Mathare is one of the largest and oldest informal settlements in Nairobi County. Already known for its high levels of poverty and overcrowding, COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequalities and sent troubling shockwaves through Mathare’s complex social and economic makeup.
Mathare has long been home to an expansive informal economy, though issues of access to working space, sanitation, and communal conflict pose distinct barriers to the creation of a robust enterprise ecosystem. COVID-19 has placed additional strains on the community: fears of infection due to the high levels of congestion in Mathare have nearly wiped out the hospitality sector while local school closures and limited access to goods have resulted in widespread loss of income and jobs.
Despite the many challenges, those living in Mathare have also found opportunity in their new way of life. When the government halted the secondhand resale of clothing, some traders and entrepreneurs pivoted to selling masks and other authorized goods. New ways of doing business, most notably an increase in e-commerce, have also allowed for Mathare’s strong entrepreneurial spirit to persist in the face of uncertainty.
In 2018, the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) worked alongside Kenya-based SITE Enterprise Promotion (SITE) to conduct a mapping of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Mathare. Researchers conducted a thorough desk review and held a series of interviews and focus group discussions with a group of 98 respondents in two Mathare wards – Kiamaiko and Mlango Kubwa. The mapping exercise, which targeted potential and active entrepreneurs and assessed the overall business environment, aimed to address the high cost of doing business in Mathare. A synthesis of the ecosystem mapping report is available for download here: Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Mapping in Mathare – Synthesis Report. Following the mapping, CIPE worked with SITE and local community leaders to produce an evidence-driven policy brief highlighting key multi-stakeholder recommendations to improve business development in Mathare. The policy brief is available for download here: Policy Brief – Working Spaces in Mathare Critical for the Future of Business
The 2018 mapping identified the lack of appropriate working spaces, poor infrastructure for adequate service delivery, and insufficient channels for dialogue between the business community and government as the primary barriers to conducting business in Mathare. To address these challenges, project stakeholders recommended several areas where local government, business, and civil society could collaborate to improve the business enabling environment. These recommendations included allocating working spaces for micro– and small-scale business owners without displacing current community members, improving county government service delivery, and supporting broader access to government-led community meetings.
In the two years since the initial mapping, SITE has maintained relationships with many entrepreneurs and community leaders in Mathare. Most recently, SITE included Mathare business contacts met through the CIPE program in its pilot of a digital training for women entrepreneurs.
Several of the key recommendations have moved ahead since the publication of the policy brief in both wards covered by the initial mapping. In Mlango Kubwa, local business leaders engaged in public advocacy at a forum held by the county government to speak out against the private development of land being used as informal market space. As a result, the government put a stop to the development project and allowed local business leaders to instead put forth a plan to construct a market in the location.
Important infrastructure and public service delivery projects have also moved forward following community engagement on the policy brief and in public participation forums, including improvement in garbage collection (which is now done on a daily basis in certain areas of Mlango Kubwa) and a new main road and drainage system set to be completed by December 2020. In Kiamaiko, the county government has improved its timeliness in informing residents about public participation forums.
COVID-19 has brought several of these improvements to a halt for the near future. However, local stakeholders note greater awareness among service providers of the need to work with businesses to find solutions during the current crisis. While COVID-19 has caused concerning disruptions, it is clear that the business community’s ability to advocate for its needs is a crucial baseline for building a more cohesive and vibrant future for Mathare.