Spotting the Invisible Risks to Food and Health in Nairobi’s Slums

By Shadrack Mbaka, Alice Sverdlik (UC-Berkeley) and Sohel Ahmed, DPU-UCL

Data can create a strong foundation for understanding hidden problems and generating innovative solutions. Muungano wa Wanavijiji (Federation of Slum-Dwellers), with the support of its secretariat Muungano Support Trust (MuST), continues to revolutionize data on informal settlements by using tools such as city-wide profiles, enumerations, and GPS mapping as a call for additional and better information that is more open, disaggregated, produced more frequently, and user-friendly so that communities can create solutions tailored to their needs.

Despite the urgent need and overwhelming demand to address urban environmental crises, actors working in these areas are plagued by a dearth of information. Muungano and MuST have found that informal settlements are often excluded from Kenya’s national and county-based surveys, on the assumption they would skew data and uncover problematic trends. For instance, high levels of food insecurity, inadequate food safety practices, and unstable livelihoods are chronic development challenges in informal settlements. Additionally, low-income urban areas are at heightened risk of both rapid and slow-onset crises, including climate change and rising food prices.

Recently, MuST and Muungano have partnered with researchers on a food and livestock study that will reveal emerging threats to food safety and health in Nairobi’s slums, as well as how to address these challenges. Other partners are based at the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, in addition to the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Development Planning Unit (DPU) at University College London. Research will be based in Korogocho, Viwandani, and Dagorretti, where extensive mapping will be conducted as well as several focus groups with food vendors and livestock-keepers to identify their key concerns. By bringing together a range of stakeholders, the project can provide new insights into hidden risks to food and health while uncovering new solutions benefiting residents of Nairobi’s informal settlements.

Mama Wairimu a Food Vendor in Milimani Village in Viwandani, draws a sketch Map of Viwandani representing food vendor concentration Areas

Mama Wairimu a Food Vendor in Milimani Village in Viwandani, draws a sketch Map of Viwandani representing food vendor concentration Areas

The study’s objective is to reveal the mechanisms leading to the introduction and spread of pathogens into urban populations through food and livestock. It will focus upon food and livestock as sources of these pathogens, since emerging diseases are likely to be zoonotic in origin.Due to close interactions with residents of low-income areas, food and livestock pathogens are highly likely to cross the species barrier and to pose risks to slum-dwellers. The study also aims to understand how food and livestock value chains are affected by environmental, infrastructure, and socio-economic factors in slums. For instance, the lack of water, sanitation, waste collection, or other infrastructure may increase the risk of food contamination and create several economic burdens for food vendors and livestock-keepers in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Furthermore, the team will research emerging pathogens that may exist in diverse hosts, in the environment, on food, waste, etc. (See for more info on urban zoonotic diseases or urban Zoonoses)

Additionally, the teams will strengthen existing data, offer new skills to residents, and utilise a range of research methods throughout the study. The partnership will utilize and expand upon past data-sets, particularly administrative data; Geo-reference existing survey and administrative data; map key indicators and services; analyse and visualise existing data more creatively; create inter-operable existing data sources, perhaps linking survey and administrative data; and enhance usability, accessibility, and affordability of existing data sources. The Urban Zoonoses study will go beyond just administering questionnaires to incorporate several innovative research methods. These include base-mapping, paper mapping, and mobile phone applications that gather data on food sources, daily patterns, and environmental hazards. In particular, there is an important component of balloon-mapping of environmental ‘hot spots. ‘Balloon-mapping offers a low-cost but effective way of gathering data on environmental hazards and can be linked with the study’s other data sources.

Ballon Mapping

Ballon Mapping

Furthermore, this collaboration will offer technical support to communities, impart skills in mapping and data-collection, and draw upon residents’ local knowledge of food practices. The training will not only enable communities to participate meaningfully in the study, but will also help address the challenge of improving statistics in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Conducting focus group discussions (FGDs) with food vendors, livestock-keepers, and consumers in slums will again provide much-needed data into existing practices, challenges, and possible responses to environmental hazards and zoonotic threats.

The study is currently being piloted Viwandani villages of Jamaica and Milimani; upon testing the tools, the project will be rolled-out in Viwandani as well as in Korogocho and Dagoretti. These actions will go a long way to support a data revolution, starting from where it counts – the bottom up.