Understanding the complexities to successfully intervene in informal settlements: A clean cooking case study from Tanzania

By Kweku Koranteng

The blueprint of African cities is shaped by its colonial past, which continues to inform urban studies, planning and policies to date. Post-independence cities’ social economies and political systems were modelled on colonial legacies, with little consideration for indigenous communities. This is evident in the massive movement of indigenous communities to the peripheries of urban areas to give space for modern infrastructure development [1]. National identities of post-independent states were premised on infrastructure superiority of the “urban”, creating the inevitable divide between rural and urban population. These conditions propelled rural-urban migration, leading to surges in the urban population’s subsequent poverty.

Over the years, urban poverty soared, and socio-economic inequalities deepened, giving rise to non-compliant, incompatible settlements that do not fit the statutory layout of urban design and plans, hence designated “informal settlements”. Across developing regions of the world, informal settlements have assumed different descriptions, from shantytowns or slums, and the favelas in Brazil, to squatter camps in South Africa, and zongos in Ghana. UN-Habitat estimates that by 2050, 59% of the urban population will be living in informal settlements. Today, approximately 1 billion people live in informal settlements, encampments or slums and 238 million of this population is in sub-Saharan Africa.

Improving the living conditions in slums is crucial for achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG7 focused on access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. Although lack of infrastructure and access to service provision dominates the debate on informal settlements, access to modern cooking systems is critical and urgent for most informal dwellers. Preliminary intervention findings in Susan’s Bay, Freetown, Sierra Leone and Kisenyi, Kampala, Uganda from the Enabling African Cities for Transformative Energy Access (ENACT) project suggest informal urban households prioritise clean cooking among other energy access interventions. The ENACT project is a Transforming Energy Access (TEA) programme that supports local governments and the private sector to provide adequate, safe, reliable, affordable and clean forms of energy.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), over 1.6 million premature deaths is linked to indoor pollution, significantly impacting the health of women and children. The lack of access also has a substantial impact on education and productive income-generating activities. For this reason, access to modern energy services such as clean cooking and electricity for slum dwellers is crucial for improving the quality of life and promoting the development of low-income urban dwellers. The International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2018, estimated that 900 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were without access to clean cooking solutions, especially the most vulnerable population, already impacted by the limited access to housing and the lack of service provision.

This article examines the drawbacks of framing energy access interventions for urban poor households in Africa. The heterogeneous and dynamic nature of informal settlements presents a challenge and opportunity for project implementation. Project implementation requires a significant amount of time to co-design solutions with community actors and beneficiaries. The project management schedule of most funders and development partners struggle to comprehend the complexity of the informal settlement terrain. This article further examines attributes that can guide a successful intervention in informal urban settlements by drawing on clean cooking interventions in low-income households in Tanzania. It reviews informality by defining and describing informal settlements from different regional and institutional perspectives, highlights the emerging themes in the context of the case study and concludes with a summary of the key highlights for successful project implementation in informal settlements.

[1] Hardman, M., Chipungu, L., Magidimisha, H., Larkham, P.J., Scott, A.J. and Armitage, R.P., 2018. Guerrilla gardening and green activism: Rethinking the informal urban growing movement. Landscape and Urban Planning, 170, pp.6-14.

Standard framing of project interventions

The funding theme predicts the framing of interventions executed by project implementers, supported by national and subnational governments to beneficiary communities. However, along the project value-chain, there are implicit assumptions of shared interest; hence little consideration given to the interest of beneficiary communities. Furthermore, projects modelled on these assumptions end when funds run out, questioning these projects’ sustainability and continuity legacy. Avoiding these challenges requires the explicit definition of projects within a local context and clearly outlined expectations of actors by flattening the vertical power structures associated with standard development interventions. In this regard, this article includes the description of informality within the context of households.

Informal urban households

The UN-Habitat defines slum households in operational terms as lacking one or more of the following indicators: a durable housing structure; access to clean water; access to improved sanitation; sufficient living space; and secure tenure. Slum Dwellers International (SDI) adds that a slum household constitutes a group of individuals living under the same roof lacking one or more of the following conditions: access to improved water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area, a durable  house (structure).

Slum household size, physical structure, income levels and relations

The emerging theme from the definitions highlight the household size (number or group of dwellers), physical structure (roof, space), income (food, expenditure) and relations (shared, family). Though there is no disaggregated household size for informal urban households, the numbers vary widely across the sub-regions. For example, based on population and housing surveys, slum households are denser than formal households.

Physically, slum houses can be anything from simple tents or shacks made with cardboards, vinyl sheets, corrugated iron sheets, to a network of permanent structures constructed or created from a diverse range of available materials – bricolage.

Income is a determinant of relationships in slum households. Income generated can come from a single person or multiple individuals, a single or multiple stream of economic activities. Revenue sources can also be regular, stable or seasonal. The income and expenditure patterns of households determines the uptake of services. For example, low-income families buy goods in bits and not in bulk. Hence modelling intervention requires this insight to develop better solutions that reflect this purchasing pattern.

