Montana State University

MSU partners with Kenyan organizations to solve housing crisis in Africa's largest slum

September 8, 2009 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News

Three young residents of Kibera, the largest of 200 slums of Nairobi, Kenya, collect the day's tap water against a backdrop of current slum housing. Members of an MSU team that recently visited the slums said Kibera residents spend about four hours a day collecting water. MSU is partnering with Ronald Omyonga, Kenyan architect and social organizer, to find a solution to Kibera's housing crisis. Photo courtesy of Erin Chamberlin.   High-Res Available

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Out in the dry stretches near Willow Creek, Mont. where Michael Spencer calls home, ranchers estimate that they need 40 or 50 acres to support one calf-cow pair. Contrast that to the estimated 1,500 people living on each acre in the slums of Nairobi where Spencer is now working.

Spencer, a senior majoring in architecture at Montana State University, was part of a three-member MSU team that traveled to Kenya this summer to begin a partnership with a well-known Kenyan architect to help build sustainable housing in Kibera. An area of Nairobi with an estimated 750,000 people living in an area about the size of the MSU campus, Kibera is Africa's largest slum.

Beginning this year, MSU students will examine sustainable materials and help design homes that will be built in Nairobi by slum residents, according to David Fortin, an MSU professor of architecture who headed the team that also included Spencer and Erin Chamberlin, a senior majoring in architecture from Helena.

MSU is working on the project with Ronald Omyonga, the Kenyan architect who was the force behind the successful MSU Engineering Without Borders project in Khwisero. A rural district in Kenya, Khwisero is an eight-hour drive from Nairobi. Since 2003, MSU engineering students have worked with Omyonga to establish a healthy water system in the small village. Omyonga said he hopes to bring the same success to changing the housing crisis in Kibera.

"My vision for this project is that it will start the housing revolution that will sweep through Kenya, Africa and the developing world," wrote Omyonga in an e-mail sent from Nairobi.

Fortin said the MSU School of Architecture plans a multi-year project with Omyonga that could eventually involve the MSU College of Engineering and other students, faculty and members of the community. In the end, MSU hopes to help Omyonga design middle to low-class homes in and around Kibera that will be built by residents of the area, thus providing safe housing and jobs for people in the community.

"The students and staff of MSU will bring in international experience in terms of design, materials and technology and work with the locals in adopting and adapting these options to the local context," Omyonga said. "The experience gained in this process can only be good for both worlds."

Fortin said that Nairobi is often called Africa's most dangerous city. He said there is a scarcity of most basic services so the slum's sanitation facilities have become community centers with televisions.

"We estimate there are 300 people to one toilet and the residents there spend three to four hours a day collecting tap water," he said.

Solving the problems that resulted in one of the world's largest slums is obviously complex, Fortin said. And many organizations and groups have tried with little success. He said Omyonga's approach is different and involves creating opportunities for slum-dwellers to eventually own their own homes. The project plans first to build homes valued at about $10,000 for the middle-class. Residents of the slums who help build the homes will earn money to purchase their own homes while learning new skills and technologies, beginning a cycle of economic stability, he said.

"These people are not looking for handouts," Fortin said. "They are looking for empowerment."

While in Kenya, the MSU team met with officials from UN-Habitat, two Kenyan universities and Habitat for Humanity. Spencer remained in Nairobi to work with Omyonga on the project and will return in October.

The first steps in the partnership are two MSU classes that are offered this semester, Fortin said. A University Honors seminar will look at the sociological, economic and cultural root causes of Kibera and other slums like it. Rob Campbell, from MSU's history department and a former resident of Nairobi, will be an adviser to the course. A second course, a fourth-year studio for architecture students, will study sustainable materials that could be used in Kibera housing.

"We will take both a micro and a macro approach in the two courses," Fortin said. "By the end of the semester, the two approaches will come together."

Fortin said that the roots of the partnership came last winter when Omyonga traveled to MSU to speak with students and teach for six weeks in the School of Architecture. Michael Everts, also an MSU professor of architecture, and Fortin asked Omyonga what MSU could do to help with his new Kibera project. Omyonga said he was inspired by the Bozeman trip.

"In terms of levels of development and geographically, Montana and Khwisero are worlds apart, (yet) we are united by our sense of community," Omyonga said. "In Montana, I found a place where people thought that what I was doing was important and who shared similar ideals of trying to make the world a better place."

"I count myself lucky and extremely privileged to partner with MSU."

Chamberlin says the reverse is also true. After two weeks in Kibera, she traveled to Khwisero to help with the continuing Engineers Without Borders project.

"If students can put our access to physical resources, research and knowledge to use and then find a small understanding of what it means to exist in Kibera, enormous potential for life changes lie on both ends of the exchange," said Chamberlin, who said that now "Africa has a piece of me. I will return."

And Spencer, who has already proved proficient for raising money for a number of Bozeman social causes, says he believes those citizens of the world who have opportunities are responsible to put those gifts to good use.

"(MSU has) a huge number of resources (that) can be drawn upon to benefit social problems around the globe," Spencer said. He said those include intellectual ability of student body and faculty, technology and equipment not readily available in Africa and connections to those who can contribute financially and intellectually. "Secondly, by engaging students in projects such as this, MSU is instilling a sense of social responsibility in a new generation of students."

Fortin said there is still room in both Kibera classes. For more information, contact him at

To read other stories about the MSU School of Architecture, its students and programs, see:

To read more about Michael Spencer's work see:

To read more about MSU's Engineers Without Borders, see:

David Fortin (406) 994-7579,