Street scene in Mukuru / from the blog of Flavie Halais  

Nairobi, like the large cities of many developing countries, is pockmarked with slums populated by country folk who have moved there in search of jobs. The lucky ones eventually move out to better suburbs or back upcountry. Most remain in the slums, locked in poverty.

One of these slums, Kibera, has been the focus of much local and international attention. But there are dozens of them. Some are orders of magnitude larger than Kibera. Mukuru, for instance, is home to more than 750,000 people. Most of these slums are in Eastlands, a vast plain east of the city centre, where they spread in an archipelago of deprivation among middle-class estates housing most of Nairobi.

And they seem to be growing, despite numerous attempts to eradicate them. Free houses, celebrity visits, paved roads. None of them seems to work. The problem seems to be one of perspective; for a long time now, the people involved in slum emancipation projects have not truly understood the potential of the people they are trying to help.

They seem not to understand that handouts cannot eliminate poverty, that though they are poor, the people who live in the slums, given the right tools – a good education and proper human formation – can innovate their own way out of poverty. They view the slums as a problem, rather than as a store of immense human energy.

More and more, it is becoming clear that, to transform the slums, this paradigm needs to be transformed first.

This is why, late last year, Eastlands College of Technology (ECT) – an initiative of the Strathmore Educational Trust – opened its doors to its first students. The project was started in 2003 with the help of ICEP, an Austrian NGO. It targets young men from the neighbourhood and Nairobi’s other informal settlements and trains them in technical and entrepreneurial skills, supplementing this with essential life skills training.

At the college, the young men learn that, their backgrounds notwithstanding, they do not have to resign themselves to mediocrity and intellectual poverty. The facilities – sturdy, well-built and attractive – contrast sharply with the dust and muck of Eastlands. Anywhere in Nairobi, the college would be impressive. In Eastlands, it stands out.

The delivery of the technical courses at the college combines class and workshop sessions with real industrial experience. The students spend a significant portion of their school time working at factories in Nairobi owned by companies that have partnered with the college. Some of the companies also sponsor students in exchange for their work. This system, called Dual-Tech, was adapted from technical colleges in the Philippines and Germany.

In this way, the students not only gain relevant industrial experience and somehow pay part of their way through college, but also have a shot at immediate employment – and hopefully changing their lives forever – on completing their studies.

The Dual Tech system is a first, not just for Eastlands, but for the whole country, which has increasingly abandoned technical education in favour of university degrees. Despite the fact that the informal sector employs five times more people – over 11 million – than the formal sector, many top Kenyan polytechnics have been turned into universities in recent years.

There has been a higher priority on university degrees (stemming from a national mentality that views university education as the only statement of academic achievement) and a general disdain for people without them, such there is a glut of graduates in the country.

Unsurprisingly, there is now a shortage of skilled technical workers. For instance, an oil pipeline construction project recently had to fly in welders from China, Nigeria and Lebanon because there were only three welders in Kenya skilled enough to do the specialised job. There are many more cases like this.

In trying to address this need, ECT has not been without challenges. Getting the funds to construct the facilities, which depends wholly on donors, has been a slog. As it stands, the construction is not even halfway through. About 250 million shillings (US$2.5 million) have so far been used for constructions. By the end, it will have consumed in excess of 700 million shillings ($7 million).

Finding and keeping students in the college has also been quite a sport. Aside from the fact that most potential students are too poor to afford even the extremely subsidised fees, the allure (and often the necessity) of making money in other informal ventures instead of spending that time in class is a real challenge.

This is because their disadvantaged backgrounds are such that, in many cases, the students are co-breadwinners at home and have to support their families, often through itinerant work, like operating boda-boda (motorcycle taxis), collecting waste plastic for recycling, or hawking, among other such low-end occupations. A friend of mine – his name is Gerald – is seeing himself through the college by selling shoes.

Finally, the damage done by a longstanding culture of handouts is proving hard to repair. On one hand, the students have to be familiarised with an environment where they are demanded of in return for being helped. On the other hand, many companies and individuals interested in assisting often take the handout approach. Handouts are not bad in themselves, since they solve pressing needs, but they can be taken too far.

For instance, Kenya’s largest bank, Kenya Commercial Bank, through its 2JIAJIRI programme (2JIAJIRI is a play of words meaning “let’s employ ourselves”) is doing a lot of good by sponsoring poor students in technical colleges. But, in trying to get more students into the colleges, it sometimes doles out an excess of cash. The potential students take it with gratitude – and then disappear until the next handout.

Nevertheless, one has to appreciate that this is still the early stage of the revolution. And the college is already making a mark in the lives of many anyway. The ripples are widening. It remains to be seen how far it will go. The foundations, however, have been laid.

Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya.