This research project explores and compares the evolutionary processes through which two large informal settlements in Nairobi became more resilient to shocks and disturbances: what pathways did they follow and what coping strategies were used?

For more information, visit the Smart and Frugal Cities knowledge file

Objectives of the study

Slums and informal settlements are dynamic, with inhabitants being exposed to multiple yet interacting shocks. We conduct research on how different coping strategies emerge and vary across space and time, a subject to which a theoretical lacuna is identified. Our project turns the spotlight on the strategies through which vulnerabilities related to health, safety and livelihoods are addressed. The work is grounded on the following principal inquiry:

How do historically situated smart and frugal people, technologies and modes of governance explain differences in community resilience in Nairobi’s informal settlements?


Localised innovation – soap making


Localised Innovation- Frugal sensitization tool


Resilience in informal settlements is an emerging subject of research, with an even louder call for resilient informal settlements set out by the Covid19 pandemic. As scholars actively explore the vulnerability context of informal settlements and coping strategies against crises, heterogeneity of slum communities and evolution of coping strategies over time is seen to complexify resilience.

The study unravels this complexity in two ways; first by drawing together frugality and smartness as conditions of community resilience in the informal context, and secondly unpacking historical processes that impact community resilience.

Through a multiple case study in four Mtaa’s (villages) in Mathare and Korogocho informal settlements in Nairobi, the research explores the co-evolution of the vulnerability context, coping strategies and resilience outcomes from the late 1970s onwards to the new millennium. It further assesses the extent to which coping strategies enable communities survive, adapt, and thrive through positive transformation


Knowledge co-production session with Ghetto Foundation

We employ a systemic participatory research approach, where research designs, methods, and frameworks are co-produced through a collaboration of VCC, International Center for Frugal innovations (ICFI) and Ghetto Foundation, an organization of community researchers from Mathare.The data is collected, transcribed and coded by the community researchers, analyzed and presented by researchers at ICFI.

Interviews with resilience initiatives


This research makes a significant theoretical contribution to the scholarly works on resilience in informal settlements and a practical contribution to upgrading initiatives of informal settlements.

  • Understanding agency

It ingeniously brings together the concepts of smartness and frugality to better unveil the multiple pathways and coping strategies through which informal communities deal with shocks. As such, informal settlements can be understood not only as vulnerable spaces, but also as spaces for invention where communities are not passive victims of shocks, but rather have capacity to respond and make-do.

  • Redefining resilience

The research builds a robust understanding of resilience in resource-constrained settlements, that is cognizant of slum-specific differences and dynamics, and which positions historical processes in the resilience building processes of such contexts.

  • New forms of inequalities

This research also points to important future research avenues. For example, while informal settlements are generally at a higher risk during crisis, vulnerability and coping capacity differs among households which is subtly triggering unique forms of inequalities.

  • Contributing to upgrading of informal settlements

This work offers practical insights on how to make Nairobi’s informal settlements more robust and adaptive to shocks and disturbances. For policy makers, it shows how to make use of existing community initiatives and how to further enable communities to cope with shocks. This is timely, as Nairobi City local government has approved the declaration of several informal settlements as Special Planning Areas (SPAs), and thus aims to upgrade informal settlements through evidence-based, participatory processes.


The EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Panel 6-HP125: The Makeshift City

Here informal settlements were discussed with an international group of researchers.

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Trialog Annual Conference 2021 | Panel 9: Connecting community resilience in Nairobi and Rotterdam

In a cross-city dialog, we explored with policymakers, community organizers and researchers from Nairobi and Rotterdam if and how Community Resilience Initiatives (CRI’s) are supported. Both Rotterdam and Nairobi face major bottlenecks in supporting CRI’s and are therefore changing the way they govern cities from more top-down towards more collaborative governance. Both cities face similar challenges in the process.

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Community dialogues and initiatives

We are part of a network of community organizations (MSPARC, Mathare Special Planning Area Research Collective) which is lobbying for comprehensive settlement upgrading in Mathare.

Our research findings are discussed in this network and used for evidence-based advocacy for planning. In addition, Ghetto Foundation as community researchers collected all data and uses its expanded network and knowledge to discuss with the wider community and improve community resilience.