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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


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In the slums of Kampala, the phrase “survival for the fittest” takes on a whole new meaning: reflections from a recent field trip studying electricity access in Nakulabye slum, Kampala, Uganda

By penlope.yaguma.20, on 31 October 2022

By Penlope Yaguma

Penlope Yaguma is a 3rd year PhD student of Energy and Development Policy at the UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (UCL STEaPP) and the UCL Engineering for International Development Centre (EfID). Her broad research interests are on electricity access in slums and informal settlements in African cities, with a specific focus on Uganda’s cities. Penlope’s work is inspired by her own experiences of growing up and living in Uganda, and she hopes to bring her formal training in electrical engineering and sustainable energy systems to understanding and creating solutions for the inequalities and injustices in service delivery and infrastructure provision in African cities.

Everyone looks down on us because we live in the ghetto, but deep down they know that these ghettos are the heartbeat of Kampala.

Despite slums’ close proximity to grid infrastructure or sometimes literally under the grid, accessing electricity in Kampala’s slums remains precarious, costly or downright unsafe

How it all began: In September 2022, I set out to do the fieldwork and field data collection for my PhD research in Nakulabye slum, one of over 60 slum settlements in Uganda’s capital Kampala. The plan was to conduct household surveys, hold focus group discussions in the settlement and interview key stakeholders on all matters electricity access specifically and access to social services and infrastructure more broadly. I was very fortunate to work with a passionate field team of geography students from Makerere University’s Urban Action Lab and the Centre for Climate Change Research and Innovation, and community guides who were residents of the settlement. We also received overwhelming support and assistance from the local council leaders (LC1s) of all nine administrative villages/zones that make up Nakulabye settlement. Many generously shared their experiences of securing social services for their jurisdictions and improving livelihoods for community members, families, and businesses. The devastating effects of Covid-19 and increasing cost of living are still being felt in Nakulabye, forcing some to close their businesses or pack up their families and move back to the village. Following two settlement walks, training and piloting the survey questionnaire, the actual data collection began – lasting about 2 weeks in total. In this blog post, I reflect upon this fieldwork exercise and write about my experiences and key observations.

Nakulabye is a unique slum in Kampala on several fronts. Firstly, it’s quite close to the city centre and to Makerere university, Uganda’s largest and oldest university. In some places, especially at the fringes of the settlement, the university community has become enmeshed with parts of the settlement – student hostels, food kiosks and grocery shops in the settlement offer affordable accommodation and cheap services to students looking for a bargain. Fifteen minutes on a taxi (matatu) or ten minutes on a motorbike (bodaboda) will get you into the CBD. On the northern side, the settlement borders Kasubi tombs, the burial grounds for the last four Kabakas (kings of Buganda kingdom). Proximity to an important cultural site, a university and the city centre may mean more secure land tenure for residents in the slum. The land on which the settlement is owned by different entities – Buganda kingdom, the church, and private owners are the predominant landowners. These different land ownerships have implications for how and who provides services and how infrastructure is extended into the settlement.

A mural in the heart of Nakulabye slum. The social capital and sense of community here is strong. Everyone knows a cousin who knows a neighbour who knows a friend who can get you an electricity connection or wire your house “at a small fee”

Key infrastructure challenges: do first impressions matter? The first thing you notice as you descend into Nakulabye from the East (off Makerere Hill Road) is the distinct separation between high-rise buildings on the upper end and the slum on the lower end and into the valley. The separation is a small stream which has now become a gentle trickle of grey-brown wastewater dotted with plastic bags and other solid waste. A narrow, wooden makeshift footbridge allows crossing by foot or bicycle or the occasional daring bodaboda into the slum. There are other concrete footbridges at different points along the stream. Away from the main roads, navigation within the slum is equally difficult – often worsening after heavy rains. In some places, housing structures are so dense that to access some compounds and households, one must squeeze through narrow passageways, hop over open drainages or manoeuvre multiple sharp turns and corners while ducking below short roof lines. We scheduled the fieldwork for the tail end of the wet season so it would be cool enough for the team to work while also being dry, but the occasional early morning or late afternoon shower rendered some access paths nearly impassable.

Image: On the lower end of the slum, a small stream (Left) marks the beginning of the settlement which is accessed via a makeshift wooden footbridge (Right)

Energy and electricity: The primary interest of my study is electricity access, so naturally I was drawn to the available electricity infrastructure in the settlement: electricity poles, electrical wiring and meters, and transformers. We spotted about four transformers in the entire settlement of 40,000 persons and 8,000 households, mostly along major roads or on the edges of the slum. Of course, we could have missed some but it was evident that the transformer-to-population ratio is nowhere near ideal. Another thing that stood out was how almost every structure, of whatever size or state of permanence had an electricity wire going into it or serving a security lightbulb on the exterior. The type of housing in the settlement ranges from the permanent (brick walls, tile or cement floor, and iron roof) to the temporary (tarpaulin or mud or wood or iron sheet walls and earth or cement floor), and everything in between.

Image: Temporary structures which would typically not meet the safety requirements for connection by the utility find alternative means of connection

Households and businesses access electricity either formally through the utility company Umeme Ltd., or informally through unlicensed wiremen locally known as kamyufu. Informal connections are so prevalent now that once mostly hidden from public view and buried in the ground, today many informal connections are in plain view, directly tapping from overhead lines or bypassing meters or tapping from a neighbour’s premises. Despite the (sometimes fatal) risks that informal connections pose, many opt for them because they are cheaper and the kamyufu are readily accessible within the slum. The strong social fabric in the settlement has made electricity access via informal connections much more attractive than the formal, legal means – the kamyufu are well-known in every neighbourhood, are easily accessible if there are faults even late in the night, have a brief list of requirements, and are far less bureaucratic. Some even offer “connect now pay later” services, which given the seasonality of most slum dwellers’ income is a welcome additional benefit of using them. Typically, the fees they charge for connection and bill payments are also much less than those charged by the utility on formal connections. For other households, an understanding with a connected neighbour or landlord is enough to get a connection extended “at a small fee”.

Given that 70-80% of people rent their homes or business premises, landlords are also very influential when it comes to accessing electricity. To begin with, the rent for a house that is connected to electricity is typically higher than that of an unconnected house even when the tenant will be responsible for their monthly bills anyway. The landlord may also decide not to connect his rental properties, gatekeep which appliances you can own and use in the house or provide the informal connection route as the only option to accessing electricity. These landlord-tenant dynamics can either enable or stifle access to electricity. For cooking, most households use charcoal, a few use firewood, electric hotplates or paraffin stoves.

Image: Informal connections are widespread, and some are dangerously close to clothes hanging lines or hang low in corridors and doorways that you can reach out and touch them

So whose turf is it? Key players in service provision: The lack of proper service delivery from the city council and utilities has opened up the space for diverse groups of actors to provide services and for residents themselves to broker alternatives or improvisations. For example, on every day we were in the settlement, we observed several ways in which waste is collected and handled. In the wealthier sections of the settlement (mostly on the upper hilly parts with permanent high-rise structures) some compounds had a waste collection truck come by to collect trash. There was also garbage dumped on vacant parcels of land or in the many open drainage channels or burned in backyards. Others make a livelihood from plastic waste – 1kg of plastic waste collected (primarily water and beverage bottles) fetches 1,000 shillings (around $0.25). These plastic bottles are reportedly taken to a central facility where they are recycled or repurposed into other plastic items.

Image: Waste is dumped on vacant lots and burned (Left); Private service providers advertise waste handling services for those who can afford it (Right).

Water, too, is accessed via different means. A spring borehole in the valley is open and accessible to anyone free of charge, and women and children bring their laundry and do their washing there. Bodaboda riders also bring their dirty motorbikes for a wash here. Throughout the day, young boys like 21-year old John who was born and raised in the settlement earn a living as “watermen” or water errand boys if you will, by ferrying jerry cans of water from the borehole to people’s homes on bicycles and wooden carts. Public standpipes provided by the national water utility are also dotted around the settlement, and a 20litre jerrycan of water here costs anywhere between 50 shillings ($0.013) and 200 shillings ($0.052). The more sophisticated prepaid public water points use tokens – users load “units” onto a token which they slot into the water point to release water into a container. The units deplete with every use until they run out and must be reloaded. Sadly, some public water points have long since malfunctioned and have yet to be repaired. A few homes and compounds have private water taps often serving several homes in the vicinity and many were locked or caged away, perhaps to keep unauthorised users out.

Image: Public spring borehole, free and accessible 24/7 (Left); Public water tap provided by the national water utility where 20litres of water cost between 100 and 150 shillings (Centre); Public prepaid water tap provided by the utility uses a token system to bill water used (Right).

Climate risks and adaptations: the most immediate climate risk we noticed is flooding and waterlogging after heavy rains. The months of August leading into September tend to be wet and rainy seasons, making slums like Nakulabye particularly vulnerable to floods. The already narrow access roads can become impassable, water levels swell and get into people’s homes, open drainages, already clogged with garbage flood too. In some extreme cases, flooded drainages have reportedly swept away little children and some adults. The most prone structures and slum sections try to manage the floods by blocking the water with sand-filled sacks while some doorways are raised a few extra inches to keep water out. Similarly, toilets and pit latrines are built on elevated platforms.

