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Slums: A fierce challenge to Uganda's urbanisation drive

By Vision Reporter

Added 8th August 2012 12:57 PM

TO some, it is a facet of urbanisation. Yet, to many, it is largely a symptom of urban poverty. Whichever way one looks at it, slums manifest a big social and governance problem in not only developing, but also developed countries.

Slums: A fierce challenge to Uganda's urbanisation drive

TO some, it is a facet of urbanisation. Yet, to many, it is largely a symptom of urban poverty. Whichever way one looks at it, slums manifest a big social and governance problem in not only developing, but also developed countries.

TO some, it is a facet of urbanisation. Yet, to many, it is largely a symptom of urban poverty. Whichever way one looks at it, slums manifest a big social and governance problem in not only developing, but also developed countries.

“Slums can be related to a child suffering from kwashiorkor,” says Samuel Mabala, the commissioner of urban development in the lands ministry.

“The swollen stomach and thinning of hair are a symptom of a bigger problem. Slums show a serious planning and governance problem.”

But, also, this presents a development paradox; urbanisation manifests in emergency of slums, says Dr. Mary Nabacwa, a development studies lecturer at Uganda Christian University.

“If urbanisation is taking place, then development is also happening,” she says. “However, slums also show underdevelopment and lack of planning.”

What is a slum?

During its meeting in 2002, the UN-HABITAT defined a slum as a “contiguous settlement where the inhabitants are characterised as having inadequate housing and basic services.”

Simply put, a slum is a run-down area of a city characterised by sub-standard housing, squalor and lacking in tenure security.

Usually inhabited by the poor or socially-disadvantaged, slums are often neglected, unplanned, unbudgeted for and not recognised by the public authorities. This is because they are not considered an integral part of the city or town, explaining why there is little data on slum dwellers.

How slums emerge in Uganda

Uganda is one of Africa’s most rapidly urbanising countries, with a population base estimated at about 33 million, a high population growth rate of 3.2% and a high rate of urban growth estimated at over 5% per annum.

This has played catalyst to the development of slums, largely attributed to unbalanced rural and urban growth divide, forcing the rural dwellers to seek better social services in the urban areas.

The migrators also seek employment opportunities, spouses, better standard of living and services and security, according to Living In Kampala Slum, a study conducted by the John Paul II Justice and Peace Centre, 2011. The study adds that others migrate due to the loss of their “bread winners”, peer influence and loss of land in rural areas.

“Slums are an indicator that people want better services everywhere they are,” says Nabacwa. “It is a strong message to planners and, indeed, to the Government.”

However, these rural folk who flock urban areas are often unplanned for by the local government and city authorities in terms of housing and accommodation, as well as other social amenities.

“As a result, the migrators find a high cost of living in the city, ending up in slums and informal settlements. Over 50% of Ugandan slum dwellers live in tenements, locally called mizigo,” says Mabala. “They are also illiterate and lack technical skills that the urban job market requires.”


To sustain themselves and their families, slum dwellers engage in jobs like security guards, operating retail shops and kiosks, supermarket attendants, pump attendants, boda boda riding, fruit and food vending, car washing and prostitution.

Slum dwellers’ meagre salary hardly meets their basic needs, considering that Uganda has no legislation on minimum wage. This ensures they are permanently held hostage to slums.

These poorly-facilitated mizigo rented at a rate as low as sh5,000 often lack toilets or latrines, contrary to the Public Health Act of 1964, making slums worse than rural areas.

Life in the slums is not cheap, though. While water coverage in Kampala, for example, is estimated at 65%, it costs three times more to buy water in a slum than it does in the planned areas such as Kololo and Nakasero, according to a Kampala Integrated Environmental Planning Management Project 2010 report.

In Uganda, the bigger the district, the bigger the slum, according to the lands ministry. Kampala, though, leads with prominent slums, including Makerere Kivulu, Kamwokya Kifumbira Zone, Banda, Wabigalo, Namuwongo, Katanga, Kalerwe, Nsambya and Bwaise. Other districts with slums include Jinja, Mbale and Gulu.

Slums, a global problem

Currently, the UN-HABITAT estimates that between 49% to 64% of the total world urban population dwell in slums. According to the National Slum Upgrading Strategy and Action Plan, 2008 the urban population in Uganda comprised five million people as of 2009, with 60% living in slums.

This means three million Ugandans lived in slums. But, considering that Uganda’s population growth rate stands at 3.2% per annum, the urban population stands at 5.5 million as of 2012, with 3.3 million slum dwellers.

However, a 2007 UN-habitat observatory report ranked Uganda among developing countries with fast annual slum growth rate, averaging 5.32%, implying there are about 3.5 million Ugandans living in slums today, estimated to reach eight million by 2020, up from three million in 2009.

Action Aid International, a charity, estimates that over one million people in Kampala live in slums.

Globally, one-sixth of humanity or one billion people live in slums, a figure projected to rise to 1.5 billion by 2020.

MDGs developed

Reflecting on the growing development paradox presented by global poverty and its effects on people’s lives, heads of over 50 states met during a Millennium Summit in 2000 and adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of eight targets designed to improve human livelihood.

For environmental sustainability and slum upgrading, MDG 7 target 11 articulates the commitment of member states to improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by the year 2020.

And, in her quest to curtail the slum problem, Uganda developed the National Slum Upgrading Strategy and Action Plan (2008) to provide a framework, direction and plan to all stakeholders on how to improve slums.

This would fast-track Uganda’s target of uplifting the lives of at least one million people by 2020.

Early interventions

The plan, however, came against a backdrop of earlier interventions like the Poverty Eradication Action Plan, the National Agricultural Advisory Services, Rural Water and Sanitation and rural electrification, to mention but a few, that proved unsuccessful in bridging the urban-rural development divide.

These interventions met many stumbling blocks, especially inadequate funding and corruption, alienating and suffocating urban areas that, for its 20% population, contribute 60% to GDP.

In allocating its resources, the Government considers population size, poverty head count and land area, which means more resources are allotted to rural areas that are home to 80% of the country’s population, that the urban areas that lead development surge.

But, the underfunding of local governments, with only $2 per capita invested in infrastructure development as opposed to the international threshold of $25, has galvanised slum development.

“As a result, urban local governments have plans to fix roads, drainages, electrification and housing, but lack resources,” says Mabala.


Uganda has a housing deficit of 600,000 units, of which Kampala alone has 100,000. To address the housing deficit, the Government undertook slum upgrading project in Namuwongo, but was not sustainable over a 10-year period as only 1,000 homesteads benefitted.

Currently, the Government is reviewing the housing policy to streamline the sector and ensure formation of housing cooperatives where people can save money to build houses as well as improve land access to encourage owners engage in joint ventures with investors to better utilise their land.

The Transforming Settlements of Urban Poor in Uganda (TSUPU) programme has also been developed to mobilise slum dwellers in Kampala, Jinja, Mbale, Arua, Mbarara and Kabale into forming savings groups through slum dwellers federations.

Slums: A fierce challenge to Uganda’s urbanisation drive

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