Engineering new schools in Africa's largest slum

Author: Becky Rabjohns

Date published

16 March 2017

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Engineering new schools in Africa's largest slum

Date published

16 March 2017


Becky Rabjohns




Becky Rabjohns

Becky Rabjohns discusses her work with charity “Engineers without Borders” in Kenya, helping to improve school buildings in an outskirt of Nairobi.

Updated 10 March 2020

I first discovered Engineers Without Borders at university, where I took part in the “Engineers without Borders Challenge” - a design project where students were given a brief to design a solution for a community in a developing country.

In 2016 I followed up my interest in the charity, travelling to Nairobi, Kenya and staying for three months as part of a team made up of two senior fellows (Rodoula Gregoriou, a water engineer from Buro Happold and myself) and four junior fellows who were students at UCL.


Our project was based in Kibera, which is the biggest slum in Africa, on the outskirts of Nairobi. Most residents live in conditions of extreme poverty, and a number of organisations are working hard to improve conditions where they can.

I was placed with one of Engineers without Borders’ partner organisations, Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI). They are an international organisation that started in Kibera and the team are mostly Kenyan, with roughly half from Kibera.

The team is made up of a mix of design and construction staff and community development people. KDI also work with the community groups on the construction site, which allows local people to gain skills, learn how to maintain the project and keeps them engaged with the process, giving them a sense of ownership.

I was there to work on a “Productive public space project” where a waste space belonging to the community is developed to deliver the most social, physical and economic benefits possible.

Previous projects have constructed sanitation blocks, kiosks and day care centres, but this project would be a “productive public learning space” where improvements are made to existing school buildings - which are generally of very low quality, susceptible to flooding from a lack of adequate drainage, with poor internal room conditions.

Having engineering input during the design and construction of the school is very important to achieve a building that is designed to withstand strong winds, fire and seismic activity - which many buildings in Kibera are not.

The plan called for 11 classrooms over two storeys, an outdoor space for the environmental club, and a performance space for the dance club.


We would also provide toilets with a connection into the main sewer line, which could also be used by members of the public to generate a source of income for the school. It was the first project that I had worked on in a developing country, and working in the slum environment posed many challenges.

One of the main difficulties was working in an environment that is very reliant on an informal economy. This meant that it was very difficult to find out where construction materials had come from and what material properties they had.

When I first arrived, we had to develop and test a new concrete mix to check the cement strength and find a good source of well graded aggregate. I also worked on finding a sustainable, reliable and treated source of timber.

Also, as the slum is very densely populated, with little infrastructure, access to site is often a very limiting factor. Everything has to be carried to site by hand.

Local materials

Local and easily available materials (such as timber, mud walls and masonry) were used throughout the project to keep costs down and make the building easily maintainable by the school community in the future.

KDI try to use these materials in innovative ways, to inspire the local people to use different construction techniques, and work closely with the school so that they saw the construction process and will be able to undertake maintenance more easily in future.

They have also worked to find the school an educational partner who will help to develop their curriculum, while KDI will continue to work with the school to develop their business model.

Working with KDI and living in Nairobi was challenging and amazing. I learnt so much and it was incredibly rewarding. It is certainly a community in need.

One of the things that really struck me is that, as Kibera’s population has steadily increased, people have begun building more and more two storey buildings.

It’s really important that the community has continuing access to engineering advice, or guidance on how to build these new structures safely and cheaply, to prevent accidents and improve conditions for all.

More about Engineers Without Borders.

Additional information

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Case Study Educational Resilience Humanitarian & International Development

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