Muungano Support Trust (MuST): Pioneering community-led approaches

Hilary Nicole Zainab Ervin, Nairobi Community Manager
Nairobi, 5 February 2016

Our January article highlighted the various approaches being used across Kenya to achieve sustainable and equitable development of informal urban communities at the ground and policy-level. One of the organizations highlighted, the Muungano Support Trust (MuST) serves as the secretariat of Kenya’s branch of the Slum Dweller’s Federation known as Muugano wa Wanavijiji, which is working to mobilize participatory and community-led enumeration to improve the conditions in which its members live.

MuST represents over 64,000 members from 300 informal settlements across 15 counties in Kenya. The organization tackles complex development challenges pertaining to social justice and urban equity through participatory processes. Participatory planning and enumeration projects have increasingly become a focus of sustainable development organizations and their initiatives. Community-led mapping efforts have been central to innovative projects such as Map Kiberia and Ushahidi, which outsource the process of data gathering to the ‘crowd’.

Approaching development and enumeration from a community-led approach has its challenges. Lack of access to technologies and tools can frustrate efforts. The statistical 'invisibility' of slum dwellers and the initial time required to train residents of informal settlements takes time away from income-generating activities. For an impoverished individual this can mean the difference between one or two meals in a day.

With that said, once these initial challenges have been overcome the benefits to individual participants and the wider communities are significant. One project recently executed by MuST, worked with informal vendors in three slum areas of Nairobi to identify food security and safety issues. Often these vendors are blamed by city governments for unsafe foods; however this view is overly simplistic and neglects to highlight how these same governments systematically fail to provide critical services to resident populations.

Balloon-mapping and participatory appraisals were utilized alongside more traditional qualitative research measures like focus groups to develop a true picture of the spaces in which food vendors operate and provide services to their neighbors. Through these efforts, shortfalls in sanitation were identified that can contribute to contamination, such as sewage drainage and open dumping. The findings were used to inform the informal vendors of ways to mitigate possible foodborne illness while also serving as a valuable information source for advocacy to improve living conditions.

The project resulted in a number of other findings that directly impact the quality of life for informal traders and food vendors. Vending within informal settlements also provided security more generally as sellers were less likely to experience harassment form city council representatives. Transport costs were also reduced, while increased customer traffic resulted from locating shops within settlements. The research also found that women in particular benefit from vending closer to home as it allows them to meet the demands of childcare and household chores that have higher associated costs if they work further away from home.

Though the participatory process has many benefits in providing individuals within greater information, they cannot address wider challenges associated with political and economic realities faced by the populace at larger. Food prices in Africa are rising much faster than incomes. Vending within informal settlements means that customers’ incomes are minimal and sellers can only raise the cost of a good so much before they price themselves out of the market. Empowering technologies such as SokoText were designed to leverage low-cost technology solutions to address these issues. Organizations like MuST are critical to providing education and opportunities to individuals where they live and will continue to be useful in identifying and addressing security and vulnerability.

Photo: Andrew Chipley

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