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Bob Moon: Police fired off tear gas to break up a street demonstration in Nairobi this weekend. Hundreds gathered to protest the sharp rise in food prices.
The high cost of food is just another depressing obstacle to overcome in a land where 5 million people live in slums and more than 80 percent of them have no steady employment.
But there’s a government program aimed at turning Kenya’s poorest residents into thriving business owners and building the East African nation’s domestic economy.
From Nairobi, Sara Nics reports.
Sara Nics: In the heart of Nairobi, you’ll find the sprawling slum of Kibera, population 700,000. It’s the largest slum in East Africa and one of the most densely packed, with more than 1,000 people per acre. Entire families live in one-room mud brick houses along garbage-strewn footpaths.
Despite the poverty, Kibera is also a hive of business activity. Over the noise of hammers and saws, Michael Ongaga Adhiambo shows off a hand-carved piece of furniture that was built in his Kibera workshop.
Michael Ongaga Adhiambo: This is a couch. It is a sofa. It is called a skeleton sofa and we are selling it 120,000.
That’s about $2,000 U.S., a steep price in a country where the average wage is about $1.50 a day. Adhiambo says he’s able to sell high-end furniture only since he moved his shop to one of the few roads through the slum. Despite the mammoth potholes and heavy traffic, customers from wealthy Nairobi neighborhoods can drive in to look at the goods he has displayed on the roadside.
Leah Muraguri is director of the Kenyan Slum Upgrading Program. She says many people living in slums are hardworking and entrepreneurial.
Leah Muraguri: There is a lot of activity, especially on carpentry, soap making, bread making, bakeries…
So Muraguri’s program works to provide roads, electricity and other basic infrastructure for small businesses. A new road in Kibera is already having some results.
Muraguri: You can already see a lot of traffic, unlike just a few months ago.
About a mile from the new road, Joyce Awino sells fruits and vegetables from a small stall in front of her house. Here, the slum’s footpaths are so steep and muddy that Awino has to carry all the produce in on her back. She says a little infrastructure could go a long way.
Joyce Awino: [Speaking in Swahili]
If there was electricity, Awino says, she could keep the business open after dark. Streetlights would also help to keep her shop and her seven children safe, and safety is a big concern these days after riots, rape and arson broke out across Kibera following last year’s elections in Kenya.
Muraguri says the chaos delayed some of their projects, but has not changed one of the program’s main goals: helping people create their own jobs and businesses so they don’t have to rely on handouts from the government or international aid programs.
In fact, furniture-maker Michael Ongaga Adhiambo says a paved road in front of his workshop would bring in more business. Then he’d be able to employ more workers, including the most desperate Kiberans, those who have been orphaned by HIV.
Adhiambo: Even right now, I have three orphans inside here. I am teaching them.
Employment for one person at a time — that’s how the Kenyan Slum Upgrading Program hopes to improve the livelihoods of the poorest Kenyans. If the 5 million people living in slums are able to buy, sell and produce more, the entire economy may grow with them.
In Nairobi, I’m Sara Nics for Marketplace.
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