Poverty tourism has critics, but rapper Octopizzo says it's got positives

  • Living
  • Monday, 03 Nov 2014

Up close: Kibera, a sprawling slum in the heart of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

One of the thriving sectors of the tourism industry in Kenya is also one that no government would want to put on brochures inviting visitors to the country. For a small fee, companies operated by entrepreneurs like young rapper Henry Ohanga (Octopizzo to his fans) offer guided walks through Kibera, a sprawling slum in the heart of the capital.

Tourists get to see up close the mountains of garbage and dense rows of low-slung wattle-and-mud houses that have made that township one of the most notorious urban settlements on the continent.

Ohanga is an investor in “poorism” – the business of taking well-off tourists off the beaten track to see how the destitute of this world live. It is a market niche that has grown a great deal in the past 10 years, and not just in Africa.

Visitors to Brazil can join guided walks through Rio’s toughest favelas; tourists in India get to see how Delhi’s street children spend their nights; and in Johannesburg, for a fee, a visitor can explore the inner reaches of Soweto, home to thousands of struggling mine workers and their families.

Poorism’s critics are many. Not least among them are the inhabitants of these hard-bitten urban enclaves. Lillian Wambua, who ekes out a living selling mandazi, a local doughnut-like delicacy, from a tiny shack in Kibera, detests having her young son photographed by tourists. But she says she dare not raise her voice because visitors are often accompanied by local toughs working as guards for the tour companies.

“I feel bad when people come from other countries to see how poor we are,” she told the Daily Nation recently.

But Ohanga, who himself rose from one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods to become a popular rapper, offers a staunch defence of his tours: “We don’t bring people to Kibera to show how poor the residents are,” he told me. “We want them to see the other side of the slum. When they come they realise that locals are clean, hardworking, normal people who simply lack good job openings. As a result of these tours, many projects have been launched to improve their livelihoods.”

Both critics and defenders of poorism make fair arguments, but in many ways, this debate is beside the point. Kenya isn’t a poor country, it’s the economic powerhouse of the Horn of Africa, with a gross domestic product of US$55.2bil in 2013, classified by the World Bank as a middle-income nation.

But its national wealth is very poorly distributed and the political elites who determine national priorities have never made better housing standards a priority. Given that the urban poor, like most Kenyans, vote mainly along ethnic lines, there is hardly any political lobby to press the case for better housing.

Still, the Kenyan government has taken modest steps to make its urban slums a bit less distressing. In mid-September, hundreds of young people from the National Youth Service (NYS) – a government programme that offers high school graduates vocational training – were dispatched to Kibera to unclog drains, build communal toilets and set up a waste disposal system. Residents largely welcomed the initiative. “Youths are kept busy,” said Sheikh Yusuf Abu Hamza. “We have seen a reduction in criminal activities here because the engagement with the NYS has offered the youth a source of livelihood.”

Laudable though that may be, the effort only scratches the surface of the real problem – a yawning gap between rich and poor.


The desolation in the slums is a graphic reminder that the boom that began in 2003 has not raised all boats. According to UN-Habitat, an arm of the United Nations that deals with housing, about 60% of Nairobi’s inhabitants live in informal settlements that together occupy only 5% of the land area of the Kenyan capital.

Though new towers dot the skyline and a record number of students are pursuing higher education, Kenya and its neighbours have not managed to follow the trajectory of the many Asian nations that have lifted millions of people out of poverty by attracting industries that spur job growth.

The Kenyan economy remains reliant on sectors like real estate and financial services that do not generate high levels of employment. Even earnings from agriculture, a major economic motor here, are primarily derived from a few large, mechanised farms.

The top 10% of the richest households in the country control 40% of the country’s income. A 2008 study by Mwangi wa Githinji of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Frank Holmquist of Hampshire College, found that while agricultural production grew at 6.9% in 2006, 25% of that growth was attributable to the flower sector, which is dominated by 10 farms, one of them producing over 50% of the output.

To address such problems, East African countries with good political and trade ties, such as Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, should pool resources to invest in the sort of major infrastructure projects – port expansion, efficient transport links – that attracted investors to Asia. Some efforts have been made in this direction, but clearly not nearly enough.

Many Kenyans in rural areas are subsistence farmers. Life on a hardscrabble farm has little appeal for many young people. Every year, tens of thousands pour into the cities to find work.

A visit to Kibera at dawn reveals throngs of workers travelling to low-paying jobs as labourers. Everywhere, there are signs of the bustling economic activity that prompted The Economist to declare that Kibera “may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet,” with peddlers selling everything from bananas to phone credit cards to water.

This enterprising bent has inspired people like Ohanga, who says his business is helping others climb out of poverty. “I try to impress upon visitors to start projects here and promote existing ones,” he said.

It’s a worthy enough effort, but it would not be necessary if the government promoted more policies designed to make “poorism” a thing of the past, instead of a growing concern. – The International New York Times

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