lot of women coming up and I think that’s wonderful. Just having collaborations with different young teams that are very change led, seeing the need to change the city into a better city, the need to reduce marginalisation is what makes me tick when it comes to this profession. Yeah, that’s what makes me really look forward. The fact that there’s a lot of willingness for change at the professional level and also even at the state level. That willingness to make the situation change in the city, the willingness for collaboration is quite key for me and that is one of the propelling factors. 

Jane Wairutu It’s quite interesting what Charity said, but from my perspective as a sociologist, for me, what has been exciting over time and urban space is bringing the technical, the bridge between the technical and social aspect of work that is bringing the sociologists to work together with the planners. Before we had the planners, the architects working alone and the sociologists working alone in their own silos. So having, being able to see now having a collaborative approach between these two sectors and also people coproducing solutions, coming up with solutions that are not only technical, but look at the softer issues within the urban informal settlements. So for me, it’s been exciting seeing that change or that trend happening, where we are having the social science coming into the technical world. 

Miriam Maina Yeah, yeah. That’s very cool. I was just thinking, we just came from a session where we were hearing how especially technically trained professions such as planning or architecture or engineering are really, our training is really far removed from the reality of most residents of Nairobi. The system does not seem to be able to grapple properly with informality, let alone prepare the future practitioners to grapple with it. And that must have been something that you had to go through as a planner and a sociologist who is trained in the formal system, the legal system. So you understand the gap between what you know as a trained planner and the community that you have to work with. So you can give us an example of was there something that you went and immediately arrived in the field, not in the field, but in the workplace, and you were, like, how to really unlearn some of the things and relearn new things? What was your experience coming from the school to the workplace? 

Charity Mumbi I think our SDI president calls it ‘deschooling’. We had to go through a lot of deschooling. I think I don’t know, I wouldn’t blame the academic world. But in the academia, the courses, the outlines are very structured. This is how planning starts. This is how it is disseminated, for you to transform an area. This is the manual. This is the framework. One fits all. But that is not the situation in the real world. So you find that within the urban landscapes, it’s very different across. You find there are formalities, there are also informalities. So how do you integrate all these? So for me, what I had to unlearn or to deschool myself from, is the fact that we have always been trained in the Kenyan system. I’m not sure about, I’d say, even to an extent, the African system is that, and this is by the state and also academia, that informal settlements are somehow illegal. So what we do with them? We approach them, we treat them, they like they are mushrooms. You can just uproot, you know, do something else with it, do something productive in this place. But you have affected the socioeconomic fabric of the society. They will have to move elsewhere. So I have come to this understanding that the lives of informal dwellers, informal settlement dwellers, do matter. What is different between me and them, is the opportunity. They might have gotten the opportunity first, they still haven’t got it. But our lives are equal, so we need to do something to transform these societies. And that is why we keep on even speaking about these alternative standards. So there was need to understand that for an informal settlement to be transformed, then you can’t take the manual of one fits all. You can’t take these conventional planning standards, take it to an informal settlement, and expect them to fit and work. So just having to discover myself, and understanding you have to be very flexible in thought for you to make a meaningful change in the informal settlement, has been my biggest lesson, or my biggest deschooling since I started working in the informal communities. 

Jane Wairutu Yeah. So working with Charity. So the deschooling bit she mentioned, I think it’s one of the things that she told at SDI. The first thing is when you’re working the Federation you have to start like on a fresh page. Yes, you’ve had all this academic work, you had the curriculum you’ve gone through, but for me, I think it was more of not only just listening as a sociologist or somebody in the social sciences, it’s not just listening alone to the issues  that are going on in the community, you have to be an activist also. So you don’t just listen, you have to lobby. You have to advocate. So if we are just continuing listening, we are taught to be very good listeners , to give information on behalf of the community try and sort of, you know, transcribe what the community is saying in an easier way for everyone to understand. But we have to also go to another level of lobbying advocacy, which is something that you don’t go through training on. It’s it’s like you learn it as you work, and especially working with an institution like SDI. You find even planners being activists in the process. Yeah. Like Professor Ngau mentioned,you know he’s a Prof, he’s been teaching and then on the other side he had to be an activist for plans to go through. So and then also what I’ve come to learn also from the planning bit is there are all these, when you’re working the planning teams, there are all these standards like you’ve mentioned. But they’re stuck on stone, they’re like brick and mortar. But, you know, how do you  accommodate the people living there, so that you also come up with alternatives? So that conversation, having that conversation, helping the community to negotiate for space, so that even them they have a voice, bringing the community on the table. So those are things that at times you are not taught in school, but now you’ve been doing them practically. So that community voice, like you mentioned, Eva, and Nicera, yeah, they have to be on the table because we are doing this for them and the change is for their areas and their communities. So it’s important to have the community voice on the table. 

Miriam Maina Very true and I like that. So for me the strongest lesson that has come from the SDI Federation model is to combine the technical expertise or the technical skills and the technical language that people are taught in the schools and in the legal system, but also to use it for specific applicable use, which is a benefit of the community and to bring justice into the system. And another thing that Muungano and the Federation has really supported or used as a bedrock for moving forward is how they use data or how they generate, collect and manage data and information about the community. But not in the traditional way, where it is data that sits in repositories for no purpose, but data that actually has a purpose, that pushes the pursuit of justice and inclusivity in the community. So I’m really excited about data and I want to hear how you guys have been able to use community-generated and community-led data to begin to engage the government on its own, on its own language and its own terms in a way that is really constructive in Nairobi, and in Mukuru specifically. 

Jane Wairutu But okay, I’ll go first. I think the first question we usually ask, so we have ACRC a project that is coming up, so who are the stakeholders? What is the goal, you know, in terms of a project? What do they want to do with this data? Is it meaningful for the communities we are working in. Or is it just going to be a paper? We keep on being told by communities, those papers won’t help us, we know those things on paper won’t help us, we want to see actions. So it’s first of all looking at who are the stakeholders coming in, in terms of the research or any data collection process and then helping them to understand whose data is this for? Because it’s not our data as SDI, it’s not ACRC data. It’s not their data, it’s the community’s data. So you have to have that understanding that at the end of the day it has to benefit the community, it’s for that particular community, whether in the formal areas or informal, it’s for the community. So when you come to that understanding, it becomes easier. And then now also I think our methodology,  we use communities to do data collection. We do not train even young students from university to come and do data collection in the communities, because we believe that the community has the capacity. And over time we’ve seen that capacity, they’re educated. There’s a myth and a misconception that there are no graduates in these informal settlements. And currently, recently we’ve been doing work and there are so many graduates, we find lawyers, we are finding engineers coming to participate in our enumerations processes, even who know GIS and they are from Mathare. So it’s also listening to the community, understanding who’s in that community, who can collect that data from that community, training them on the methodology that we’re going to use. And also, as you develop a tool for the data collection,  are we developing it alone in the boardroom? It has to be a consultative process where we sit with the stakeholders, the relevant stakeholders, and then we develop their tool together and give it to the community for feedback. Also, you know, have a consultative process for the tool development and then train the community through various models. I think in SDI we do data collection, both quantitative and qualitative. There’s a focus on doing, we do FGDs for the qualitative. We’ve recently introduced a data collection method called photo voice, where they use photos to get the opinions of people. So then there’s the quantitative bit, which Charity will elaborate more, but I think it’s more for surveys and enumerations, but she’ll give you more examples. Then there is the  mapping, which Charity is good at also, so she’ll give you all that information. Then I think for us, data, when you look at any data that we collect or any research that we do, is it something that we can scale up? Is it something we can take to the government and they’ll pick it up and say, we need to do another research in another area on the same thing. Like the SPA, is it replicable? Is it scalable? So it’s very important for for us to have those conversations when you’re actually doing the research and also at the back of our minds always remind ourselves that this is not our data. It belongs to the community for change.  

Miriam Maina Yeah. 

Charity Mumbi Thanks. I think you pretty much touched on everything in that question, really comprehensive. So  I think it’s basically what Jane has mentioned. When we are collecting data, we ask ourselves very basic questions. The question of who, how, why,  why are you doing it? Why are you doing it for why? These questions. When are you doing it? What will it impact in our local communities? So those are some of the questions we ask ourselves. And so we are very community driven, community led, data led, when it comes to data collection, and we are not usually afraid of criticism. So we usually do what we call data validation. You collect your data, you analyse data. And a perfect example is what we did in Mukuru. After analysing all this data we got from the community we took back, because they are not scared of the community telling us you’ve not captured the right thing. Actually, that is how you enhance data. You encourage community to question data processes. That’s how you ensure that you’ve collected quality data that can inform, even policy that can inform decisionmaking at the state level. So for us, we see data as information belonging to the community. We are not the custodians. They are. Ours is  just to help give meaning for that information. So for quantitative data, we use quite a number of methods. We use surveys at household level. Some of the mechanisms we use to collect this data and we also advance in terms of technology. In the past, we used to use a lot of pape,r collecting data using paper, but now we have gone to use softwares. Now we use tablets to collect data. It’s less bulky or even the core researcher, after you’ve seen the core researcher, you can reach for the data in the comfort of the office. So what we do is to follow up to ensure that there is quality data collection on their part. A lot of accountability also on their part. And then we also have mapping. I think that is also what makes us tick as Muungano. Sorry to keep on using this statement, but mapping is very instrumental for us. Community-led mapping. That is the only way we will be able to know how our villages look like, what our villages need. Right? Because if you tell us, that after we have, say, two schools in Mukuru, so what are they comparing that to? They need to know these schools are serving what population? Right? That is data. So the only way we know that data is through enumeration, going to every household, counting the number of people living in that household, counting the doors in Mukuru, in Village one, in Village two. Muungano is that committed to data, very serious type of data collection and also mapping the structures, drawwing each and every house. You saw how dense Mukuru is, right? But is there is that commitment to draw each and every of these houses, in order to know how many houses are we talking about. You can be able to even show especially these are the dense houses we have. We only have one institution. So that becomes very powerful to showcase at their institutional level, the state level. And this is also done by the community. Amazingly, we teach them soft skills, teach them how to draw these houses, and the community is now even able to edit these data. The community will be able to come to the offices, edit these data collected, update it. And then our work is just to now digitise further, to give more meaning and for special analysis. So our data has gone down to that level. Yes. 

Miriam Maina I’m really excited about this, because the advances in terms of technology, in terms of mapping, in terms of the tools you can use to generate a lot of geospatial but also quantitative and qualitative information is really, that’s being used to push forward a specific community-driven agenda, in terms of planning or expanding their belonging in the city. It’s really a powerful tool. And the  photo voice approach is also like different ways of using multimedia, again leaning on the available technologies to tell the stories of vast populations that have essentially been ignored and invisiblised in the city. It’s really powerful. And congratulations, guys. Okay, I’m really excited about that. But let’s keep moving. But essentially I’m seeing a future whereby communities are becoming more empowered, to not just sit and become passive recipients of government benefits, or, you know, resources, but at the same time, a government that’s equally willing now to come to the table and engage with the community around how to move forward in a more just way, not always getting it right, but doing, you know, the trajectory looks promising. And on the third pillar, I’m seeing from especially your SDI team, the technocrats or the technically trained people beginning to play a different role from what used to happen maybe a few decades ago. So this convergence of actors is really exciting to me. And because we are trained as planners and sociologists and urban actors, do you feel optimistic that planning can actually play a role in creating cities that are inclusive or just liveable? Because in terms of the narrative that is given, is planning, is this detached profession that is building smart cities that are really omitting a lot of the poor But you seem to be presenting a counter-narrative. Are you optimistic about that role? Not just planners, any urbanistas in the room. 

Charity Mumbi So I think yes, planning has a critical role to play within the city, and we cannot ignore that role. And as long as it’s inclusive, if you’re planning for the city, you plan for the whole city. Not like the example you got from Professor, where the masterplan for Nairobi was planned, was done without having the informal settlements incorporated. So as long as it’s inclusive and then also residents or the populations within the city will participate in the process, I think those are two very key issues that really need to be looked at when it comes to planning. Because I think that’s where the disconnect comes in, when you don’t include people to be part of the process or even areas geographically to be part of the process, that’s a big problem. And then if you don’t bring people in to participate, to understand what is a plan? Why are we planning? How is this plan benefitting me, somebody who’s using them? Why do I need to walk, why are you putting, let’s say, pedestrian walkways on the streets? You know, there is a need to have that constant public awareness and participation when it comes to developmental plans. I think if those two areas are looked at keenly, then I think we’ll have better plans than for our cities and especially in Africa. 

