Nairobi Workshop-Towards a framework for community-based participatory research in informal settlements: A pilot in Mathare

by Stephen Nyagaya and Ann Njuguna

From 12th June to 14th June 2023, Nuvoni Centre for Innovation Research recently held a groundbreaking three-day workshop in Nairobi on community-based participatory research (CBPR) in informal settlements. The co-creation workshop was part of the participatory research methodology of our ongoing CoRe Impact (Community-Research-Impact) project. The three-day workshop aimed to develop a framework that would revolutionize research practices in such challenging contexts. 

Day 1: Introduction to the workshop and Mathare field visit

Dr. Elsie Onsongo introducing concept of participatory research. Photo by Know Your City TV (KYCTV)


Day 1 of the workshop began with Dr Elsie’s welcome and opening remarks to the participants. Her introductory remarks highlighted the importance of collaborative research in informal settlements and set the tone for the workshop’s objectives. The main objectives of the workshop included:  

  1. To explore the co-creation of a community research repository for past and present research on Mathare, and  
  2. To deliberate on community-based participatory research ethics as mechanisms for counteracting research waste. 

Led with presentations from Alice Menya, Dr Jan Fransen and Dr David Dodman, the workshop discussed the framings of the notion of ‘research waste’ in the context of past and current research buzz in Mathare against a backdrop of little to no positive transformation in the material conditions of the informal settlement. Dr Musyimi Mbathi highlighted the successful case studies of the Mukuru Special Planning Area (SPA) approach and the potential of such a strategy implemented in Mathare upon effective community engagement and research methodologies. 

Participants discussed ways of tackling research waste, which predominantly included community engagement from research conceptualization to dissemination and openly sharing data and research outputs with the community and other stakeholders in the Mathare. Additionally, community researchers from both Mukuru and Mathare shared their first-hand experiences as local researchers, providing valuable insights into the practical aspects of conducting research within informal settlements. Their stories highlighted the importance of community empowerment and active involvement in shaping research agendas. The morning session therefore set the stage for a collaborative learning experience.

Mathare community researchers. Photo by KYCTV


In the afternoon, participants embarked on a field visit to Mathare, allowing them to immerse themselves in the study area and gain firsthand knowledge of the community’s challenges and aspirations. Led by the Ghetto Foundation CBO, the team visited three remarkable community-led initiatives, showcasing the resilience and determination of the residents to drive positive change within the settlement. These experiences deepened participants’ understanding of community-driven solutions and contributed to the development of a framework for impactful community-based participatory research in informal settlements. 

Participants at one of Mathare’s community-led river rehabilitation initiative- Kosovo recreational park. Photo by KYCTV


Day 2: Mapping Knowledge and Identifying Research Needs in Mathare 

The second day of the workshop was held at Orbit Church Hall in Mathare. Day 2 had three primary objectives, as explained below, each aimed at harnessing the collective knowledge of participants and shaping the future of Mathare as a Special Planning Area (SPA). 

  • Data Mapping Guided by a draft repository, participants embarked on a data mapping exercise, delving into a decade’s worth of research conducted in Mathare. The goal was to chart a comprehensive overview of past research initiatives, understanding their scope, methodologies, and outcomes. Through this collaborative endeavor, the participants sought to recognize the existing knowledge landscape and identify areas of potential growth and improvement. The discussion unearthed the need to add spatial data of the existing physical and social infrastructure, and unpublished reports from the grassroot organizations in Mathare.  

Emerging themes during data mapping from one breakout group discussion. Photo by Stephen Nyagaya

  • Identifying Research Needs for the SPA Building upon the data mapping process, the focus shifted towards identifying gaps in the existing research landscape. By identifying areas that lacked sufficient research attention, the participants aimed to pinpoint key focus areas that would be instrumental in transforming Mathare into a Special Planning Area. This crucial step allowed the workshop attendees to envision research that would address the pressing needs and aspirations of the community. 
  • Data CaféIn the afternoon session, the workshop took on an interactive format as participants engaged in a “Data Café” exercise. This stimulating activity facilitated dynamic exchanges of ideas among the attendees, centred on shaping a comprehensive Mathare knowledge database. The discussions revolved around the form and structure that such a database should take, with participants contributing diverse perspectives and insights. 

