Kibera’s Census: Population, Politics, Precision

by: September 5th, 2010 comments: 9

The 2009 Kenyan census puts Kibera’s population at 170,070, very far from the usual 1 million plus figure thrown around. The scale of the change has rightly shocked people.

When we first prepared to come to Kibera last year, we looked for a source for this one million number. It was widely quoted in all the major media and even the UN, but never with a source, and we found this very suspicious. With caution, we always qualified the population number in writing and presentations with a question mark or the clause “widely quoted number”. With a little more investigation, we found some quality work on this question. The Map Kibera Project (different project, similar in spirit, unintentional namespace clash) undertook a door to door survey in Kianda village, and based on the population density there, extrapolated to all of Kibera for a figure of 235000-270000. The KeyObs RESPOND project derived an estimate of the number of built structures in Kibera from satellite imagery, and then conducted a sample to estimate population per structure, and came up with a number in the range from 199,959 to 205,108. Both efforts clearly published their methodology and seemed like reasonable efforts.

infographic by Jennifer Baranoff

Despite this, when Jill Biden visited Kibera in June, the White House reported the number jumping to 1.5 million! What motivations are there inflating Kibera’s population numbers? The cynical claim is that NGOs and CBOs use the 1 million number to benefit themselves. I don’t see much evidence that people are getting rich from NGOs, but then there’s not much evidence at all of how much money has flowed through Kibera ineffectively. Certainly Kibera has had more attention than other places equally deserving of help, and of course it is the place we started in Kenya. Kenyan’s understandably want to change the perception of informal areas. The large number of retweets I think reflects the desire of well-off Kenyans to put Kibera behind them. Despite the 1 million number falling, Kibera is still a place underserved by government, and one of many informal settlements in Nairobi and other parts of Kenya. The truth is that Kibera is still there.

In our work, somehow Kibera never felt like “1 million”, and but much closer to the MKP and KeyObs number. We had been talking about replicating the KeyObs work with satellite imagery, and also counting daily out and in flux as Kiberians going to work in the industrial area and surrounding estates.

We’re glad to see that light has finally fallen on Kibera’s population in a big way. Certainly a revision is needed. But we’re concerned with the way these new numbers from the Kenyan Census are seized on without question. The number 170,000 is at least on the same scale as previous counts, but it is relatively lower. There are no doubt issues with doing any sort of census anywhere, but especially in a place like Kibera. Definitely the Kenyan census was undertaken professionally, but part of that professional work would be openly discussing methodology and difficulties encountered. Collecting data in an informal settlement is challenging … what special measures were taken by the Kenyan census in Kibera?

The truth is that we still don’t know how many people live in Kibera. It’s a different number today than yesterday. The definition of “living” in Kibera varies, it’s quite a transient place. Whether it’s 170000 or 1.5 million, the truth of that number is intertwined with the understanding of where it’s coming from. And questioning authority in Kenya doesn’t come easy. One chink in the armor is exploited to cast doubt on the entire enterprise. Authority means knowing all.

We’ve come to Kibera fully admitting we don’t know everything. Not only is OpenStreetMap always wrong, every map is always wrong, a representation of a reality which always changes. When we think about how the map and technology will be used in Kibera, we fully admit we don’t have answers but are ready to engage with everyone to perhaps discuss the questions. Understanding that precision and authority is relative, that we don’t understand everything, and understanding the motivations and methodology of how data is collected … all is vitally important in open data, in addition to the “precise” number or position.

… and only now noticing Brian Ekdale’s excellent analysis.

§ 9 Responses to “Kibera’s Census: Population, Politics, Precision”

  • […] is to invest in better data collection rather than relying on policy wonks to imagineer your slum. Mikel reminds us that previous Kibera mapping efforts came up with more accurate estimates long before the census: […]

  • […] einzig das Map Kibera Projekt annähernd die richtige Bevölkerungszahl schätzte und nicht maßlos übertrieb, bleibt ungeklärt. Die drastische Korrektur der Einwohnerzahlen nach […]

  • ndungu chege says:

    hey who exaggerate kibera population and for what reasons? by the way kibera iko constitituency gani? does the mp(s)have anything to do with it.on average how many votes have we been getting from kibera?