Charity Mumbi And they think she’s quite on point, just summarised everything I had.  I’m saying in fact it’s interesting nowadays if you go to the community and begin to collect data, they are very woke, if they may use that word. They don’t want to just collect data. They’re really inquisitive. Why are you collecting data? How will this benefit us? It’s no longer a question of how will this benefit me? It’s how will it benefit us as a community? So nowadays, even as a researcher, if you try myself as a researcher, you are scared going to the community without an agenda. Why are you collecting that data? What would you answer? And you will make empty promises and they will follow up. So even the community has started understanding that there is what is called inclusivity. The Constitution has anchored public participation. So they know it’s a right, they need to participate. So there’s also another question of civil society and government. I think in the past, civil society and government was like water and oil, couldn’t mix. Right now you’re seeing a shift. You’re seeing civil society working a lot with the government, sitting on the same table. And I think we’ve also demonstrated that a lot as SDI Muungano, where we call our government actors together to sit down and to listen to each other. It’s not the government telling us what to do. It’s also not us telling the government what to do. It’s us sitting together for a common agenda, to listen to the communities, what do our communities want? They want one, two, three. How can we transform that community, in order to move forward, in order to see advancement in urban development? So I think now we are seeing a lot of multidisciplinarity coming, if I may call it that, coming together to work together in response to the question. And I think we’ve also showcased that there is ability or flexibility of thought amongst practitioners, including the state actors, in the sense that, again, I’ll refer to Mukuru, I think that’s our best case study which is understood by most, where we were able to change the status quo that in planning you don’t have to do a 60-metre-wide road for you to make change. So you can listen to the community priorities, their priority is to have a 12-metre road. So why don’t we give that? It will promote the economy. It will be a public space. It will be a transportation hub for them. You see, the moment we have that flexibility of thought, as a consortium or as partners, it also brings about change. And then also participation has also led to reduction in urban divide. Now we are seeing informal communities being recognised as urban communities, so it’s no longer a conversation of where we relocate them. It’s now a conversation of how do we move, how do we improve the living conditions of the urban poor or the urban vulnerable, so that they also have a sense of dignity where they are living? So I think those are some of the achievements of where I  see we are moving in terms of collaborations, and in terms of improving planning. 

Miriam Maina I mean, that’s what makes Nairobi very exciting. It’s both a city that’s rapidly changing, and that’s being documented in the media in one way, but also in smaller ways, this process is also still on the ground with the same administration, trying to consider different ways to improve the lives of the urban poor. So I’m really excited to be doing research here and to learn and deschool myself, to learn from you guys who are already here doing amazing work and connecting the government and the community and the technocrats, technical people in a different way. Thank you very much. And those finishing words, what are you excited about when you think of Nairobi in the next ten years or 20 years or 30 years? Because you are young women, you are young citizens of this country and you are participating every day in making change. So what are you excited about when you think about the future in Nairobi or in Africa? 

Charity Mumbi It’s a simple but difficult question. I’m not sure if you go first or I go first.In Nairobi where we are  able to convert, you know, let’s not follow the systemic way of doing things. Let’s think of adjusting. Let’s see Nairobi as not one fabric, but made of different bodies, small, small bodies that make the whole, right? And the moment we understand that as professionals, even as communities, because also communities know that we have socio economic, cultural divides, the moment we understand that, then we are able to move forward, because we’re able to make changes that are accommodating for that one moving part that will make a whole. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I think that’s what’s exciting me. 

Jane Wairutu For me, I think it’s looking at the role that research plays when it comes to planning and I’d hope to see Nairobi or any other city authorities, the city authorities, for them to understand the role that research plays when it comes to planning and also appreciate the research that has been done and also take up some of this research into projects or just implementing, some already are in plans, but they are shelved, you know, like the Mukuru case we had, the plan is ready, but no one is taking it up. So I hope cities will be more open to take up researches and plans that have been done by the civil society and other institutions into implementation phase, so that we don’t have so many books and very beautiful websites, but when you go to the ground, who are groundly different. So I think I’d really like to see that happen, because Nairobi, the county is doing that with the county devolution has also opened up cities in a way, but we’d like to see more cities and more counties coming up to take up research that has been done, instead of replicating by looking for consultants to do the same thing that was done. So being very thorough in terms of the literature and also borrowing a lot from what has already been done. 

Miriam Maina So this has been Charity Mumbi and Jane Wairutu. Thank you very much for your time. 

Charity Mumbi Thank you. 

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