Doubling Down on Government | Big Bold Cities

Doubling Down on Government

A partnership for middle-class engagement

three colored squaresDoubling Down on Government


Many residents of Kilimani Ward didn’t think of themselves as a community. Kilimani was a location where middle-class Nairobians lived and fended for themselves, not expecting their local government to provide services. As one of 85 wards in infrastructure-strained Nairobi City County (NCC,) Kilimani is where people with means hire private security guards at their residences and when water taps run dry, people have a bowser deliver it in. So when residents, property owners and businesses came together to form a community foundation to directly engage with the county government for improved service delivery, they received many comments like, ‘Why do middle-class people need a community foundation? Those are for poor people.’ Indeed, a couple of other middle-class wards and estates had organised themselves but took the approach of financially emancipating themselves from the Nairobi City County government; one was withdrawn for almost 20 years. The Kilimani Project Foundation’s organisers felt as though disengaging from local government was a regressive act. They wanted to build confidence in the County by working within the newly devolved governance structure while also empowering taxpayers and citizens to engage with government. 

The Kilimani Project Foundation sees the community’s challenges and operates in a holistic manner on five key pillars of work: public safety, economic development, physical development, social cohesion, and green and public spaces. Its mission is to have the Kilimani Ward be an intentional community of choice for its diverse inhabitants regardless of their land use, economic stature, ethnicity, permanence, nationality or networks. KPF, as the Foundation is affectionately called, has embedded itself in the consciousness of residents, the business and political class, and local service NGOs as a bridge between all stakeholders.  

Democratic Challenge

Kenyans designed their constitution to place citizen participation at the center of the governance system. Public participation is a key promise enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya and imbued in the national values and principles of governance provided for in Article 10. Yet still, a challenge exists to fulfill this vision. Barriers to this include ineffective government communication, and the apathy and busy lifestyles of citizens. People want to participate but they feel overwhelmed with daily life, and it’s incumbent on government to be innovative in ways to reach people, such as varying the times of public forums, actively using social media to disseminate and collect information, and street mobilizing. Without such innovation, physical development and infrastructure improvements are being made without stakeholder involvement, and quick changes made without inclusivity are resulting in a degraded quality of life. 

The innovation of an uncommon community foundation also addressed larger social and governance challenges, including: the unraveling social fabric of isolated individuals, weak structures for public accountability, and a lack of local connectivity creating security vulnerabilities.

How did you do it?

Kilimani, an affluent neighborhood in west-central Nairobi, has a history from the 1970-90s of cleanliness, tight-knit community relations, and a high property investment retention. However, in 2012 Kilimani residents, area school heads, business people and property owners noticed that Kilimani was rapidly changing in its physical developments and experiencing public infrastructure strain.

Several community members pulled heads together in a garden talk about the concerns they shared, and who are other key persons who would add value to the conversations. After many collective and one-on-one conversations with community members and County officials, the core saw fit to register as a not-for-profit company. 

The Kilimani Project Foundation was formed to call forth better localized governance, service delivery by local authorities and public participation/information as provided for by the Kenyan National Constitution passed in 2010. A working relationship was established with the national government⸺mainly the National Police Service (NPS) and the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA)⸺as well as the Nairobi City County (NCC) departments of Lands and Urban Renewal, Licensing, Education and Roads, and other non-governmental organisations doing work in citizen education, community policing, urban planning, participatory budgeting, residential organizing, and community foundations.  

KPF commissioned research on civic engagement among middle-class communities, which examined the factors that inspire or hinder participation in community and civic life within this population. It also looked at the influence that ordinary individuals have had on the wider community in both enhancing community life and influencing government policy.  

The Foundation’s Theory of Change is to work closely with the County government as a partner in engaging with area stakeholders to create a feedback loop on policy and budget formation and service delivery. KPF does this through a community-inspired strategic plan which includes targeted events, dialogues, and re-centering government’s duty to deliver services. KPF is a membership organization that convenes the resident associations within the ward, which are typically organized by street or interest group. This aggregation of local voices gives KPF validity when it communicates residents’ demands and desires. KPF is also a member of the Kenya Alliance of Resident Association and supported by the Global Fund for Community Foundations.

Its focus areas include but are not limited to:

