Unlocking better housing for Lagos: A conversation with Basirat Oyalowo

Aug 23, 2023

“The city keeps on growing every day. New infrastructure is being brought in every day. This means we can envisage more and more people coming into Lagos needing housing.”

With more than an estimated 3,000 people arriving every day, Lagos is seen as a city of opportunity. But a rapidly increasing population means huge demand for housing in a city where around 70% of the population lives in substandard conditions.

Speaking to Miriam Maina, ACRC’s Lagos housing domain lead Basirat Oyalowo discusses her research into the Lagos housing value chain, which is looking at the complex connections between various subsystems to better understand what can be done to boost provision and upgrade existing housing in the city.

She talks about how groups including cooperative societies, social organisations and residents’ associations are already working to fill gaps in government service provision and basic infrastructure. With greater recognition and support, she argues, there is ample opportunity for these groups to scale up interventions to deliver housing alongside other neighbourhood improvements. Highlighting the vulnerability of informal communities to climate hazards as well as evictions, she stresses the need for communities to understand the risks they face so they can proactively advocate for better housing conditions.

Basirat Oyalowo is a senior lecturer at the University of Lagos in the Department of Estate Management, and leads the housing domain research for ACRC in Lagos.

Miriam Maina is a town planner and urban researcher. She recently completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at the African Cities Research Consortium, where she was part of the housing domain team.


The full podcast transcript is available below.

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Miriam Maina Welcome to the African Cities podcast. My name is Miriam Maina and I am here with Dr Basirat Oyalowo from Lagos. Welcome, Basirat. 

Basirat Oyalowo Thank you, Miriam. 

Miriam Maina Sweet. So we’re going to start actually by talking about your research in housing and how you came about to be the researcher in the housing domain in Lagos. So feel free to introduce yourself and the work that you do. 

Basirat Oyalowo Okay. Thank you, Miriam. I’m Basirat Oyalowo. I’m a senior lecturer at the University of Lagos, the Department of Estate Management. I’ve been researching into housing in the last 15 years, primarily focusing on housing informality, housing policy and sustainable real estate. And I’ve been interested in engaging various stakeholders and holders of knowledge around housing in the city. So I’ve been specialising in transdisciplinary research and co-production, and I think that these are competencies that have been instrumental in my being the housing domain lead for Lagos, which has been very exciting. So yeah, that’s what I do. 

Miriam Maina Wonderful. I really like transdisciplinary research and co-production and it’s very hard to imagine doing research in housing without really adopting multiple sort of perspectives and working with different types of stakeholders in the housing ecosystem. Yeah, so it was very exciting to learn about Lagos in some of your work. We know it’s a it’s a very complex city and part of one of the most populous countries in Africa. So, how did you approach housing domain work in Lagos, knowing all the complexities? And you can feel free to share some of them with us. 

Basirat Oyalowo Okay. So the approach that we’ve used for housing in Lagos is to look at it, we’ve looked at it as a complex issue, of course, and to look at the value chain of housing – whether in terms of its production or its supply as well as in terms of the existing housing stock and what can be done to upgrade it, because the city is a city of vast opportunities. So it continues to draw in people every day. Over 3,000 people are said to enter the city of Lagos per day, and there are no records to actually see who is leaving. So and this also means that these people need a space to live in. And so that also brings in the issue of where do migrants live in? And importantly, the government also recognises the level of dysfunctionality in the housing space, attributing close to 70% of its population as living in substandard housing. So this means that the city’s challenged with not just producing new housing, but it has to also upgrade, you know, those that are existing but in vastly substandard conditions. So within this too, the idea is to focus on the value chain, the life cycle, the connections between various subsystems, rather than researching or trying to focus on just one specific issue, which may not necessarily have wide ranging impacts. 

Miriam Maina Thank you for that. And yeah, this links very well to all the other sort of cities in the housing domain and how we were trying to apply an end-to-end value chain perspective to look at the way housing is produced in African cities, all the way from accessing land to getting approval and constructing, and all this discussion about construction materials, all the way to the exchange of the units or the spaces, whether it’s to rent or homeownership, and then post that, into how the neighbourhood stock and the housing stock is managed, and who is in charge of that. So some very interesting discussions have come across the cities and also now from the research you’re doing. Did you have any methodological things that you had to really think about in Lagos, especially drawing from your own experience in transdisciplinary research, but also co-production? How did you adapt the method so it could work well, knowing how the Lagos housing production system works? 

