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MCI’s MDG Hero Series: MCI’s Kisumu Social Sector Specialist Makes Strides in Education and Infrastructure

In celebration of this week’s UN MDG Summit, the Millennium Cities Initiative interviewed a number of “MDG Heroes” – individuals working hard to advance the Millennium Development Goals in our Millennium Cities. The following is an interview with MCI Social Sector Specialist Ben Obera, about his efforts to improve education and infrastructure in Kisumu, Kenya.

Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, has one of the highest poverty levels and worst set of health indicators in the country. As such, its needs are significant. The Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) began working in Kisumu, a trading and transportation hub for the Great Lakes Region, in 2006. Ben Obera, our social sector specialist in Kisumu, has worked tirelessly to address the many challenges confronting the city. In an effort to fill some of the gaps identified within our MDG-based needs assessments in education and water/sanitation, Obera has helped facilitate numerous interventions led by local and international partners. This work has led to the development of a flagship School2School partnership program; numerous trainings for educators and city officials; the creation of Girls’ Clubs, which promote literacy and peer-to-peer relationship building; and outreach in informal settlements to enhance access to clean water, improve sanitation and support critical infrastructure projects. MCI recently interviewed this MDG Hero about his dedication to the city of Kisumu and his efforts to see MCI’s mission through to fruition.

Ben Obera (second from left) helps unpack computers donated by Los Gatos High School to Kisumu Day School, its School2School partner.

How has Kenya’s introduction of Free Primary Education in 2003 impacted primary school attendance and the attainment of MDG 2? Has it had an impact on completion rates?

The enrollment has increased with the introduction of the free primary education program. When it was introduced, there was over 120 percent enrollment. Today, the enrollment is almost 80 percent, as the previous bottlenecks have been addressed. The completion rate for primary schooling has been increasing over the years, too. The completion for last year shot up to 6,174 from 5,474, over the previous year. However, there is still a challenge, given the many cases of older pupils coming back to school.

Have the increased enrollments affected the quality of education in any significant way[s]?

The quality has gone down as the class sizes have gone up — to 100 per class in some schools. The teacher/pupil relationship has been diluted due to the high number of pupils. On the other hand, the cases of children being absent due to lack of fees have almost disappeared. The schools now have uniform allocation of funds from the government, based on the pupil population, making it easy to carry out their programs without interruption.

Do you think gender parity has increased since the introduction of FPE? Is it still an issue at the primary school levels?

Gender parity has increased with more girls going to school, especially in the rural areas, where parents used to be more willing to pay fees for boys than for girls. Still, we have more girls in the lower classes, but their number drops as they approach the final class. This implies that girls are still disadvantaged.

What do you believe are the primary reasons for girls dropping out of school in Kisumu? Is it because of socio-economic reasons (girls needing to work), lack of access to private latrines or cultural bias against providing girls with a higher education? What can the local government do to enhance gender equality?

The primary reasons for girls dropping out are:
• There are many orphaned children, and since girls mature faster, they take parental responsibility over younger siblings; and
• Hunger, domestic chores and poverty affects them most; hence, girls look for alternatives like working as househelps, get married, or in some cases, they turn to commercial sex work.

The Ministry of Education has initiated several programs under the Most Vulnerable Children Support Grant. This includes life skills for girls, as well as piloting a sanitary pads program. The government has zero-rated sanitary pads.

In your opinion, what are some of the most significant challenges facing the schools now? Is it a lack of classrooms, lack of skilled teachers, poor conditions or other issues? What can the local government do to help the schools?

• Lack of proper Infrastructure – classes, furniture and instructional materials
• Low number of teachers

One of the things MCI has done under your leadership, is to initiate school partnerships between schools in Kisumu and schools in the United States. Can you please describe the partnerships in more detail, and the impact you believe they have had on the students.

Several partnerships have been initiated. However, some of the schools have been slow in picking them up. The successful one has been between Los Gatos High School in the U.S. and Kisumu Day in Kisumu.

The partnership entails sharing between the teachers and students on both sides to learn about life, the challenges they meet and how they address them. This is aimed at improving the students’ awareness about their local environmental situation as well as global issues, while the teachers learn how these issues can be included to improve their teaching delivery. As a result of this partnership, the teachers in Kisumu Day have learned new teaching skills, i.e. using information technology. The students have also learned information technology, as evidenced by their personal communication between both sides, being able to develop and share the information. They have a broader view of life now and are more confident learners due to the virtual exposure.