To maximize the workshop’s productivity, Dr. Jan Fransen and Alice Menya took charge of facilitating the session. Utilizing small breakout groups, the participants engaged in focused discussions and shared valuable data. This interactive approach encouraged meaningful exchanges of information, fostering an atmosphere of collaboration and inclusivity.  

Suggestions on the knowledge dissemination and data café activities. Photo by KYCTV

Day 3: Strategies for Stakeholder Engagement and Ethical Research Practices 

On the third and final day of the workshop, participants turned their attention to formulating strategies for effectively engaging stakeholders in the Special Planning Area (SPA) process and defining ethical rules of engagement in research. The day’s activities were divided into three sessions; how to engage the actors in the SPA process, research ethics and the next steps. For session 1, participants split into interactive groups, each representing a specific stakeholder in the SPA process. Their objective was to formulate engagement strategies tailored to the unique needs of each actor. Group 1 focused on engaging local and national government actors, especially concerning the proposed expansion of Juja Road. Strategies included raising awareness, advocating through demonstrations, and fostering partnerships. Group 2 aimed to better engage community leaders, addressing water, sanitation, and hygiene challenges. They proposed community dialogues, researcher involvement, and lobbying for university participation. Group 3 targeted the diverse Mathare community, emphasizing understanding their aspirations and engaging through dialogues, workshops, and mobilization. Lastly, Group 4 focused on researchers, highlighting ethical practices, data sharing, and collaboration incentives for impactful research. 

Samuel Kiriro (Ghetto Foundation) presenting on possible community engagement strategy. Photo by KYCTV

Ethical Research Practices  

To enhance ‘good research’ in marginalized communities, the team discussed a community-engagement strategy that would culminate in ethical research practices to create more impact and trigger policy change. There is a need to emphasize collaboration among research actors and the community in co-designing and undertaking societally relevant and action-oriented research for the realization of positive community transformation. The engagement strategies are summarized below; 

  • Framing the research to suit the wider knowledge of informality.  
  • Getting an in-between organization to introduce you to the community.  
  • Getting prior and ongoing consent.  
  • Collaborating with community members to recruit participants for data collection.   
  • Establishing mutual respect and trust.  
  • Linking the research themes and programs to the community agenda.  
  • Making all data collected accessible to the community  
  • Acknowledgment of the research participants and the community  
  • Co-designing and framing the research agenda with the community.  
  • Recognize participants’ commitments – keep it brief, respect time and contribution. 

Way forward  

To counter research extractivism, duplication, and invisibility, the participants agreed to continually engage with a proposed research repository- a potentially useful tool for enabling research actors to access, collate and share data/information openly. It would be used as a point of reference in determining future research agenda and interventions applicable to planning and community development efforts in Mathare. The research database would be continuously updated by the research partners and grassroots organizations that pursue research activities in Mathare. The workshop realized the need to include spatial data and unpublished reports useful for Special Planning Area (SPA) declaration and slum upgrading actions.  

There emerged the need to disseminate the repository with the community in a manner that will yield understanding and action. The team proposed various ways through which the research repository can create beneficial outcomes for the community rather than creating another ‘dumpsite’ or ‘landfill’ of research. The repository can be communicated through paintings, murals, graffiti, infographics, and street plays. Others suggested using digital media to play videos, animated films, and short documentaries to communicate the relevance of the database. Maps could also be used to summarize the research findings from the database.  

Mathare Special Planning Area  

The team agreed to engage more actors who would be significant for the Mathare slum upgrading process. The team also identified the need to create community awareness of the importance and potential benefits of the government’s acknowledgment of Mathare as a Special Planning Area. In this regard, grassroots mobilization through village-based and settlement-wide engagements was recommended as a way of catalyzing community mobilization and participation in the settlement upgrading process. For external actors, the engagement strategies identified included partnerships, lobbying, capacity building, collaborative dialogues, and the use of social and mainstream media.  


The research workshop was a stepping stone to bringing the research partners together to forge agenda towards sharing data and information that would realize Mathare slum upgrading process. The event necessitated the need to engage with the ongoing community dialogues in Mathare to fasten awareness creation on the significance of Mathare Special Planning area declaration.  



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