African Cities: The Experience Of The 21st Century City


The experience of African cities is the experience of the 21st century city. Douglas Cochrane reflects on what urbanists can learn from Nakuru, Kenya. This article is part of the Social Life of Cities series with the Urban Times.


Conventional approaches to understanding cities have tended to rely on the experience of the global North: Chicago, New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris, Berlin. But contemporary urbanism is a phenomenon of the global South. The experience of African cities is the experience of the 21st century city. In this context Nakuru, Kenya, provides an interesting example of modernity in practice, defining what urban living is all about.

The World Resources Institute estimates that 90 per cent of growth in urban populations will take place in developing countries over the coming years, and despite currently having the lowest proportion of continental urbanisation, Africa is expected to have the largest increase of any region. There has been a swell of recent work attempting to understand how this vast expansion will be played out in practice.

Over the last 18 months I have been running Balloon Kenya, a development project based in Nakuru, now the third largest urban settlement in Kenya and recently recognised as Africa's fastest growing city by UN-Habitat. It is in this rapidly changing environment that we have been supporting groups of unemployed young people to imagine, design and launch new businesses. Our work has centred on the economic empowerment of dislocated and under-represented groups through innovation and enterprise, working with local partners to provide the training, financial support and on-going guidance necessary to create and sustain locally managed ventures.

In Kenya around 65 percent of people under 35 are unemployed. Communities across the country are struggling to develop opportunities for young people to contribute in constructive ways. Equipping these young people with the tools to start their own businesses challenges this trend, providing them with a tangible and lasting stake in society, and the capacity to redefine their position in local networks - as responsible and productive citizens rather than idle dependents. So far we have worked with around 350 budding Kenyan entrepreneurs and supported the creation of 20 start-ups. Building on this success, in 2013 we are planning to increase our capacity three-fold.

As a social-urbanist at heart, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on how living and working in Kenya has affected my understanding of what it means to talk about urban development.


A lot of my work in the UK has focused on how policy-makers, architects and house builders can adapt their practices to make new places that support cohesive, engaged and just communities. So, what do we have to learn from Nakuru?

I have had the pleasure of working alongside a number of very tight knit and inspirational civic groups driven by a shared responsibility towards those most in need. In a country without the infrastructure or welfare system to provide adequate care for some of its most vulnerable citizens, local people are forced to build informal structures of support. For example, community fundraising events to pay medical bills or local lobby groups to represent minority interests in public life.

It's a culture of activism out of necessity. Successive generations take on responsibility for the wellbeing of those who are forced to rely on external sources of support, and the relationships that fall out of this process serve to reinforce shared identities.

This self-help mentality has also played a big part in the continued expansion of the co-operative movement in Kenya. We work with a particularly impressive group called Hope and Vision, and their story provides an inspirational example of how the mutual exchange of resources can empower those who are excluded from established networks of support.

Refused loans by local banks and micro-finance institutions, the six founding members registered a co-operative in 2003 and started contributing 1000KSh per month - roughly £7 - into a centrally managed fund. As the total size of this fund increased, the group were able to offer unsecured loans based purely on the trust.

Ten years on, the co-operative has now provided more than £50,000 of credit to its 106 members (the repayment rate is over 97%), and was recently named Best Youth Co-operative in Kenya by the Ministry of Co-operative Development. Once again, the motivation for coming together is co-reliance. Member's needs were not catered for by existing options, and so they joined forces to design and implement their own solution.

But cities are not just spaces of productive social interaction. If one of the sources of their vitality is the ability to bring together people from different backgrounds and absorb them into shared activities -learning to live together- then it is also important to recognise how fragile such settlements can be.

In Nakuru this was reflected in the violence associated with national elections in 2007. The city became the site across which tensions associated with inequality, disadvantage and tribal divisions were played out in destructive ways. Buildings were burnt out, businesses were destroyed, and long established communities were torn apart. An estimated 1300 people died in violent scenes across Kenya, and 600,000 lost their homes.

It is truly remarkable to see how quickly Nakuru has recovered on the back of such devastation. Relationships between battling groups have been repaired and local people are optimistic about the city's future. This is not to suggest that all of the problems fuelling 2007's clashes have been solved. Instead, Nakuru's inhabitants seem determined to find a better way to challenge the injustices that continue to hold them back - as a community defined by unity and shared interests rather than difference.

This new mind-set was reflected in the elections that took place earlier in 2013. Despite difficulties with the new electronic voting system, and a subsequent legal challenge by defeated presidential candidate Raila Odinga, the streets of Nakuru remained safe. There has already been a surge in construction across the city since the peaceful result. Let's hope this next influx of residents can learn from the communal spirit that continues to support Nakuru's development.


Douglas Cochrane is the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Balloon Kenya, a social venture that supports unemployed young people from the UK and Kenya to start micro-enterprises that create jobs and improve community wellbeing. He is also an Associate at Social Life.