We understand that a broader connectivity program is in the works, linking schools in the Millennium Villages and schools in Kisumu, supported by UNICEF’s “Connecting Classrooms” project. Can you describe this in more detail?

Several schools have been picked as possible candidates for the “Connecting Classrooms” program. One school that has started this is Xavarian School.

Can you please describe the new initiatives together with LitWorld, first, to train more teachers in literacy, and second, to create some Girls’ Clubs in Kisumu?

Girls in Kisumu and Kenya are disadvantaged in that they normally do not access the same opportunities as their counterparts, leading in most cases, to their under-achievement. The Girls Club in Kisumu aims at building confidence in the girls, so that they can achieve as well as the boys. The program aims at literacy and girls empowerment through writing, focusing on building such strengths in the girls as compassion, curiosity, hope, belonging, friendship and sound sisterhood. Girls are meant to use these strengths to focus their work.

Three schools have been picked as pilots. These are Migosi Primary school, Magadi Primary school and Nanga Primary schools Mrs. Franciscah Hawala, who is in charge of girl’s child development at the education department of the Municipal Council of Kisumu, will be heading this program. A team of two female teachers from each of the three schools have been picked for a virtual training on the program on the 1st October in Kisumu.

You have helped facilitate the LitWorld training and a number of other trainings for educators. Which skills do our partners, who are carrying out the trainings, seem to prize the most, in your view? Are there certain skills that you believe, from your own experience, are critical for teachers today?

The life skills trainings seem valuable. This has been because the teachers in school are ill-prepared to address emerging challenges, which they never met during their own training. These include, for example, the challenges associated with the orphaned and vulnerable children, who are disadvantaged in learning. On the other hand, the impact of the school community and environment on learning is the key to better addressing the learning needs of children.

An “education for sustainability” pilot project, supported by Israel’s Ofri Centre, will begin soon. How will this make a difference for students in informal settlements? What else can be done to help those poorer students?

The education for sustainability project aims at creating sustainable productivity amongst the learners, which would then positively impact the community, leading to the improvement of livelihoods. The program is a practical approach to learning for development, where creativity and innovation is instilled in children. It will be project-based learning, where children help solve certain problems affecting their school while learning.

The program will make a difference to children in the informal settlement, in that it imparts skills useful to addressing the challenges they face — or instance, putting up kitchen gardens, which could solve their food problems while learning. Setting up a school garden to support the school feeding program would be one way of supporting the poor children, as they can help produce the food, have lunch and learn.

The population of Kisumu continues to grow, yet clean water is in short supply, and the lake has been compromised. What can the city government do to meet these demands and increase the supply of safe drinking water?

The city already has put up plans to improve clean water production. The Lake Victoria South Water Services Board, which is in charge of the development of the water infrastructure in the city, has secured funding for increasing the water volume. This will sort out the water shortage in the city. However, since the demand is ever increasing, there is a need for more innovative ways of sorting out the water shortages. This includes the tapping of rain water for flushing toilets, among others, so as to reduce the pressure on clean water.

Informal settlements seem to suffer the most from an unreliable water supply, poor water quality and high prices. What can be done to improve conditions in the informal settlements?

Most of the informal settlements in Kisumu have no piped water, hence, they rely on other sources, including shallow wells and water vendors, which predisposes them to health problems. The poor, therefore, are paying more for poorer quality water. There is a need for a pro-poor water service provision model. The delegated management model for water supply has proved to be an innovative way of supplying water cheaply to the poor while providing entrepreneurial opportunities for the residents. It has proved viable in Nyalenda, one of the informal settlements in Kisumu where it was piloted.

Access to sanitation in Kisumu has improved, from 75 percent in 2002 to 91 percent in 2007; yet it remains an issue. What can be done to increase access?

There is a need for massive investment in sewer infrastructure, to take care of the areas not covered by sewerage. On the other hand, access enjoyed today is still in pit latrines, which have significant challenges, the shallow wells supplying the water. The biggest challenge is in the informal settlements, where landlords put up houses without sanitation facilities. To address these, the local authorities could:
• Institute regulations that specify that each house must have a toilet;
• Enforce existing regulations; and
• Develop a delegated sanitation model.

