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Living with smoke

An insight into people's experience of air pollution in Nairobi's Mukuru informal settlements.

Roof top view of Mukuru informal settlements. Photo: Cassilde Muhoza / SEI.

Date published
29 May 2018
A story from
Mukuru informal settlements, Nairobi

The smoke is non-stop in Mukuru

“Walking through narrow passages between houses that are filled with waste water and rotting litter and organic waste is a challenge, you can’t walk fast because it’s narrow and littered. And it gets worse when it rains and floods. In addition, factories emit smoke early in the morning, so you can see and smell the smoke as you go to work.” Felix, resident of Mukuru kwa Reuben.

This is how Felix describes his walk to the factory where he works. Felix lives in a one-room house made of iron sheets in Mukuru, one of the largest informal settlements in Kenya, located in an industrial area, and is talking to SEI researcher William Apondo.

Poor road infrastructure inside the settlement. Photo: William Apondo / SEI.

The settlement is densely populated, with about 466 people per acre. The housing is congested and consists mainly of small iron sheet structures without water taps or toilets. People in the settlement are low-income earners: households have an estimated average monthly income of Kenya shillings 12000 (about USD 120). Residents mainly work in local industries or in the informal sector within the settlement. But most of these jobs are seasonal and the rate of unemployment – estimated at 30% – is therefore high.

Felix’s iron sheet dwelling is located just behind a major steel recycling and production plant. He works in another factory in Viwandani, on the other side of Mukuru, where most of the area’s industries – chemicals, paper, chalk and plastic, steel recycling, skin tanning and many others – are located. Like many factory workers, Felix is exposed not only to factory emissions in his house, but also at his workplace and in the street. Most industries in Mukuru operate 24 hours a day, meaning that the smoke is non-stop.

Factories are operating non-stop, day and night in Mukuru. Sometimes Felix also works at night. Photo: William Apondo / SEI.

Smoke from cooking and open burning of waste

SEI researchers William Apondo and Cassilde Muhoza have spent a lot of time in Mukuru, talking regularly with around 20 people in the community who have been monitoring air pollution in their neighbourhoods. They have been part of two SEI-led research projects. One of the aims has been to identify the drivers of personal and community exposure, understand community members’ perception and daily experiences of air pollution and its impact on the community. To find out more about the projects, see the acknowledgements.

SEI Africa’s William Apondo training some of the air quality monitoring champions in Mukuru. Photo: Cassilde Muhoza / SEI.

Champions monitoring particulate matter stop at a food stall selling fries cooked using firewood. Photo: William Apondo / SEI.

“My four-year-old son has asthma attacks on most days when the smoke in the house is too much.” Njeri, resident of Viwandani and mother of two.

Njeri lives in Viwandani with her husband, who runs a small shop, and two toddlers. Her house is also a typical one-room structure without windows and which has a kitchen, a place to sit, and a bed. She is a young jobless housewife and spends most of her time indoors. Her basic source of fuel for cooking is kerosene and she uses it two or three times a day instead of charcoal, which has become quite expensive and was recently banned by the government.

Cooking food by the roadside in Mukuru. Photo: William Apondo / SEI.

Njeri in her sitting room, which doubles as a kitchen, boiling water on her kerosene stove so that she can prepare a meal for her children with the typical Kenyan staple food, ugali. Photo: William Apondo / SEI.

Her day begins at 6:30 am when she makes breakfast for her family. Although Njeri is aware of the toxic smoke from the stove and its effects on their health, she can’t do much about it. Even if she were to get a better stove they would still be affected, she explains:

“Sometimes I put off the stove outside my house to reduce the smoke. But I can still smell the smoke that enters my house through the door and small holes in the walls from my neighbour who is cooking with her stove. My house is always stuffy and smells of smoke.”

Bringing the stove outside to cook still does not help to get away from the smoke. Photo: William Apondo / SEI.

Whereas community members reported that the burning of biomass fuels or kerosene was the main source of indoor pollution, the open burning of waste, just like factory emissions, is reported as one of the major sources of air pollution outdoors.

SEI researchers have met with people, mostly unemployed young people, working at the dumpsites. Fred is one of them. Every day Fred collects waste in different parts of Mukuru. His job involves collecting solid waste, such as used plastics, paper bags, shoes, sacks, old clothes and boxes, from the clogged open drains in between the rows of houses and along the main walkways.

