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A Growing Middle Class and Real Estate Development: Social change and urban densification in Kileleshwa (Nairobi)

Croissance de la classe moyenne et développement immobilier : changement social et densification urbaine à Kileleshwa (Nairobi)
Jackson Kago, Catherine Gateri et Owiti A K’Akumu


Kileleshwa, située à cinq kilomètres du centre-ville de Nairobi, a connu une transformation immobilière phénoménale sous la forme d'appartements de grande hauteur remplaçant les bungalows initialement construits dans la région. Le quartier s'est imposé comme l'un des quartiers haut de gamme de Nairobi, alors principalement occupé par de hauts fonctionnaires. Les habitations sont principalement situées sur des parcelles spacieuses avec de belles pelouses, des arbres et des fleurs ostentatoires. Kileleshwa a acquis la réputation d'une banlieue kenyane élégante et de classe moyenne supérieure, et les expatriés y trouvent une zone sûre, tranquille et sans stress. La classe moyenne croissante à Nairobi a entraîné une forte demande dans le haut de gamme du marché du logement, augmentant la pression sur les terrains disponibles pour le réaménagement et faisant monter les prix. Un plan de recherche descriptif a été utilisé dans cette étude, les principales questions de recherche étant les suivantes : qui est la classe moyenne de Kileleshwa ? Comment le groupe à revenu intermédiaire de Kileleshwa influence-t-il la transformation spatiale de la région ? Quels sont les effets de la transformation en cours à Kileleshwa ? Qui sont les perdants et les bénéficiaires de cette transformation ? Nous montrons que la transformation politique et économique du Kenya depuis l'indépendance s'est reflétée dans le paysage social et spatial de Kileleshwa. Nous montrons également que les transformations actuelles à Kileleshwa dépeignent une classe moyenne qui exige une part des meilleures commodités de la ville, créant des tensions sociales avec les riches propriétaires fonciers d'origine. Nous dévoilons également les relations de pouvoir entre les acteurs impliqués dans la transformation de Kileleshwa et les implications de ces relations de pouvoir qui se manifestent dans les tensions entre les différents acteurs.

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This research was made possible through funding by the PASGR (Partnership for African Social and Governance Research) project titled “Urban Governance and Turning African Cities Around: Nairobi Case Study.”


  • 1 The middle class in Nairobi, as per the classification by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics ( (...)

1Historically, Nairobi has long been a preferred destination for real estate investment in Africa (Muiruri, 2016). However, during the Kibaki regime particularly (2002-2013), the city witnessed a real estate boom that was steered by the demand of the growing middle-class. It has led to a social and spatial transformation whereby the rich were moving to more tranquil low-density neighbourhoods in the suburbs of Nairobi. The movement of middle-income residents to the area also signals a growing middle-class in the county1 that is assertive and wants the best of what the Country has to offer.

2The sustained growth in demand for both residential and non-residential structures, driven by the rapidly expanding urban population and the need for ample office space, has significantly boosted the real estate sector. This growth trajectory, which commenced in 2012, reached a peak of 8.9 per cent in 2015. Even in 2020, a year marked by declining growth in many sectors of the Kenyan economy, real estate activities continued to expand at a rate of 5.3 per cent (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2020). The real estate sector has attracted investment from both local and foreign sources. Additionally, consistent remittances from the diaspora have been directed towards real estate investments. The growing middle-class, equipped with disposable income and access to mortgages, through the Sectional Properties Act of 2020 has further fuelled demand in the real estate market. The simplification of sectional titles, allowing investors to own a title for a single unit within an apartment, has broadened the scope of real estate investment to include middle-income earners. At the same time, Nairobi has experienced a notable population increase, resulting in a heightened demand for housing. This has led to the construction of numerous high-density residential apartments across the city. Initially observed in low-income neighbourhoods, particularly in the eastern part of the city (Huchzermeyer, 2007; Mwau et al., 2020), the trend of tenement housing has now extended to areas originally designated for low-density housing, such as Westlands, Kilimani, Kileleshwa, and Lavington.

