Improving the urban environment in Africa

Practical Action in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Sudan

January 2005 to June 2008

Being poor in an urban area in Africa means being close to centres of power, money and basic services, but rarely having those things yourself. It usually means living in a hazardous and unhealthy environment. Services such as clean water, hygienic sanitation, and waste collection are either unavailable or very expensive. Town and city councils have, for many years, been failing to keep pace with urban growth rates in Africa, and the fastest-growing areas are usually slums.

Practical Action has adopted an integrated approach to addressing the needs of the urban poor. It recognises that local organisations need to be in the lead in solving their own problems. This project aimed to improve the livelihoods of poor women and men through developing sustainable, community-managed models of water, sanitation and waste management. It aimed to improve the living environment for thousands of residents. Hundreds would benefit from incomes in the businesses involved in running those services.

This project builds on previous projects on integrated approaches to urban development.

Project locations


  • Nakuru - co-operatives of organic waste collectors, and small enterprises in waste collection. Nakuru is Kenya's 4th largest town, located 160km to the north-west of Nairobi.
  • Nairobi - co-operatives of plastic and paper recyclers, with members drawn from across Nairobi's informal settlements.
  • Mavoko - we worked in Slota, a settlement of around 3,600 people in one of Nairobi's satellite towns. We worked with the Slota Development Committee, set up in 2004, which aims to help articulate the needs of the community to the local authority and other stakeholders.


  • Kassala, eastern Sudan - we worked in two settlements of internally displaced people. Both settlements were established in the mid-1980s following severe drought in the south of Sudan. The settlements continued to grow as people were displaced by on-going war and droughts.
  • Gedarif, eastern Sudan - we worked in the main settlement for internally displaced people outside the town of Gedarif. As with those in Kassala, the settlement was established in the mid-1980s by people fleeing drought and war in the south of the country.


  • Epworth - a peri-urban settlement 12km south-east of Harare. The settlement is home to nearly 400,000 people but is mostly informal, with most parts of it lacking basic infrastructure. The infrastructure that did exist has broken down in recent years due to the economic and political crisis.
  • Mbare, Harare - one of Harare's oldest suburbs, hosting the country's largest fruit and vegetable market, and the long-distance bus terminus. It is a densely settled area with old blocks designed for single male workers; as well as informal and backyard structures many of which were demolished during Operation Murumbatsvina in 2005.
  • Chitungwiza - a dormitory town for workers community to Harare 25km to the north. We worked in one of the high-density, poorer settlements, called Zengeza 3 extension.

Project approach

Our work starts from a foundation of community capacity building and engagement with local authorities and other service providers. In some cases we were working with organisations which represent all the residents of a particular area. In other cases, they represent groups of waste recyclers drawn from various settlements.

Our aim was that, through the work of these organisations, and the partnerships they formed, large numbers of poor people would benefit from a cleaner environment and better, more affordable services. A smaller number (the members of the groups) would benefit from increased incomes from delivering and managing those services.


1 Community capacity building

We worked with around 20 community-based organisations, and by the end of the project, most had achieved a 'step change' in their capacity including changes to their legal status, improved organisational practices, and greatly strengthened relationships with external partners.

2 Influencing local policies and practices

In most cases, the need was not to change policies, but to help everyone understand the existing legislation and the opportunities it already provides for pro-poor service provision. In Kenya, for example, we focused on environmental policies, preparing a summary of the relevant Act, and alerting the co-operatives, and municipal and provincial government staff to its key points. In Nakuru, this resulted in a new set of environmental by-laws which allowed for the licensing of community groups for waste collection.

3 Businesses in service delivery

We supported businesses in waste management in Kenya and Zimbabwe, and in construction and building materials production in Sudan. Part of the support we offered was to introduce new technologies and processes. In Kenya, for example, this meant new small-scale machines for processing reclaimed plastics (for grinding, pelletizing and washing); and producing organic fertilizer (sieving, mixing and granulating). In Zimbabwe, around 100 people were earning incomes from project-supported businesses by the end of the project. In Kenya, around 3,800 people were involved in the waste-related businesses.

4 Improving services, housing and the urban environment

The services which reached the largest numbers of people over the course of the project were:

  • Sudan - water networks - constructed in both settlements in Kassala and reaching some 6,600 people
  • Sudan - latrines - constructed by local artisans in Kassala, serving 6,126 people
  • Zimbabwe - waste collection - by a small enterprise in Epworth, serving 1,014 households
  • Kenya - waste collection - in Nakuru where 6 licences have been issued to community-based groups, with some services now reaching poor neighbourhoods.

In Sudan, a community-based group also set up a revolving fund, and the project helped with new designs for the construction of housing. 21 people had benefited from loans either for building a new house or improving an existing house by the end of the project, and system had been recognised for its achievements with a prize for innovation from the local office of the World Bank.

5 Awareness-raising campaigns

These were run in all 3 countries. They came into their own in Zimbabwe where the 27 peer educators trained in health and hygiene education reached more than 17,000 people, and had a large role to play in bringing an outbreak of cholera under control in early 2007. In Kenya and Zimbabwe campaigns involving art, songs and public speaking were run in 76 schools in Zimbabwe and 75 primary schools in Nakuru, Kenya.

Remaining challenges

The project hoped to achieve the twin goals of improving services for poor people, and generating incomes for businesses providing that service. In waste management in particular, there is not always a direct connection between the two. Not all the waste dumped on the street in poor neighbourhoods is usable by, or valuable to, these businesses.

Many of the groups we work with have emerged from informal groups of residents who are motivated by wanting to improve their neighbourhoods for their families and the wider community; and by wanting to earn more income themselves. To achieve the second, we need to adopt a business-oriented approach with these groups from the outset.

The greatest successes of the project were in the 'step changes' achieved by the local organisations we worked with; and in changing the attitudes and practices of local authorities. The remaining challenge for the future is to build on that, going the next step to achieving large-scale change for slum dwellers.

Further information

For more detail, you can download the following project briefings:

Improving the urban environment in Africa
An overall briefing covering all three countries, outlining the approach, achievements and lessons learned.

focusing on housing, water and sanitation with internally displaced communities

focusing on waste management

focusing on waste management co-operatives

For Zimbabwe, also see the webpage on improving the urban environment in Zimbabwe

funded by Comic ReliefThis work was supported by Comic Relief

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