A Letter from the Founder header image. An aerial shot of a densely populated area.

A Letter from the Founder

I grew up in Nairobi, in a middle-income housing estate twenty minutes walk from Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. Growing up, I remember being curious about Kibera—we were forbidden from going near there. It was dark and there were dangerous people, so we were told. The houses were made of mud and dung, much like my grandmother’s house in rural Kenya, but these were stacked so close together that all you could see were sheets of corrugated iron roofs.

Me, Nairobi Kenya sometime in the 70s.

My dad drove past Kibera to take us to school every weekday and every so often I would ask him who lived there. Why was it so dark at night? Did he know how the children played with the houses so squeezed together?

In the 70s, my father was a hopeful man. He said that the government had a development plan to build better houses, put in toilets and electricity so that the children could play in a safer environment. Indeed, over the decades apartments were built, toilets installed, water provided, research conducted, but Kibera continued to grow, with the city unable to meet the demands of the people who moved there. Other places like Kibera began mushrooming too in the periphery of the city and now eight out of every ten people in Nairobi live in places similar to the Kibera I grew up next to. 

Trends creating uncertain futures 

For the children growing up in Kibera then, the world was uncertain. Today, 50 years later, uncertainty is a fixture. Rapid urbanisation and mobility, climate change and resource scarcity, demographic and social change and technological innovation continue to shape our futures in unpredictable ways. 

Within the urban context, we are seeing a rapid increase in urbanisation. Today, the majority of the worlds’ population lives in cities. And in 2050, almost seven out of ten people in the world will live in urban areas. Much of this growth is driven by Asia and Africa, which will boast 90% of all the world’s urban growth by 2050. Add to this the fact that three million people move to cities every week. 

While it is true no country has developed without urbanisation, cities of the global south are growing without adequate jobs, services, infrastructure, and resources to support dignified lives. Why is it that for all our theorising, model building, and policy pronouncements, children still grow up in our cities without adequate urban services or the necessary resources to nurture their capabilities?  

This is an issue that has preoccupied my scholarship and policy work, and it boils down to the gap between research insights and policy change. 

The Gap

I have worked in the development world for over 20 years doing research and advocacy on creating more just cities. Over the years,  I have focused on different aspects of social justice: understanding how to make urban land markets work for the poor; advocating for the protection of women migrants in the informal economy; building inclusive and diverse cities; analysing the impact of spatial injustice on poor urban communities fighting the scourge of COVID-19; exploring what the right to the city might mean for the most vulnerable urban populations; and developing inclusive migrant policies in urban centres

During this time it has become obvious that despite what we know, the knowledge we have gathered, the research we do, and all the development gains we have made, inequality and poverty persist, and things are only getting worse for poor urban dwellers. Our research is failing to make the impact we could make to bring about positive social change. 

Our Proposition

At Frame45, our proposition is simple, transforming knowledge, changing lives and strengthening capabilities requires a different way of seeing. 

Inspiring policy change and transforming urban societies, requires us to focus on connecting knowledge production, organisational ecosystems, and storytelling technologies.

A different way of seeing, Amos Redmond, Oregon

 One of the most important lessons I have learned about storytelling, comes from my work in Katlehong—a poor township south of Johannesburg. I had approached Papi Thethele, a South African local activist, to find out why there were persistent xenophobic outbreaks in the township especially against Somali shopkeepers. Papi and I were talking about what it takes to build unity amongst a diverse community. I kept wondering why the constitution, the laws that ostensibly protect all who live in South Africa, don’t work. Was it enforcement, was it that people didn’t believe in the state or regulation? Why?

What Papi said to me was surprising. To have a shot at integration, and cooling down divisions, he said, we have to rewrite the story. “It’s not about the law.” Those things don’t mean much in everyday lives, he told me. 

“Tell the story about the Somali shopkeeper who builds trust with the old mama, giving her groceries on credit, without a second thought.”

“Tell the story of the shared moments when neighbours, Somali and local, fill each other’s living rooms and root for their local football team.” 

“Tell the story of the shared moments when the community came together for a funeral or a wedding or a child’s birthday party.”

“These stories that are going to keep Somali’s safe, not the constitution”, Papi said to me.

To transform knowledge insights into social change, we need an agenda that not only focuses on knowledge production through research and publication, but that also has impact beyond a small, expert audience.

That agenda must incorporate a deep understanding of organisational ecosystems and the use of storytelling technologies.”

These help bridge the gap that leads us toward greater action and social change.

30 years later, I got to go to Kibera. I had a research project looking into the role that gender played in the post-election violence. I arrived in my childhood home from Johannesburg and told my dad that I would finally see Kibera. After trying to dissuade me, he offered to drop me off. For those who know Kibera, the northern entrance by car is a dead end and is always filled with matatus, touts and scores of people moving in every direction. My dad waited until I found my friend Millicent, founder of KIVIWOSHEG school in Kibera. As he inched his way out of the chaos of cars and people, he looked much frailer than I remembered. I got back home and he asked me how it was. How did people live? Was there progress? What about the children? 

I said to him that I had hope.