3This paper investigates these urban and social changes in Kilileshwa, using a descriptive research design with the main research questions being: who is the Kileleshwa middle class? How does the middle-income group in Kileleshwa influence the area’s spatial transformation? What are the resultant effects of the transformation taking place in Kileleshwa? Who are the losers and beneficiaries of this transformation? We show that Kenya's political and economic transformation since independence has been mirrored in the social and spatial landscape of Kileleshwa. We also show that current transformations in Kileleshwa portray a middle-class that demands a share of the city's best amenities, creating social tensions with the original wealthy property owners. Finally, we unravel the power relations among the actors involved in the transformation of Kileleshwa and the implications of these power relations that as manifested in the tensions among various actors.

Study area and research methods

4Kileleshwa is one of Kenya’s most affluent neighbourhoods. It is located about five kilometres from Nairobi Central Business District (CBD). It falls mainly in the area bordered by Kirichwa Ndogo River and Kirichwa Kubwa River extending to the convergence of the two rivers at the Nairobi Arboretum (see illustration 1). It is one of the 85 wards in Nairobi City County. The Nairobi City County has a population of 4,397,073 people as per the 2019 national census with Kileleshwa ward, one of the five wards in Dagoretti North sub-county/constituency having a population of 32,513 people, 10,250 households and a density of 3,570 per square Kilometre (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2019). Kileleshwa falls under Nairobi City County’s Planning Zone 4.

Illustration 1 - Kileleshwa ward in Dagoretti North sub-county

Illustration 1 - Kileleshwa ward in Dagoretti North sub-county

Source: fieldwork.

5The study relied on qualitative data in the form of semi-structured interviews that were administered by the authors and one research assistant to real estate investors, residents, past residents, property caretakers, security guards and employees of international organisations between 2017 and 2019. Secondary data was from archival material in the form of Kenya Gazette and Hansard publications; books, journal articles, government reports, market surveys, newspapers and blogs. The researchers also observed the transformation that was taking place which was documented in the form of field notes and photographs. These data were subjected to qualitative analysis to generate the emerging themes that form the structure of this paper. This paper explores the socio-spatial dynamics and implications of this real estate transformation spurred by the growing middle-class, and the subsequent tensions among various actors.

The socio-spatial transformation of Kileleshwa in historical perspective

6Kileleshwa was originally inhabited by various African communities until 1938 when the Native Land Trust Ordinance and an amendment of the Crown Lands Ordinance were passed paving the way for land alienation of prime fertile land in the Kenyan highlands by the European settlers (Kinyatti, 2020). Upon enactment of these laws, the colonial government invited individual applicants through the Kenya Gazette to apply for allocation of a half to one and a half acre plots. 73 plots were allocated in 1948 and 78 were allocated in 1949 under the Crown Lands Ordinance, with the allottees given lease conditions outlining the building materials (quarry stones or burnt bricks for walling and concrete roofing tiles or shingles for roofing), the plot coverage on not more than one-third of the plot, building lines and land rates. The strict planning guidelines paved the way for the transformation of the area into an exclusive European residential ‘leafy’ suburb with bungalows set on spacious plots with compounds of beautiful lawns, exotic trees and flowers. The idea of the colonial ideal city as depicted by the 1948 Master Plan of a Colonial Capital sought exclusive European enjoyment of outdoor life, social amenities, spacious suburbs and open space away from other racial groups.