  • Public Safety 
    • The Foundation’s formative years were during the government's establishment of the National Committee on Implementation of Citizen Participation in Security, a local communal clustering initiative which called upon people to know their neighbors. This initiative, popularly known as Nyumba Kumi (ten houses), was a community-policing approach initiated in response to the Westgate shopping mall terror attack.  
    • In Kilimani, criminal and irregular activities⸺break-ins, muggings, traffic violations, noise pollution, road reserve infringement, and more⸺were at an all-time high. The Foundation’s board chair established a working relationship with the Kilimani Police Station Commanders as well as the local Chief, and developed a framework for engagement to realize community policing
    • Activities include creation of stakeholder WhatsApp groups to share immediate reports of crime with a Commander, key officers and the Chief. The Foundation also holds an annual dialogue and relationship-building activity at the police station. KPF is party to the redevelopment campaign of the police department conjoined by the National Police Service, Kenya Private Sector Alliance and the Chinese Embassy (which is located in Kilimani.) Additionally, police are represented at each of KPF’s community street festivals (held three times annually) to give updates and receive information on security matters.
  • Physical Development and Public Space 
    • Due to Kilimani’s prime location and its suitability for mixed-use development, the area is highly sought-after by private developers, who often seek to optimise return on their investment by exceeding the approved specifications. The Foundation has convened educational forums where County officials from Land and Planning departments inform residents of the development approval process, giving out contact information so that illegal development can be reported directly. Additionally, KPF facilitates and empowers community members in expressing their desires as part of County budgeting and integrated development-planning processes. By various participatory methods⸺such as issue deliberations, open platform discussions, and surveys⸺KPF submits input on behalf of the community while also encouraging people to express their views directly.  
  • Social Cohesion and Economic Development
    • KPF hosts events that bring diverse communities together for unique and unexpected interactions to build social bonds. It holds a free street festival three times per year to remove perceived barriers to belonging, and equalise everyone's right to the city. This festival is also, in effect, a market for small-scale businesses in the area to access shoppers.
  • Accountability in Public Service
    • The structures for accountability in public institutions were utilized and tested as KPF formed close relationships with political representatives closest to the ward, i.e. the Ward Administrator for NCC, Kilimani Chief for National Government, Kilimani Officer in Command of Police Department for National Police Service, District Education Officer for Ministry of Education, Environment Officer for National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and elected officials including Members of County Assembly and Member of Parliament. Contact information for each representative was made available publicly, and KPF included them in WhatsApp and Telegram open communication platforms to support direct interaction.
    • The Ward Administrator, whose duties are laid out in Section 51(3) of the County Governments Act, coordinates, manages and supervises general administrative functions including:
      • the development of policies and plans;
      • service delivery;
      • developmental activities to empower the community;
      • the provision and maintenance of infrastructure and facilities of public services;
      • the County public service;
      • functions and powers delegated by the County Public Service Board; and
      • citizen participation in the development of policies and plans and delivery of services.
    • The Ward Administrator assigned to Kilimani met with the KPF Secretariat regularly to discuss the status of new and unresolved grievances for reporting back to residents and duty bearers. The Administrator said he felt emboldened in his duties by what he calls the “power of the residents” taking on their rights of public participation and service delivery. Social media has been a strong tool for facilitating this feedback loop; residents find KPF’s communications a trustworthy resource that has been vetted, dissected and interpreted for the interest of Kilimani. 

How is it going? 

In 2018, KPF was recognized by the East Africa Philanthropy Network for its contribution to the growth of philanthropy in Kenya. Successful activities include: 

  • Developed a Voters Guide with information on county and parliamentary aspirants, and hosted public policy discussions with candidates for two election cycles.  Those elected refer back to KPF to stay engaged with the community.
  • Hosted (9) public and free-to-attend street festivals bringing the community together, breaking barriers and reclaiming ownership of the ward. This was supported by NCC through waiving of fees, being on-hand to interact with attendees on public matters, and documenting of complaints.
  • Co-organized a “Police Open Day” with the office of the Officer in Charge of Police Department (OCPD). The purpose was to remove the stigma around the police force, glimpse the life and concerns of officers, and establish roots for community policing. Over 200 people attended a day of community dialogue, football matches between police officers and residents, and a youth security exhibition. 
  • KPF has been contacted by other residents/communities, and is recommended by the County, to advise on setting up organisations modeled after its work.
  • In response to the County’s call for participation in its budget development, KPF has worked with County officials to host budget hearings in the ward and used other social methods⸺online surveys, emails, WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook⸺to disseminate information about the budget proposals as well as gather feedback. Each year, KPF compiled and presented its findings to the County, tracked proposals from recommendations to appropriation, and ensured that promised improvements were made.


Aligning outside and inside strategies. The Foundation was formed in the early years of Kenya’s devolved constitution that decentralized legislative and executive functions to the county level. The pull to revert to centralized command and control presented a challenge in the early relationship between NCC and the Foundation. Over the years, this relationship has grown in interdependence and respect. With a proactive and service-driven ward administrator, the organs “walked hand in hand” and leveraged one another’s power for achieving shared goals. The ward rep or any other public official trying to overcome political stagnation can call on Foundation members to escalate their advocacy efforts, while the Ward Administrator works within governmental systems to validate those efforts.

Strong community relationships among stakeholders who have a sense of ownership increases the likelihood of being proactive in the development of a neighborhood and city. “We are residents of Nairobi; and until we begin to understand that, this county will not transform as we desire for it to,” said Irungu Houghton, Kilimani Project Foundation Board Chair.

Intentionally including and collaborating with all stakeholders in development processes. KPF is driven by the vision of creating Kilimani as an inclusive and vibrant community for all residents, local authorities, and businesses, including often-overlooked communities of domestic workers, security guards, gardeners, taxis and boda boda transporters. In its budgeting and integrated development participatory exercises, the Foundation goes out of its way to walk the streets with pamphlets and work through informal business associations to ensure these groups are represented.