There is a major dumpsite in Mukuru kwa Reuben which is also a landfill, which receives waste from Mukuru and other parts of Nairobi. Fred and other waste collectors burn the waste openly throughout the day. Fred does this work together with others as part of a youth group that is involved in local organised garbage collection. It is not only a source of income: the group offers mutual support and helps them avoid crime and drugs. Fred says:

“When we are burning waste at the dumpsite, there is a lot of suffocating smoke which spreads throughout the settlement. The smoke makes my eyes teary, I would like to stop this garbage collection and look for casual work at a construction site but the latter is very uncertain and temporary. I will also have to commute looking for other jobs. I prefer to continue collecting garbage since I work within the settlement and the job provides for me”.

The landfill site in Mukuru where Fred works with his youth group. Residents near the site complain of fumes and foul smells. Photo: William Apondo / SEI.

SEI study revealed community exposure to high levels of air pollution

SEI’s research in Mukuru, including a pilot study on air pollution monitoring, revealed that the residents of Mukuru are exposed to high levels of toxins close to, or above the 24-hour average recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines and by the Kenya Environment Management and Coordination Regulations guidelines.

Air pollution is considered by WHO as the world’s single greatest environmental risk to health. The most damaging pollutant is fine particulate matter (PM2.5). PM2.5 is made up of very small particles of solids and liquids suspended in the air, including dust, dirt, soot, smoke and liquids.

While air pollution is a global challenge, people in low-income parts of cities in developing countries are the most impacted, particularly women, children, the sick and elderly, and it is those in low-income groups who are often the most exposed to high levels of pollutants from cooking and heating.

SEI’s citizen science approach to do research has meant that local residents in Mukuru have taken part in many trainings and other research activities. Today many feel empowered because of the knowledge and skills they have gained from these activities.

A woman stands next to charcoal bags she sells for cooking. Some community members use charcoal briquettes made from ashes and waste charcoal sediments, which are said to be longer lasting, cheaper and more sustainable. Photo: William Apondo / SEI.

Cleaner air on the horizon?

Air pollution cuts across sectors including energy, transport, waste management, industry, urban planning and health, and tackling it requires an integrated approach involving a wide range of stakeholders. The work SEI and partners have been doing is starting to pay off. The Nairobi City County Government declared the informal settlements of Mukuru as a Special Planning Area (SPA) in March 2017. An SPA is an area with unique development problems and environmental potential in need of significant urban design.

As a result an integrated development plan is in preparation, slated to be complete by 2019. SEI is leading its environment consortium, which will address air pollution and other environmental issues. In addition, the Nairobi City County Government has embarked on a process to prepare an Air Quality Policy for the city and is partnering with SEI in this process.

Ultimately, these efforts should contribute to cleaner air and better conditions for Mukuru’s people, bringing Nairobi a step closer to once again deserving its name the “city in the sun”.

Four community champions from Mukuru and research assistants participating in the KAQN Conference held in November 2017. KAQN stands for Kenya Air Quality Network and was established in December 2015 following a workshop on “Citizen Science and Air Pollution”, hosted by SEI, as a forum to bring together key actors involved in air quality assessment and monitoring in Kenya. Photo: SEI Africa.

SEI’s Philip Osano training Mukuru community health workers on how to conduct a survey on energy, health and air pollution in April 2018. Photo: William Apondo / SEI.


Without the active participation of Mukuru community members this research work and this photo story would not have been possible.

This photo story is part of two projects: Air Quality Drivers for Sub-Sharan Africa (2017-2018) which is a collaboration with NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and involves monitoring air pollution levels using portable sensors and sampling levels of ammonia and nitrogen dioxide. The second project is called Towards healthy communities: Citizen science for improved air quality in Nairobi (Kenya) and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) (2017-2019) and was implemented in Mukuru in a partnership with Slum Dwellers International (SDI) Kenyan chapter, the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) and the University of Nairobi, and in Addis Ababa in partnership with the Horn of Africa Environment Network (HOAREC). It is funded by the International Council for Science (ICSU) through their programme called Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 in Africa . The project is looking at the nexus between air pollution, energy and health effects, and the policies to address these challenges.

Note: the names of the interviewees have been changed.

SEI’s citizen science project in Mukuru. Video: SEI / YouTube .