Basirat Oyalowo Yes, I think first of all, we were guided, I think the ACRC work was guided by some specific methodologies, but which we also had to adapt. We did several interviews, but interviews are to be structured in such a way that it is of interest to those stakeholders that we interviewed because we did interviews across the value chain as well, from land acquisition to finance to construction, to end users, to even the media perception of what housing means to the city. So we sort of relied on the convenience of the respondents. So there were several online interviews rather than face to face, which is more conventional, because even looking at the way the city is structured, sometimes getting from one point to the other to catch up with interviews could be somewhat… So we sort of adapted to what is possible. We had focus group discussions and I remember when we wanted to talk to the cooperative members, they were happy to talk to us as core stakeholders in housing, though not quite visible as they should be. And they requested that we have a night meeting afterward because it was more convenient for them. And that was when they were free of the work. So we had to set up a Zoom call, 7pm, and it was interesting to see how they came in their numbers. The supervisor ministry arranged the FGD [focus group discussion] and they were there in their numbers as well. So that was really like… So we don’t need to be fixed on, you know, specific models or ways of doing things, we just have to look at other means. Then we also did media analysis, which is looking at what is reported about housing. So this is quite different from, you know, a conventional literature review and all of that. We went to newspapers, looked at how they covered housing, what were the issues that are in the public space? Mainly because people rely a lot on this for the information to read about in the press. And also perceptions change, you know, can be changed or influenced through the media coverage. And of course, the media coverage also helped us to link to the government sector to hear what they are saying, what they are promising, and how they hope to deliver what they are promising in terms of housing. So that when we started engaging with the government, you’re able to say, “oh, these ministries said we’re going to do, you know, carry out these reforms or these actions, what has changed? How far have you go with that?” So that’s also helped us to have a clearer view of what we might not readily find in the literature or even get from interviews, because, of course, the limits of interviewing. Yes. So that was something that we did that was quite interesting. 

Miriam Maina Yeah, I like I like that idea of looking at the media and what is put out in there, whether it’s print media, I don’t know whether you also looked at like online digital media to see how the housing conversation is playing out within the city and what sort of ideas and issues are surfacing on that space. And it really links to, especially when you are when you are trying to reflect about something like construction materials and how people perceive, for example, certain types of buildings or construction materials, and the sort of societal trends and ideas are really shaped within that sort of mass media space. So I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the analysis that came out of your exploration of media there. But moving onto the next question, so are there any particular interesting findings that you would like to perhaps surface or reflect on, especially not just within within Lagos, but also in the way the ACRC has approached this cross-city study? So both in reflecting with other researchers, but also from your own work, are there interesting things that came up around governance, around rental markets, around construction economies, or the crosscutting issues of gender or climate or finance. 

Basirat Oyalowo Yeah, I think it’s interesting in the sense that coming together as different cities, we found some deep commonalities in the sense that governments are often biased towards home ownership as a dominant housing policy where funds is sorted and invested. And perhaps this links to the political settlement arrangement, that  because housing is such a physical and visible economic asset, there’s been the temptation to invest in what is physical, what people can see, people can own. And so the focus for the Lagos State Government for years has been on ownership policy. But there has been changes in the last maybe six years or so where there is now a focus on rental housing, but the lack of visibility of rental housing policy, you know, it means that because, of course, we know the capital intensive nature of housing, it means that a lot of the population are left behind, particularly when we look at the fact that homeownership is linked to mortgages. And we have a good proportion of residents in informal sector, informal employment and mortgages, they don’t even qualify for mortgages by just being in the informal economy. So the focus on homeownership policy cuts across most of the cities under the ACRC and then the catching up, so to say, of rental housing in formal policy terms is also something that is interesting to link Lagos with the other cities. 

Miriam Maina Yeah. It will be interesting to see how the rental housing and the rental policy agenda in the African cities progresses from… I mean, it’s already happening, it’s a discussion that’s surfacing in more and more cities, but it will be interesting to see how some of this research will inform those policy processes going forward. I’m sure even in Lagos, like in the other cities, most of the people who provide rental housing are not individuals, households. Maybe you have an extra room in the back. So the rental market is playing out in a very unique way in African cities. But all the same there will be a need for a policy discussion. So how will this research participate in it? So it’s really exciting to see what will come out of this. 

Basirat Oyalowo Yeah. 

Miriam Maina And from your research in Lagos also, because now some of the research is already going into the findings and analysis space, are there any sort of surprising or cases of innovation, whether the small scale or the neighbourhood scale, that you found in the housing sector that were interesting to you as a long-term housing researcher? 