7Indeed, during the colonial period, the western part of the city centre – Lavington, Kileleshwa, Upper Hill, Hurlingham, Karen, Muthaiga, Spring Valley and Adams Arcade were restricted to European residents. Asians were allowed in some parts of Ngara, Pangani, and Parklands. Africans were not permitted to own land until after independence and were only allowed to reside in the "Eastlands" region, which includes Majengo, Pumwani, Kaloleni, Shauri Moyo, Jericho, Jerusalem, Makadara, and Makongeni, to the east of the city centre (K’akumu & Olima, 2007; Ogot & Ogot, 2020; Otiso, 2005). Racial segregation and zoning were first recommended by Professor W.J. Simpson in 1913 as a solution to the sanitation problems in the then Indian Bazaar following an outbreak of a plague between 1912 and 1913. The infamous Simpson plan indicated that the Asian's standard of life was not at par with that of the Europeans, that the Asians did not find the European habits acceptable and the “primitive” Africans had not been able to adapt to town life (White et al., 1948). His Majesty’s Government declined to legislate residential segregation between the Europeans and the Asians, but instead allowed “the different races by a natural affinity to keep together in separate quarters” (White et al., 1948, p. 15). This racial segregation was reinforced in the implementation of the 1948 Master Plan of a Colonial Capital (see illustration 2). Although the plan intended to be “completely neutral on the subject of racial segregation by being confined to the e principles of planning,” it recognised the existence of social classes among the European and non-European groups and cited the existence of Italian, Irish and Jewish enclaves. The plan saw no major issue in class differentiation among the European groups, but noted that the wealthy and professional non-Europeans had a desire to infiltrate the exclusive European settlements to “live a middle-class life” and move away from the poorer groups, which was referred to as “racial permeation.” It proposed a degree of economic class differentiation among these groups (White et al., 1948, p. 49). Lastly, the plan noted the desire of the Europeans to implement a racially segregated city during the course of preparation of the plan.

Illustration 2 - 1948 Master Plan of a Colonial Capital (

Illustration 2 - 1948 Master Plan of a Colonial Capital (

Source: Wanjiru-Mwita & Giraut, 2020.

8After independence (1963), the government took up the houses as residences of high-ranking civil servants - the African elite. Neubert (2019) points out that at independence the administration led by Jomo Kenyatta, in the 1960-70s, led to a social differentiation that gave rise to the upward mobility of the Kenyan elite. The aspiration of the Kenyan elite after independence was to take up what was left behind by the exiting European settlers having endured the racial segregation that prevented them from settling West of Uhuru Highway. Thibon (2021, p. 108) indicates that the “defining feature of this social class is that economic development and modes of accumulation were intertwined through the politico-economic elites.” There was an overlap between the state, public and private interests; an aspect that was reinforced during Moi’s regime (1978-2002) (Thibon, 2021). Indeed, Moi’s government sold the houses between the 1980s-90s to well-connected politicians and government officials in a controversial process disguised as privatisation that raised queries on the way it was executed.

9Priority was given to the civil servants residing in those houses to purchase them, and if they did not raise the required funds within the specified timelines, the houses were sold to other individuals consequently leading to their eviction. This led to a politically instigated policy, that drove some of the civil servants out of the area – especially those who did not acquire the houses. According to Hon. Ramadhan Kajembe, “The Government sells these houses at a very nominal price to successful allottees, but the allottees in turn sell these houses at bigger prices and earn good money. So, always the people who benefit from the sale are those allottees” (Kenya National Assembly, 1999). In a parliamentary motion sponsored by Hon. Wanyiri Kihoro in 1999 on the formulation of government policy on housing of civil servants, the Member of Parliament was concerned that the sale of government houses would expose the civil servants residing in those houses including in Kileleshwa to private property owners who would be at liberty to review the rent. He called on the government to nullify the allocation of the houses to well-connected individuals. Hon. Njehu Gatabaki while seconding the motion indicated that the list of allotees included officials in Jomo Kenyatta’s government, cabinet ministers, permanent secretaries, high court judges, members of the Electoral Commission, senior army officials and former president Moi’s close aides. Hon. Raila Odinga indicated that civil servants who formerly lived in the civil servant housing in Kileleshwa were being forced to vacate and had to move to cheaper housing in other locations among their subordinates (Kenya National Assembly, 1999).

