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Thursday, 3 September 2009

Slum Safari’s: Tourists pay for the squalor and stench of poverty, not development

There was uproar on twitter this morning regarding Kibera Tours, a website advertising slum tours in Africa’s largest slum. Indeed Kibera Tours is not the first nor will it be the last outfit trying to make money out of poverty. Tourists seeking such experiences can go to Dharavi in Mumbai - the biggest slum in Asia, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, South Africa’s townships or even Mexico City’s garbage dumps.

Such escapades have been made even more popular by celebrities who sometime go by the title “Ambassadors” such as Angelina Jolie and Chris Rock, who after a tour of the ramshackle huts, having had to hold their breath while passing the open sewers, ducking the flying toilets while walking the narrow footpaths and in front of a trash heap, maybe surrounded by big bellied snot nosed children, express outrage at the poverty and make impassioned pleas for more money to assist the people. Even the Oscar award winning movie Slumdog Millionaire put comedy into the scenario.

The ironic thing is that Kibera has the most number of NGOs, INGOs, CSOs, FBOs, CBOs, students on their gap year or whatever name they go by per square foot compared to the rest of Kenya. Yet, poverty persists, maybe a prime example of the economic law of diminishing returns.

Recently at we met a youth group from Kibera who told us they were into “eco tourism”. When we delved into their enterprise further, there was nothing eco friendly about their business. It was slum tourism pure and simple. However the lead entrepreneur was un-phased and said why care what it’s called or what it’s about when you make US$ 20 on a bad day! – this in a place where the majority live on less than US$ 2 per day.

Reading the customer testimonials on the Kibera Tour website makes one wonder whether the inhabitants have been dehumanised. Among the customer reviews posted on the site a few stood out:

“This is what our guests said after joining about our tour, our organisation and about Kibera: ‘It feels safe’ … ‘Very interesting to see. Unique experience! Friendly people! Solidarity and happiness. Impressive!’ … ‘Impressive to see how strong the people are’ … ‘I thought first it was very dangerous, but now I think every one was friendly and helping each other'….” And the list goes on …

So what is on display: the people or the slum environment?

The reviews above teeter dangerously close to the environmental determinism movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that got away with saying things such as people that live in the tropics are lazy, slothful and riddled with venereal diseases amongst other slurs. To objectify the “people” of Kibera in such a way is even worse because they don’t receive the cash for the tours; the tour companies do.

Further, objectification of the people comes on the advice posted on the Kibera Tours site to the tourists:

Please don't hand out anything during the tour. So don't hand out money, sweets, pens, balloons and so on. This can create chaos and quickly may establish the assumption that tourists equal gifts”.

So, how come slum tourism seems to be the hottest business idea around, judging by the number of people involved? Well, it’s really simple. For an entrepreneur seeking to venture into such an industry the entry barriers are low; so low they are almost negligible. Kibera is an informal settlement which means it officially doesn’t exist. The sprawling slum has a reputation of being dangerous, so even police or local authority presence is low – so you can pretty much do anything without too much interference.

The startup costs are also minimal – the slum is already there and with rural-urban migration it continues to grow. No need to invest in infrastructure on that score. The “people” are also there for the tourist’s viewing, and with high fertility rates coupled with high unemployment levels (which would otherwise take them out of the slum) the total package is there.

What about attracting customers? With internet access getting cheaper one can within no time set up a slum-safari site and get interest from eager do-gooders from afar. Without much government regulation the dollars, yen, euros or whatever other currency goes direct into your pockets. In fact you don’t even need to share it with the “people”.

Demand is also inelastic, it would take a great calamity for a do-gooder’s heart to change (demand) and poverty (supply) will remain and even grow – making a perfect equilibrium point. Finally there are no sunk costs; indeed it is in the interests of such entrepreneurs that the slum stays just the way it is. Slum upgrading initiatives are thus the only threat for the business. Tourists won’t pay to tour high rise concrete apartments equipped with basic living facilities even if the people living there are the “people”. Tourists pay for the squalor and the stench of impoverishment, not development – that they do by donating money to aid agencies.

But what to do when even the larger travel companies are joining the fray? Victoria Safari’s which operates throughout East Africa has a package called “Africa Slums Tours” calling it “pro poor tourism”. From it's website pro poor tourism is described:

“the concept of pro poor tourism in Africa is not new as it has been and is being practiced in South Africa. Soweto and Shanty tours in Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively are not new tours but have been ongoing slum safaris that are changing the face of South Africa's Slum areas. Kibera Slum dwellers in Nairobi - Kenya are gradually beginning to reap the benefits of Kibera Slum Tours just as other Kenya Slums dwellers, courtesy of Victoria Safaris.”

If slum dwellers have been benefiting then wouldn’t that mean there would be no more slums to visit? Besides that, there is also the worrying aspect of the logo of Eco Tourism Kenya at the bottom of the Africa Slums Tours web page. Ecotourism Kenya is a civil society organization that was founded in 1996 to promote ecotourism and sustainable tourism practices in Kenya. Is slum tourism then sustainable tourism?

So will slum tourism continue to thrive? Of course as long as the barriers to entry remain low, and the government does its best to do nothing to uplift the lives of the millions of Kenyans living in informal settlements. And it is doing that job very well!


Farida said...

The business people are ready to make money even if they have to squeeze and exploit the poor. Instead of having tour to the slums why dont they find a way to alleviate their suffering.

Yipe said...


That's true though there is an emerging move towards responsible business i.e. giving back to the wider community (CSR).

But, one cannot solely blame the business people making money from slum tours. There is also demand from consumers seeking new experiences. If this was not the case there would be no slum safari's.

Check out this video ( where a tourist can be seen complaining that in Rio favela's the poor people are not poor enough like in Africa!

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