Basirat Oyalowo Yeah, I would say the missed or the continually overlooked portions or segments of the society that are trying to work together to fill the gaps that government has not been able to… Or to fill the gaps in government’s provision of housing generally, whether for rental, particularly for rental, and then for homeownership. Within the city, we’ve found a good proportion of social entrepreneurs like cooperative societies, faith organisations, then associations and maybe employers as well that are trying to support their members in housing, in accessing affordable housing. So cooperative societies stand out as a particularly organised entity, there are over 2,000 of them registered in Lagos. And while the cooperative societies were not formed as what we would call housing cooperatives, most of them are multipurpose societies, they are thrift and credit societies, they are savings societies. They are registered and regulated, and already they are like the main source of finance for accessing housing, whether buying land, improving existing housing, completing homes, paying rents, buying furniture. You know, they are already in that space, supporting their members finance wise. And then some of them have also acquired land, whether in Lagos or outside close to Lagos, so that they can build on these lands, allocate to their members or build on it to address members housing needs. But unfortunately, they are stuck at the land acquisition stage. They do not have the support that is necessary for them to move forward into housing provision. So this was interesting because it is often overlooked, even though the government has had pronouncements on supporting cooperative housing and all of that. But we have not seen that actualised. So through this project, we are proposing to ensure that these segments are amplified, their activities are amplified, towards the production of rental housing in particular, incorporating eco-friendly modes of construction where possible and connecting to the government’s plans – the Lagos State Government plans for densifying some parts of the city, optimising land uses, connecting to the local economies and the industrial needs of the city. The city keeps on growing every day. Infrastructure, new infrastructure is being brought in every day. This means we can envisage more and more people coming into Lagos needing housing, and so the plan to ensure that… to have the cooperative societies recognised and contributing to housing stock, it’s really, really important. 

Miriam Maina Yeah, I really like that. So they’re already existing and they already have very multipurpose ways in which they have developed funding instruments to really support households, fix whatever housing requirements they need at any point in time. So there is no future urban development strategy that does not recognise this critical player in the ecosystem and actually learns from them and figures out how to leverage and expand what they are doing, so that it can fit into the spatial or the housing strategy because they are already there, they’re already playing a very critical function. And I’m really inspired by the fact the different funding instruments that they provide all the time, like, maybe one year I just want to build a house, next year I want to improve it, the following year I want to buy furniture, and my cooperative society can help me with whatever funds I need at any point, that is very interesting. And over 2,000 in Lagos? That is really cool. That is very cool. 

Basirat Oyalowo But apart from the cooperative societies and all that, we also have the residents of our various neighbourhoods, communities within the city that are actively also filling the gaps in basic infrastructure and facility provision for themselves. Talking about advocacy or agitating for connection to electricity, trying to manage flooding, trying to provide security both during the nighttime and daytime. You know, some of these are quite organised as well as community development associations or residents’ associations or landlord associations. So within all these shades, the idea is just for communities to be able to manage, you know, like housing is provided or housing has been there for long, but we need to manage what is existing. So we have these groups as well. However, they work within their own limited resources, they contribute and all of that. So there is ample space for interventions that we help them to scale up to maybe community resilience actions and also neighbourhood improvement that goes beyond just the housing to the entire neighbourhood and trying to also ensure that residences within that enclave are also brought to a decent standard. So if one is to look at the activities of these existing residents and groups, there’s also a lot of opportunities for in-situ upgrading that prevents evictions. Yeah, so that is also very interesting and insightful to see how these groups organise and support one another to address the problems that comes with living in such a dense city as Lagos. 

Miriam Maina Yeah, and I think coming back to your transdisciplinary lens, you almost get a sense of that similar transdisciplinarity in how communities and neighbourhoods solve their problems and organise their surroundings. So even when you’re beginning now to think of the future form and the future safeguarding of this housing stock that the communities have put together, it wouldn’t be like, “oh, let’s just find a climate solution, or let’s just find an economic solution, let’s find a housing upgrading…” It has to be an integrated or a full holistic urban solution. Because that’s how we think, that’s how we solve problems. So if we can find a way to plan in a way that incorporates all these things and I really like some of the community-led or community action planning that’s coming out from your from your research, because it seems to be pointing in that direction. Yeah, so just quickly, in terms of… maybe we can pivot to some of the future directions, the housing research in your team is coming up with, like what are some of the linkages you’re finding coming up from your domain work, from your Lagos connections but also across the other cities. 