Relations are critical to the setup of informal urban households. These can be homogenous units with family, ethnic or clan ties. Slum households include a single nuclear family to many families living close to each other. In Africa, households assume a more social definition as cited by the Republic of Ugandan enumerators manual in 1969: a group of persons who normally live and eat together from the same pot. Slum households provide a close-knit relationship not based on the assumptions of formal urban households, but established on an interdependent value system encapsulated in social insurance, social inclusion, social capital and shared knowledge.

The limited data and knowledge on slum households set projects and policies on the path to failure. Though slum households may exhibit similar features, as outlined below, they are distinct based on socio-economic and political configurations which should be understood in their peculiar context. Slums households generally exhibit the following features ;

  • Inadequate access to affordable, reliable electricity and clean cooking
  • Poor quality, overcrowded housing, e.g. Kisenyi-Kampala, Uganda and Susan’s Bay-Freetown, Sierra Leone
  • Risk of forceful eviction
  • Lack of safe, readily available water supply
  • Inadequate provision of sanitation, drainage and solid waste collection
  • Lack of access to healthcare, emergency services and policing
  • Difficulty in accessing government schools
  • Located in areas with high risk of disasters, and with risk levels increasing because of climate change
  • Regular fire incidents mostly related to illegal, unreliable and unclean energy services

As cities are converging points of resource extraction, exploitation and use, they are designed to propel economic growth through employment and decent living conditions. Instead, they offer limited consideration to the socio-cultural value inherent in local communities and knowledge that can contribute to urban planning and policy decision-making. For example, Safaricom’s deployment of metered services via the Pay-as-you-go platform has high uptake due to the configuration of an inclusive financial model for the unbanked in Kenya. This model has gained wide traction beyond mobile banking to include sectors such as the payment of service provision.

Case study

To better understand the inclusion of multiple domains in project implementation, we draw on a clean cooking project in Tanzania. The implementation strategy draws on social needs, such as the limited access to clean cooking, resolved through a collaboration of providers, designed to address low-income household clean cooking needs, with the support of a women-led co-operative group.

KopaGas in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, has deployed next-generation Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) canister meters. KopaGas partnered with Oryx Energies, a leading LPG distributor in sub-Saharan Africa, to source and distribute gas canisters in Dar es Salaam. This system is equipped with machine-to-machine (M2M) technology, enabling medium and low-income households to move away from dirty and expensive charcoal. In addition, the business model eliminates upfront costs and allows households to pre-pay for gas quantities that fit their budget, improving households’ financial planning.

The Pay as you Cook (PAYC) service uses gender-specific marketing and distribution to target women. 98% of KopaGas customers are women. By working with the women-led Savings and Credit Co-operative Society (SACCOs), KopaGas can shift the marketing, training, and pre-sales responsibilities to the savings group’s entrepreneurial women. Another benefit was that all customers belong to SACCO, which made distribution and post-sales support cost-effective. The female technician received more calls and a higher rating than the two male technicians. KopaGas plans to develop the technical skills of female staff to serve their dominant female customer base.

Challenges of creating clean cooking solutions for informal settlements

Building clean cooking solutions for informal settlements presents a formidable challenge. The design of any solution should consider context-specific factors such as available infrastructure (service points), income level, legality in the community and feasible household capacity for uptake. For example, the clean cooking intervention leveraged local knowledge and capacity by partnering with a leading gas canister provider, Oryx Energies. They considered household income and designed the financial payment system (Pay as you Cook). In this regard, households avoided upfront payments to access the service. Households only pay as they use the service, considering the unstable nature of income levels of these households. The gender-targeted marketing and inclusion through job creation also expanded opportunities for historically marginalised people. The inclusion of SACCOs provided the intervention with a social model that served as the user group and market activation platform to entrench the intervention beyond its pilot phase.

A well-defined and framed intervention delivers on the outcomes and meets the expectation of all parties (funders, implementation partners, governments and beneficiary communities) in the research process. To achieve this requires an in-depth understanding of the expectations of all parties through a collaborative process that is mindful of the power dynamics, flattens decision-making, and diffuses conflict in project implementation. Informal urban settlements constitute the latest frontier in the fight against poverty, as rural poverty is transported into urban areas. The lack of essential services, reported as the “inadequacies of informality”, are projections of the formal (planned) “urban” on the informal (unplanned) “slums”. An approach that has persistently limited rural development efforts. For example, the problematisation of the rural/urban poor’s living conditions by linking service provision to household size does not recognise the shared value systems of these settlements. This results in the dependence on imported solutions and interventions over local and indigenous ones.

Despite the challenges in implementing informal settlements projects, it presents unique urban research and project implementation opportunities. It is a chance to reflect deeply about development interventions from the perspective of low-income households and to highlight the injustices evident in development theory and practice. Front-loading sustainability as an integrated part of an intervention is one sure means to guarantee uptake in low-income communities and households. Building on existing interventions and case studies is crucial if projects are to be scaled beyond pilots. For interventions to succeed in informal settlements, access to data on all aspects of the lived experience of households will be crucial. Access to this information will better place decision-makers, funders and implementers in addressing the complex social, economic, environmental and cultural needs at the basic unit of these households.