Legitimacy vs. Convenience: Informal Service Delivery Systems in slums



What characterises the alleys of Kibera, Mathare, Mukuru, Korogocho and other informal settlements in Nairobi? May be the narrow spaces, but a striking feature is the exposed and leaking water pipes, water  taps that protrude from tiny structures (‘the cash offices’) and exposed electric cables on the surface while others crisscross above the alleys. These are networks operated informally and with the prime target of making profits. Whereas these services are tapped from the city’s main distribution network, the end consumer is often serviced by an informal service provider. In most cases these are cartels that emerge to fill the service deficit gap and despite the inherent challenges, communities depend on these systems. it is a preference that does not necessarily imply that the services come free or cheap, but they serve to meet the suppressed demand and are subjective to contextual convenience. In fact most studies indicate residents in Nairobi’s informal settlements pay more per unit of utility than the formal serviced city residents.

The failure of formal service delivery systems have forced communities in informal settlements to design their own service delivery systems that connect them to networked infrastructures in the city. In this case, informal services are mostly attributed to cheap connection rates or at zero-rate and often the convenient billing systems. The standard formal connection rate for a household electricity meter is about Ksh. 35, 000 (US$ 411) which is undoubtedly too costly for a low-income household. Apart from the connection fee, the process of application is tedious and requires a proof of property ownership, which households in the informal settlements cannot  comply with thus limiting their qualification for servicing. This is further limited through the complex nexus that exist between structure owners and tenants around issues of tenure-ship and property rights. Water, Sanitation and electricity are basic services and by any means necessary, households in informal settlements will risk to access them. ‘Water is life’, children in informal settlements need lighting to study, families want to watch TV, waste is generated and need disposal, commercial activities need power to be productive e.t.c; thus the need is as basic as it sounds.


In the context of Nairobi’s informal settlements is this realistic; to save for years, travel to a utility company and queue for hours to apply for a service while uncertain of your tenure-ship? What about just calling a ‘local connector’ who can service your shack within hours or minutes and at the most convenient arrangements?  A Mathare resident once asserted that electricity is better sourced from cartels; (translated) “we usually get it from those electricity youths; they also fix it when there is a problem. The company is expensive and it’s a long process to apply. With the company it is not even guaranteed”. These ‘electricity youths’ is what the utility companies brand as criminals. The definition of crime or a criminal is not part of the discussion here but the bottom line is that utility companies in Nairobi may wait longer or even forever to achieve their ‘world class’ service delivery models.

What are the implications of this informal ‘encroachment of formal networks?’ It is a very obvious question to utility providers and notably water and electricity providers. This is because utilities provision in Kenya and many countries in the Global South is highly liberalized and thus cost recovery and revenue generations is a top priority for utilities. However, through informal servicing these utilities lose millions in uncollected revenue and wastage in services. Cumulatively, this not only limits their capacity to maintain and sustain existing networks but also limits their capacity to expand service delivery to new consumers or unlocking suppressed demands. Utilities in this case get consumed in an irrational manner, with consumers being less sensitive to consumption since the billing system entails no metering. In this state of affairs the informal settlements continue to bear the burden of under servicing and reliance on unusually expensive per unit charges from informal servicing. Consequently this increases the household expenditure on basics, e.g in Kibera an estimated 20% of the households’ income is spent on water. Currently a 20 litre volume of water goes for between Ksh 3 to Ksh. 5.

As a result, communities get exposed to health risks leading to increased spending on treating water-borne diseases. Similarly, informal electricity is associated with fire disasters, which have been witnessed in all major informal settlements of Nairobi. Importantly, these communities are aware of the dangers they cohabit with. During a community planning workshop in Mathare early this year, a resident highlighted the dangers they have accustomed to as they use informal services; here is a translation;  “daily, we live with this risk and we are aware that electricity from cartels is risky. First of all, the wiring is usually faulty and shocks are common sometimes leading to fire disasters. These disasters keep us so worried because when we are away working our children remain in the shacks and at night we sleep with fears of a fire outbreak. What we need is affordable and safe electricity”. This is just one of the many residents of informal settlements indicating a commitment to pay for reliable and quality services.

Service providers should therefore shift from the assumption that slum communities are elusive in taking up bills, to the approach of designing pragmatic and feasible servicing models for informal settlements. Informal settlements will continue to maintain these systems as long as appropriate servicing approaches are ignored, since their urban living depends of infrastructures just like the other city residents.  Despite the intervention of cartels, these services are still inadequate and regular shortages are common. It has been observed that water and electricity are common when utilities and the police engage cartels in battles.  Utility provision in Nairobi’s informal settlements is a commercial entity and strongly rooted in the informal economy of these settlements.  The picture below illustrates one of the enterprises that have emerged as a compliment to informal service delivery of water in these settlements.

The so-called cartels apparently seem to play a very significant role in the delivery of services in informal settlements. They keep the water flowing, lights on and the informal economy thriving but least are they considered as stakeholders in upgrading projects.  Undeniably they have experience in service delivery and their significance in these settlements cannot be quashed. However, the utilities rarely do engage communities to develop pragmatic servicing models. Service delivery in informal settlements has remained classical and a highly technocratic prescription. Consequently infrastructure upgrading projects hardly succeed. A good case is in Kosovo village of Mathare slums, where the power company ignored active community engagement in electrification. Today residents in Kosovo still rely on and prefer illegal connections as opposed to safe formal connections.

It is a paradoxical context where utilities intend to service the informal settlements while at the same time are reluctant to engage communities (the consumers). Service cartels could offer leverage for developing pragmatic service delivery and service maintenance systems in informal settlements if utilities shift from framing them as part of the problem but part of the solution. This is not another prescription to the plethora of approaches for slum upgrading but a potential approach for improving service delivery in informal settlements. Active participation in infrastructure planning has the potential to reconcile the antagonistic relationship between utilities and informal settlements. Informal systems have a firsthand experience in managing service delivery and the command they control in the local governance is critical. This may sound absurd in the context of formal planning but the failure of many upgrading projects has resulted from the exemption of such stakeholders in projects.  Therefore, tapping the existing capacity within a community not only reduces operation and maintenance costs but also enhances the sustainability of service provision. Therefore, the design of solutions needs to transcend legitimacy and in it, contextualize the socio-political and economic environment in which policy for infrastructure delivery is formulated and implemented.


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