You have helped the Netherlands’ Cordaid in its efforts to address water and sanitation in Manyatta, one of the informal settlements. Can you describe in more detail what this project entails and how you have helped?

The project entails the support to Manyatta slums in five thematic areas: water, solid waste, housing, urban transport and a community resource centre. In water and sanitation, a link has been created between the Vitens DHV and HHR in the Netherlands and the Kisumu Water and sewerage company, to help reduce the volume of unaccounted-for water. At the same time, it explores the setting up of the delegated water model to improve water access in Manyatta.

Waterborne diseases can be an issue, particularly since some residents must rely on shallow well water, which is often contaminated. How much can hygiene education play a role in preventing waterborne disease? How have you supported education outreach?

Hygiene education is important because most of the diseases reported are hygiene behavior- related. The trend can be changed by educating people at different levels on simple personal hygiene. This is more so for children, who report the highest cases. Early education can lead to adults who are better informed and have the right behavior towards their health, leading to reduced cases of disease.

You played a role in facilitating l’Agence Francaise de Developpement’s (AFD’s) work in Kisumu, which is intended to address several challenges facing the city – in infrastructure, planning and capacity building, among other areas. Can you describe this work in more detail and what you have done to support it?

The Millennium Cities Initiative served as the secretariat for the Kisumu Action Team (KAT), which was reconstituted to come up with ideas on how best to revamp the city following the 2007’s post-election violence that hit the city severely. This team led to the development of the Kisumu Reconstruction Strategy, which the mayor used to lobby for support. This is what gave birth to the Kisumu Urban Project (KUP) funded by the AFD. MCI provided the stakeholder facilitation role to come up with the strategies. Upon conception of the KUP project, we were part of the team that came up with the initial draft, as well as being the initial secretariat to drive it forward. The information generated by MCI in various areas was used to help craft the programs.

Plans are underway to develop Kisumu’s lake front. What impact do you think this will have on the city’s economic development? What effects will such development have on the environment and on multiple stakeholders’ longstanding efforts to clean up the lake?

The lake front will improve the appeal to the city, hence, promoting further lake shore investment. This will increase the chances of employment, which can lead to improved livelihoods. The development will put the plight of the lake in mind, as the stakeholders will be more aware of the need to keep the lake clean so as to be attractive for visitors. The development will also change the land uses from polluting activities to more compatible ones, besides providing jobs.

Are other major economic development projects in progress? What about the market? Are there any initiatives ongoing there? What other initiatives are ongoing, or under discussion, that will create jobs?

The Kisumu Urban Project proposes to develop markets and bus parks, which will be new economic hubs within the city. The Kisumu airport is currently upgrading to international status, with work expected to end in April 2011. This will allow direct flights from out of the country, hence, opening up the region to international markets and investment.

What is being done to support the bicycle taxi drivers, for whom MCI has tried to be an advocate and interlocutor?

New bylaws have been developed, recognizing them as an important economic activity. Under the Urban Matters project hosted by MCI, the Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) of bicycle taxis has a partnership with Cycling Out of Poverty, a Dutch organization, which has drawn in the partnership of KLM to help set up a bicycle making plant in Kisumu. As of now, the workshop for fabricating the bicycles has been completed and is functional. They have modified bicycles for various uses. Under the AFD-sponsored project, cycle lanes will be constructed to accommodate the transport infrastructure needs.

What can MCI do, possibly by forging partnerships with NGOs, with CBOs, with banks, to support small business and micro-enterprise?

There is a need for possibly setting up a seed fund for the informal sector, to encourage business development in the city through which other partners (largely private sector) can contribute.

Given all these projects and activities, which of these, and which Development Goals, would you prioritize in the coming year, where MCI might have the greatest impact?

Goal 1 (halving extreme poverty and hunger) will have the greatest impact in the city. This is where the funds need to be invested, to make it easier for the private sector to make their contribution. It is the foundation Goal which will help achieve the others. Many people cannot afford the services in the city, hence, investing in the informal sector to be able to improve their incomes would be a priority.

Goal 2, universal primary education, is also important. Focusing on the school feeding program and sanitary pads would be critical for the achievement of the goals in Kisumu. With some seed funding, the private sector could come in, e.g., working with milk companies to provide milk to schools, working with hygiene companies for sanitary pads, etc., which would help achieve Goal 3 (gender equality / women’s empowerment. Goals 4 and 5 would also be critical.

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