Esther sells fruit at an informal market in Kibera, Africa’s biggest slum in Nairobi. Fuseini, unemployed, lives in Moshie Zhongo in Tamale, Ghana. Nadira lives in the Greenland slum in Khulna, Bangladesh. She works in a shrimp factory to send money to her family in her home village. Although their lives are very different, Esther, Fuseini and Nadira also have something in common: they are part of a growing group of people living in poverty in city slums.

In developing countries, people in slums currently account for more than 50 percent of the city population and “projections for 2020 indicate that the number of slum dwellers in the world will further rise from 863 million to 1.4 billion if no remedial action is taken”. Their number will grow further to 2 billion in 2030 and 3 billion by 2050; four times the current population. Until now expansion of slums has been unplanned and development of basic facilities has not kept pace.

According to the United Nations, people living in slums, miss at least one of the following: durable walls in their house, a secure lease or land title, adequate living space, access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Nevertheless, people do live there by choice: they often pay rent and see themselves as better off than in a rural area. Most moved to the city for better economic prospects; in general, they are better off than poor people in rural areas, but they do deal with problems that are specific to their lives in slum.

Most urban poor do have access to some form of sanitary facilities, either in their house or in their community. Sewage and water systems in slums however, do not exist or are under-developed and septic tanks are not properly emptied. Faecal matter flows freely into drainage systems, rivers and other sources of water. As a result, water become polluted. health issues follow as many people don’t have access to clean water sources for drinking, cooking, and washing. Esther for example spends 30% of her income buying bottled drinking water.

Despite the availability of food in urban markets, most people in slums don’t have the money to buy good, nutritious food. They have to resort to cheap, low quality food with poor nutritional value which is sometimes spoiled or infected. Nadira in Bangladesh always has to buy leftover and rotting vegetables at the end of the market day. To address these problems, some organisations promote food gardens, but slums are overcrowded and yields are low as a result. To guarantee affordable, nutritious and safe food for people living in urban poverty, the linkages between rural food production and the cities need to be improved.

Unemployment is a significant problem in slums. Without decent work and a regular income people don’t have an opportunity to think about and plan their future. Fuseini for example was a farmer, until the ever growing city of Tamale encroached upon his farm. He now travels to the countryside to do seasonal work on farms. There isn’t any work for an unskilled labourer like him in the city. Unemployment also causes social problems, such as theft and gang violence. Many young unemployed men are recruited by gangs who control large areas demanding rent for housing and extracting taxes from street vendors.

Achieving a sustainable future for all, will be impossible without addressing the myriad of interconnected problems that people in urban poverty like Esther, Fuseini and Nadira deal with on a daily basis. What steps need to be taken to achieve a sustainable future for them and their fellow slum dwellers? 

Meet some of the millions of people living in slums around the world and learn more about the development challenges in an urban context.

Johan Martens

Marketing Communications Advisor - Agriculture


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