Kenyans Exposed to Danger As Construction Scofflaws Flourish

By Andrew Ochieng

In Nairobi, collapsed apartment and business towers have captured public attention and directed light to a global problem. Poor building-code enforcement has allowed sub-standard construction, with tragic consequences from Nairobi to Mexico City.

Nairobi – Sixteen months ago, Agnes Kavere, became a survivor.

At the end of April 2016, she was in her house in Huruma, Nairobi, Kenya’s capital and biggest city. She had just arrived from a rural farm to visit her husband, who had been living in the city.

She remembers the day clearly: It was raining heavily when the six-story tower collapsed around her. Fifty-two of her neighbors died that day. Since then, Kavere and her three children have lived scarred lives.

“People had said the building was going to fall,” said Kavere, who now lives with a friend in a one-room shack in the Kibera slum’s Mashimoni neighborhood. “The day before the building collapsed, the windows cracked and broke. But my husband told me that we should persevere. That the following day we would move out. So we stayed, but we could not even sleep, because we did not know what was going to happen.”

On the day of the collapse, Kavere was making dinner when the structure began to shake.

“My husband was on the third floor and I called him to come down and listen to the tremors,” she recalled. “He told me to stop cooking, pick up the child, and help move our property upstairs. He said ‘upstairs,’ but I hesitated. How could upstairs be safe? … I did not want to argue, so I put the child on my back and we started ferrying our things to the third floor.”

Agnes Kavere

It took a while, and the couple managed a few trips up and down the stairs, moving their belongings, before the building finally yielded to the weight of its shoddy construction. Kavere was glad she carried her child on her back the whole time. The two were found and pulled from the rubble. Days later, recovering in the hospital, she was told her husband, Moses Khayumba, had died. They found his body at the city mortuary, along with other bodies of adults and children.

Kavere and her husband had occupied their one-room flat for two years. She recalls that there had never been a sign that it would come tumbling down. Not even the suspicious closeness to a river dissuaded them from living in the building. It was affordable and they thought it solid, and didn’t know that its closeness to a river violated regulations of the national environment management authority.

A History of Failure

Around the globe, building codes of modern governments are failing, undermined by corruption, lax regulation and the forces of nature.

Dan Manduku is the director of the National Construction Authority. “A failure can occur if there is any problem within with chain, there can be corruption.” Photo by Robert Gichira.

Improper construction has brought down massive structures, dating back to ancient civilizations in Greece and Rome. The failure of dams, globally, has claimed more lives than any other construction category. And buildings have fallen because of mistakes and poor regulation in first-world cities as well, from London to Alexandria, Virginia in the United States.

But it is in modern skyscrapers where people live and work, and must place faith in architects, builders and government regulators. Too often, slip-shod work, poor standards and regulation – and corruption – have let people down. The world’s worst collapse in recent history was the Savar Building at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At least 1,100 people died, and another 2,500 were injured – most of them workers in garment factories crammed into a building that had been built four stories higher than its authorized design. The Savar collapse was a textbook example of how poor planning, construction and government oversight create an avoidable disaster: The building was constructed on a drained lake, the intended use was changed to industrial midway through construction, and poor materials and the unauthorized floors all combined to doom the garment workers.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.

In Africa’s burgeoning cities, ignorance of building codes is not a given. Just across the border, in Uganda, government and industry appear to have learned their lessons and come together to change how things are built, after several tragic collapses a few years ago.

Change, however, is slow to come in Nigeria, where breakneck population growth has aggravated chronic disregard for building codes and construction standards. Punishment has been rare in a country where several collapses in recent decades have claimed dozens of victims.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, builders and regulators around the globe are now monitoring how the government in Mexico City responds to the worst case scenario – the terrible consequences of corruption and lax regulation in urban construction: An earthquake this fall claimed almost 400 lives and felled dozens of buildings. Residents and civic activists blame off-code construction — and official corruption — for allowing some of those buildings to go up in the first place.

But it is in Kenya where the problem of lax coding and shoddy construction has become acute. There, no single, significant natural disaster brought down apartment and commercial towers. Rather, it is as if some structures, put up in a hurry to chase profits, are built to fail.

In Nairobi, buildings in poor neighborhoods have collapsed in surprising numbers because builders have cut corners, regulators have not held builders to standards, and government building codes are poorly enforced by a dizzying number of local and federal agencies.

The first building to fall with notable fatalities was the Sunbeam Supermarket in May 1996. Sixteen people died when the store’s roof came down on them.

To avoid further tragedies, the government pledged swift action. It appointed a  task force to investigate causes of  the collapse, and to map out changes to national and local building rules.

The team travelled to Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore in search of best building practices. It determined that what had led to the Sunbeam collapse was a simple lack of maintenance. The Nairobi city council was also faulted for not conducting proper inspections. And the market’s owners were accused of changing the use of the building without a permit.

Two decades later, however, not much has changed. Construction of substandard structures goes on.

In Kenya,  several key players dominate the construction industry, governed by a dizzying array of different regulatory bodies.

There are the architects, governed by the Architectural Association of Kenya. Engineers are governed by the Engineers Board of Kenya.  They pick up from the architects and design how the building should be placed on the ground with all the services.

A failure can occur if there is any problem within the chain, there can be corruption.

Daniel Manduku

Then there is National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), which ensures that the building and the construction process do not harm the surrounding neighborhood and environment. Local and county officials must approve the drawings and construction, and then ensure the project adhered to plan. And don’t forget the contractors who realize the vision of architects and engineers. Contractors work under supervision of the National Construction Authority (NCA), which regulates buildings under construction.

And then, once buildings are up and occupied, officials from the National Buildings Inspectorate step in.

Construction industry analyst said problems in the construction sector in Kenya can be traced the multiple layers of regulators.

“A chain is only as good as the links,” said Daniel Manduku, chief executive of the National Construction Authority. “If there is any problem within the chain, there can be corruption.” Manduku said he believes that approvals ought to be done under one umbrella agency. Today, “some of the people who are supposed to approve the drawings don’t have the knowledge.”

Blame to Spare

Engineers and architects said buildings collapse because unscrupulous developers are not using professionals in the chain of construction. Others said regulators in the chain don’t have resources to enforce regulations in their mandate.

Justus Kathenge, Director of Urban Planning for Nairobi County, discussing the challenges to enforcing construction codes in the city. Photo by Adrams Mulama.

Justice Kathenge, director of urban planning for Nairobi, Kenya. He says his hands are tied by in-effective building rules and a confusing layer of bureaucratic oversight. Photo by Adrams Mulama.