African cities in the wake of Covid-19: Tracing multiple inequalities, official responses and grassroots strategies in Harare, Kampala, Lilongwe and Nairobi

Working Paper 10

Alice Sverdlik, Stanley Dzimadzi, Henrik Ernstson, Joseph Kimani, Michelle Koyaro, Kate Lines, Zilire Luka, Tarisai Manyowa, George Masimba Nyama, Xola Mteto, Patience Mudimu, Sheila Muganyi, Paul Isolo Mukwaya, Viola Nuwahereza, Teurai Nyamangara, Junior Alves Sebbanja, Elvira Songoro, Hakimu Sseviiri, James Tayler, Jane Wairutu and Happiness Zidana

April 2024


Covid-19’s acute phase has now subsided, but its lasting socioeconomic, health and political consequences remain poorly understood, especially in African cities. This paper discusses the pandemic’s impacts and grassroots responses in Harare, Kampala, Lilongwe and Nairobi. In these four cities, affiliates of Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) led our action research examining household- and community-level impacts of Covid-19 (from 2021 to 2023). We also analysed a range of grassroots responses and emerging collaborations with government actors. Finally, we explored SDI’s organisational tactics and efforts to revitalise grassroots savings groups, as these schemes are integral to SDI’s bottom-up model of change in informal settlements.

The aftershocks of Covid-19 are still reverberating and intersecting with other crises, and we found relatively few households that had made a robust recovery. Rising precarity was common in the four cities and often linked with exclusionary governance, depleted assets and increased costs of living. Our small-scale surveys indicated that in late 2022, most informal workers were still unable to work in Lilongwe, Harare and Kampala. Compounding such challenges, we found multiple instances of state-led evictions to “clean up” low-income residents, alongside market-led displacements, owing to the rising unaffordability of shelter or services. Early Covid-related water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions were rarely maintained over time, which underscores the importance of sustaining political will and responsiveness to low-income citizens. We also uncovered promising efforts to promote community health systems and strengthen grassroots organisations. SDI affiliates have revived savings groups and enhanced recognition for grassroots knowledge, including via creative media. All four SDI federations have developed a set of flexible, inclusive strategies, such as a communal food fund in Nairobi. We close with key recommendations for policymakers.


Informal settlements, informal workers, African cities, social movements, social protection, urban inequalities