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Kenyan Construction Problems Blamed on Corruption

  • Gabe Joselow

In building after building, town after town, inspectors from Kenya's National Construction Authority are leaving their mark and shutting down unsafe building sites.

The NCA says it has shut down 500 sites nationwide since August, sometimes for safety violations, sometimes because of substandard building materials.

Buildings are going up so fast across Kenya, national regulators can hardly keep up. When they find illegal activity, they order construction stopped and sometimes tear down the building.

In Kitengela, outside Nairobi, engineer Crispus Ndinyo discovers violations wherever he looks. The workers lack proper clothing and protective helmets; he called the environment "very unsafe, very unhealthy.”

Building safety is on everyone's minds following recent accidents. Earlier this month, a woman and a small child died when a seven-story building collapsed in Haruma estate, Nairobi.

Two weeks earlier, seven people were killed in a separate collapse in Makongeni.

Police Inspector General Samuel Arachi said those responsible could face criminal charges.

“For this incident, everybody who was involved in the construction, right from the engineers, the architects, the contractor and the owner — for us this is criminal negligence and it will not be condoned,” he said.

Past building collapses have all taken place in the city's poorest neighborhoods where buildings go up quickly with little supervision.

Health hazards from poor ventilation or open sewer lines also create dangerous conditions for tenants.

Architecture professor Alfred Omenya of the Technical University of Kenya says regulators are often paid to look the other way.

“Of course the big issue, the big elephant in the room, is corruption," he said. "Even when [regulators] are there, they are able to allow a whole lot of substandard practices, a whole lot of illegal practices, because of course they're able to extort bribes and are not serious about doing their work.”

The anti-corruption group Transparency International ranked Lands Services in Kenya, which would include the construction authority, as the second most corrupt sector of government, just behind the police.

The country has promised to increase inspections of construction sites and existing housing, particularly in Nairobi, in hopes of preventing another deadly disaster.

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