  • Mikel Maron says:


    From what we’ve seen, it wasn’t the Kenya government overestimating, quite the contrary … they have published the census which, in our opinion, underestimates slightly the population.

    The exaggerated numbers were driven by a feedback loop between some UN agencies, international NGOs, and the media. The reasons are probably largely laziness about investigating statistics, but somewhere here the motivation was to attract attention.

    Brian has an interesting take on this too:


  • […] So how did we get the million figure? “In the absence of actual data (such as an official census), NGO staff make a back-of-envelope estimate in order to plan their projects; a postgraduate visiting the NGO staff tweaks that estimate for his thesis research; a journalist interviews the researcher and includes the estimate in a newspaper article; a UN officer reads the article and copies the estimate into her report; a television station picks up the report and the estimate becomes the headline; NGO staff see the television report and update their original estimate accordingly.” (source: via Map Kibera see also Kibera’s Census) […]

  • […] about two thirds the size of New York’s Central Park, and has an estimated population of 250,000. Until it was mapped, you’d never know that this area contained more than 200 schools, from […]

  • wawira says:

    Mikel you sound like you doubt the Kenyan government population figures for kibera, which were carried over one week after years of cartographic mapping. Has your NGO maintained health, electoral, administrave, demographic records for kibera since 1963 like the government? You talk of ‘estimates’ that you did….since when did estimates supersede a professionally done population census where EVERY person is counted?? Oh i forgot…Kenyan government is African and we therefore don’t rely on its professional figures. thank you .

    • mikel says:

      Before I respond substantively, you are pretty offensive, accusing me of bias against African governments. I know many highly talented and dedicated people in the Kenyan government, and other African governments, and am familiar with the strengths and challenges of these institutions. I also respect them enough to know that they wouldn’t accuse me of racism simply for asking questions. So, if you intend to continue on that line, please don’t bother. Otherwise, I’m happy to have a productive discussion.

      The doubt is not only mine, but from colleagues in Kibera. The fact is, I know of many people in Kibera who were not individually counted. Also, quite familiar with how difficult it is to collect reliable information in informal settlements anywhere: the settlement patterns hard to manage in a coordinated way; residents are often suspcious of surveying, due to tenure insecurity; a portion of the popluation is migratory. So I would be very surprised if every person was counted; the US Census certainly does not count every single person. I’m sure that’s not for lack of trying on the part of the government, and I’d really like to learn more about the methodology and operations the Kenyan government undertook.

      The other population studies were not undertaken by Map Kibera, but they do go into great detail on the methodology. Do you know more, and can share something substantial? I’m sure this was done professionally, but it would be helpful to understand how such a difficult task as conducting a census in a slum is done. There’s really not much to go on, and the “health, electoral, administrative, and demographic” records are not very easily available (if these are, please inform me). Even with the good work of the OpenDataKE initiative, much government information is still not open. Also, as you know, Kibera has not been an electoral boundary until recently, so I don’t see how the government had been keeping data on it specifically. That makes it strange that the population figure for Kibera was headlined at all; why weren’t population figures also posted for Mathare and Mukuru and other Nairobi slums? The population figure is highly political, and I understand the desire to bring some reality to the still perpetuated and unfortunate 1 million number.

  • This population debate is actually healthy, although I have noted some political undertones.
    I have been dealing with information sharing in Kibera the last 9years. After the 2009 census, I did some interviews in Kianda, Soweto west and some parts of Katwekera of Kibera, and people acknowledged, they were not enumerated.
    On electoral boundaries, Kibera currently falls under two constituencies, namely Kibra & Langatta. I noted from IEBC officials, there is NO clear data from their side, though I could notice figures that looked like “expected” and the “registered” differing with more than 113%-176% in some wards. There was No satisfactory explanation, though the assumption is, some voters migrated from other parts to these wards.
    On boundaries, IEBC confirmed to me through constituency coordinators from the two constituencies that there was NO clear maps, and they even wanted me to share with them what we were developing.
    On NGOs and inflated population figures, There is evidence there exists hundreds of briefcase NGOs which have enriched themselves at the expense of Kibera residence. For legal reasons, allow me not to mention them here.

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