Image: In the low-lying sections of the slum, sand-filled sacks are stacked to keep floods out of homes (Left) and to protect entire sections of from flood runoff (Right)

Although my study’s focus is on electricity access, there is no denying that many other infrastructure and social service deficits abound in Nakulabye and in other slums in Kampala. Despite this, residents in slums improvise and devise alternative means of accessing services while at the same time navigating several vulnerabilities in making their lives and livelihoods for their families and community. The different service deficits are clearly interlinked, therefore no challenge should be considered in isolation. The poorest families occupy the shanty housing structures which will be denied an electricity connection by the utility on grounds of safety even if they could afford it, and the walls will be too flimsy to carry the plumbing for piped water, and it will also be the most likely to flood after a heavy downpour, exposing occupants to waterborne diseases which they must spend money on to treat. And so the cycle goes on and on. These interlinkages between different priorities in energy, housing, sanitation, health and others keep individuals and families in vicious cycles of poverty and vulnerability because one cannot be fully solved without addressing the others.

Recent work at the UCL Engineering for International Development Centre along with other partners offers practical actions for linking different development agenda. Through the Integrated and Inclusive Framework (3IF), they demonstrate that synergies between global development goals like the UN SDGs and Africa’s local development goals encapsulated in the African Agenda 2063 can inform development initiatives and projects aimed at reducing inequalities and promoting prosperity for all. Linking the local with the global ensures that no one goal is considered in isolation of the others, helping the development of solutions that deliver overarching multiple benefits. My PhD research is investigating electricity access in slums using energy justice and sustainable livelihoods approaches, and it will without a doubt touch upon issues related to southern and African urbanism, urban planning and governance, land and housing, health and sanitation, livelihoods and wellbeing, among others. Urban poverty and vulnerability wear many faces, therefore it must be understood and addressed via multiple lenses.

Image: Toilet blocks are raised off the ground to keep flood water out and avoid contamination (Left); In a shared toilet block, writings on the wall ask users to carry their own water to use whenever they visit the toilet (Right)

Despite the above challenges, life in Nakulabye slum is a melting pot of social and economic activity – children sing nursery rhymes in the few nursery and primary schools, places of worship, health centres and drug shops are open, as are many grocery shops and open-air markets selling matooke, fresh fruits and vegetables and fresh catch from Lake Victoria. In Zone 1, eateries and entertainment centres blast the latest hit songs through loudspeakers positioned along the main streets as early as 10AM, carpentry shops and tailors fashion the latest pieces of furniture and attire, and men and women alike flock the numerous salons to get their hair dressing done. Nearby, a laundry kiosk attendant hangs customers’ clothes on the clothesline to dry in the sun before tackling the ironing; not many people in the settlement own an electric iron box, so they bring their “official or Sunday-best” clothes here to be ironed at a fee. In the few vacant lots, children’s happy squeals can be heard as they take turns riding a bicycle and little boys kick around a football. It is a sunny Wednesday morning during school term, and I am tempted to ask why they are not in school, but I quickly realise that going to school is a privilege and luxury that many cannot afford, for there are many other immediate pressures – food, rent, energy, water, healthcare, the list goes on. Still, by many measures, neighbourhoods are as vibrant and alive as ever, and every individual, home and business here deserves decent social services, including electricity. But first, we need evidence of how large and how pervasive these infrastructure gaps are, and their direct and indirect social and economic costs. In the next phase of my PhD, I will attempt to do figure these out.

I will end by quoting one of the residents who half-jokingly told me, “Everyone looks down on us because we live in the ghetto, but deep down they know that these ghettos are the heartbeat of Kampala.

Young boys play in an open vacant yard in the settlement

Thanks and acknowledgements: Many thanks to my supervisors Prof. Yacob Mulugetta and Prof. Priti Parikh for all of the support, patience and guidance in planning this fieldtrip, to UCL STEaPP and the UCL EfID centre for the generosity and resources that made the trip possible. Also a huge thank you to the team from Makerere University’s Urban Action Lab and Centre for Climate Change Research, led by Mr. Hakimu Sseviri who made my work a lot more manageable. Lastly, to the community guides, local council leaders and the residents of Nakulabye settlement who welcomed us into their homes, businesses, compounds, community halls and openly shared their experiences with us.

One Response to “In the slums of Kampala, the phrase “survival for the fittest” takes on a whole new meaning: reflections from a recent field trip studying electricity access in Nakulabye slum, Kampala, Uganda”

  • 1
    Tarhib wrote on 6 December 2023:

    The study highlights the importance of considering the specific needs and challenges of slum dwellers when developing policies and interventions aimed at improving their lives. I really appreciate the insights you provided in your blog. Thank you for sharing this valuable information.

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