Basirat Oyalowo Yeah, so the issue of rental housing and how to amplify or accelerate provision towards rental housing and sustaining it, managing it and bringing all the, you know, like a mixed housing typology because hardly do you find a home without a shop or trading centre in the denser parts of the city. So we’re really looking forward to learning from other cities that have a good rental housing sector to learn, while also learning from the ACRC process that other cities might have, you know, brought forward because we are in the same context. So learning from peers is really important and also linking up with actors in the formal space or the advocacy space that also supports the actualisation of some of the solutions to some of the challenges that we have identified, is something that we are really looking forward to achieve within this project. Importantly, I didn’t mention the silence of the local governments in all of this. Local governments are like onlookers in all these processes of housing provision. Yes. And I have this sense that it’s not just in Lagos but other cities as well. So how do we bring the local governments forward, they are the lowest tier of government, how do we support their own capacities to be a part of the change that we are proposing? It’s something that we are really looking at and importantly, to Nigeria as a country has signed up to several climate change funding and opportunities and energy efficiency financing, and all of that. But the gap between the national, the state, local government and communities is something that we want to unlock so that we can find support mechanisms or catalytic mechanisms that will bring the funding from the national to the local communities. Real change is required and impacts can be, you know, felt and more meaningful to people, whether socially or economically. So those are our broader ambitions for the project; to ensure that we bring about meaningful reforms that are long-lasting and self-sustaining. 

Miriam Maina No, it sounds very exciting and like a good sort of research agenda, but also an action research agenda that begins to support communities, but also to support policymakers, to push towards a more sustainable urban future for Lagos. Just one quick last question, because I know, like Lagos is a coastal city and I think even within the ACRC housing research network, we were beginning to see similarities across other coastal metropolitan areas, such as Dar es Salaam, such as Freetown. So you had some very interesting insights just to share about how communities are beginning to face and to plan ahead for some of the threats and the challenges that are emerging within specifically coastal urban environments. And do you want to share about that or any reflections that you have? 

Basirat Oyalowo Yeah. So we were looking at the impacts of climate change and we were looking at it from a resilience point of view. I mean, it’s about trying to adapt and trying to ensure that the negative effects are not so destructive to people. And yes, there is a risk of eviction for those communities that are classified as informal, because I’ve heard in Freetown and in other cities how the vulnerability of communities is used as an excuse to displace them. So what we are seeing is the need to have proactive communities that understand the risk, do not shy away from the fact that they are at risk and are at risk of ocean surges and all of that, while also being at risk of evictions. We need them to be conversant of that so that they can then be supported to take action that is bottom-up rather than waiting for the government to make pronouncements to evict them. They take a step forward in demanding for safety, for themselves, and being ready to carry out resilience actions such as better or more efficient, less damaging waste management practices. Because we get a lot of low-income communities that themselves add to issues around flooding because of improper waste management, which could also be as a result of a gap in government’s provision of this. So it’s now about them demanding, being aware of their role and then demanding from the government, you know, actions that will keep them safe before a natural occurrence that will force the government to say, “oh, this area is unsafe, you have to move away” because that’s what we get. So pre-emptive, bottom-up awareness and bottom-up approaches are what we are looking at. So we are also proposing strengthening the capacity of communities to demand for better governance and to also carry out, to identify, prioritise and carry out resilience action plans, community resilience action plans, that can keep them safe from the impacts of climate change. 

Miriam Maina No, thank you very much for that. That’s very exciting. And I do look forward to to reading about some of these plans because I think there’s so much we can learn about from the Lagos experience. But also just to follow some of the exciting work that you’ll be carrying on in your city. Thanks, Basirat. And finally, maybe you can share with me something that really excites you about Lagos, which is the city that you live. What’s your favourite place? What’s the one place? 

Basirat Oyalowo Lagos is full of excitement. Lagosians are very excited people, always on the move, always on the run. I mean, always in there to get something. Because the city, as most popular cities, are full of opportunities for everyone who can sit back and provide a good or a service that is required. So that is really exciting, how Lagosians have also managed to manage the space that they have. So you could have a retailer, a street trader, you know, using a piece or a space in the early hours of the morning, passing the space on to another peddler during the daytime, and then yet someone else uses that same space over the night. So it’s always bustling and seems never to sleep. And yeah, so, so many opportunities to use the resources of I mean, to support people, to use their resources to change their city. So there’s so much, it’s always exciting and there’s always something happening. There’s a lot of social activities that newcomers to the city can enjoy. And then there is also the opportunity to interface with people of particular ethnic groups because over the years the city has also grown into some specific clusters, so nobody ever feels out of place in the city. So that’s exciting. 

Miriam Maina That’s remarkable. Thank you very much for sharing about that. And thank you for taking time to talk about the housing research in Lagos. 

Basirat Oyalowo Thank you, it’s been exciting. 

Miriam Maina Awesome. 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. 

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Header photo credit: peeterv / Getty Images (via Canva Pro). A residential area of Lagos, Nigeria.

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.

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