“People in Kibera are resourceful, they know how to use what they have to get by.”

“People in Kibera are resourceful, they know how to use what they have to get by.”

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This guest post is by journalist Abby Higgins, in partnership with The Seattle Globalist. It’s the third in a four part series which reveals the economically complex and culturally rich life of urban slums, and challenges our perceptions of what life is like for the one billion people around the world that live in them. Read Part One or Part Two.

Bella Achieng with her daughter outside their home in Kibera. Photo: Abby Higgins

Deep inside Kibera, a dum light bulb is illuminating the home of Bella Achieng as she wakes her baby daughter from a nap.

Achieng is an entrepreneur. She works on a small scale, using what the rest of the city throws away as a business opportunity.  She buys leftover bits of charcoal from businesses at a cheap price. Then she grinds them up with mud, packing them into neat blocks of cooking fuel that she can sell, turning a small profit.

Reusing cast-off materials is common practice in slums around the world. Human waste is converted into bio-gas in slums in Lagos; the Zabbaleen community in Cairo make a living by operating informal rubbish  collection for the rest of the city; litter pickers in Mumbai sort plastics and sell them to recycling companies.

Achieng held one of the cooking-fuel blocks up to me.  “You think people in the rest of the city would buy this? No way!” she said, laughing and shaking her head. “But people in Kibera are resourceful, they know how to use what they have to get by.”

The lack of resources in informal settlements may offer a unique impetus to innovate, but that doesn’t change the harsh realities of poverty.  Achieng’s hard work and ingenuity means that she and her two daughters may continue surviving, but they still can’t rely on regular meals.

And yet, Kibera residents constantly defy outside expectations. They watched the coverage of Kenya’s recent presidential election on televisions in their living rooms. Many of them own laptops and operate small movie theatres, electronics repair shops and packed restaurants. They send the money they earn back to their relatives in rural Kenya using groundbreaking mobile-banking technology.  They used open-source technology to map the streets of Kibera, which had previously been a blank space on official maps.

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Cynthia Smith, an expert on socially responsible design who has travelled to 15 countries to study slum innovation tells me that the assumption that the West will bring innovation to poor parts of the world is shifting.

“Often we transfer our ideas to other parts of the world. But in fact that’s changing,” she said. “There are innovation and design ideas that can be applicable to our part of the world.”

Slum residents are using creative approaches to global problems such as urban density, technology access and waste disposal.  Necessity breeds invention. And that necessity might just be what makes slum dwellers well equipped to take on a crowded, resource-strapped future.

Check back next week for Part Four

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