10After the turn of the millennium, Kenya Vision 2030 was formulated, an ambitious economic development programme covering the period 2008-2030 that aimed at transforming Kenya into a middle-income nation (Ndung’u et al., 2011). There was renewed hope and aspirations with government reports indicating that the Economic Recovery Strategy for Wealth and Employment Creation (ERSWEC) moved Kenya from one per cent economic growth in 2003 to seven per cent in 2007. This economic renaissance created a good environment for real estate investment and the current densification of Kileleshwa. People moving into Kileleshwa were attracted to its proximity to the city centre, infrastructure development, accessibility, safety and security. There was also a shortage of housing units for this income bracket. A survey by Cytton Investment showed that students and middle-income earners were the most affected by the housing shortage whose shortfall leaves close to 150,000 Kenyans un-housed every year. The shortage in middle-income and student housing was because there was not enough institutional capital offered for these income segments, and it was envisioned that the real estate business should fill this gap (Mutai, 2016). As a result, both local and foreign real estate investors set up high-rise high-end apartments in previously exclusive neighbourhoods, with high-profit returns that have transformed into a major sector in the enterprise city. The land prices in Kileleshwa increased by 6.37-fold between 2007-2016 with land prices averaging Ksh. 278,700,000 per acre (Hassconsult Limited, Land Price Index Quarter Two Report, 2016). Additionally, the limited land within the city led to densification to accommodate the incoming inhabitants. The bungalows (see figure 3) were being replaced by high-rise exclusive apartments (see illustration 3) that have transformed the spatial landscape of the area.

11This middle-class desires and demands quality housing in well-placed neighbourhoods. This growing middle-class have disposable income and specific aspirations like the right quality of infrastructure, quality of housing, security, and convenience. Real estate investors have marketed and modelled their properties to provide luxury and comfort to suit these demands. A description of one of the developments indicated that they “offer unparalleled luxury that breaks the monotony of the ordinary… has all the amenities tempered for a high end luxury development.” The character of the old colonial houses may not have been attractive to the rich young middle-income groups who were searching for trendy luxurious homes.

Illustration 3 - Vasudev Apartment, Kilelelshwa

Illustration 3 - Vasudev Apartment, Kilelelshwa

Source: Field Survey

Illustration 4 - A single-dwelling bungalow on a half-acre plot representing the old order

Illustration 4 - A single-dwelling bungalow on a half-acre plot representing the old order

Source, fieldwork

Tensions around densification in Kilileshwa

Tension between the civil society and the government

12The irregular allocation of houses in Kileleshwa generated complaints by both the civil society and parliamentarians. The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Illegal/Irregular Allocation of Public Land, commonly known as the "Ndungu" Report mentioned the illegal allocation of these houses. The Kenya Human Rights Commission lists ten former senior government officials who were irregularly allocated houses in Kileleshwa (Kenya Human Rights Commission, 2011). The Kenya National Assembly also brought up this issue on numerous occasions. The irregular allocation was also a subject of debate at the Kenya National Assembly. In an effort to find out how many government officials were allocated government houses in Kileleshwa, Hon. Anyang Nyongo and Hon. James Orengo inquired with the Ministry of Lands in 1995 with no clear answers (Kenya National Assembly, 1995). In 1999, Hon. Wanyiri Kihoro stated that the selling price of the houses was unreasonable in comparison to the market price (Kenya National Assembly, 1999). Hon. Tobias Ochola Ogur highlighted paragraphs 555 to 558 of the Kenya National Assembly public accounts reports for the years 1993, 1994, and 1995 that pointed out the irregular allocation of government land and housing. According to the investigation, 575 homes had been allocated to individuals in Moi’s ruling party - Kenya National African Union (KANU) who then sold them 16 times the price at which they had bought them. According to the legislator: “The government allocated a house to Stellascope Savings Company and we know who the owner is. The company paid Ksh. 924,000 to purchase the house and disposed it off at a price of Ksh. 17 million.” (Kenya National Assembly, 1998). Hon. Paul Muite criticised the strategy the government had employed in the distribution of homes in Kileleshwa, arguing that it should have been a transparent procedure with the homes being openly advertised for the highest bidder to buy. He claimed that the government would have received more money from the sale of the homes through this approach as opposed to selectively giving them to politically connected civil servants. (Kenya National Assembly Official, 1998).

13This shows that the densification of Kileleshwa was founded on the corrupt actions of political figures who engaged in land grabbing a practice that enriched a few politically connected, unscrupulous people while denying the government revenue. Maupeu (2021) points out that land grabbing was characteristic of Moi’s kleptocracy.

Tension between the residents and the government

14The original homeowners felt that the character of the neighbourhood had deteriorated. This is because the densification in the area led to a strain on the services and amenities. Even though the roads in the area were in good condition, they were characterized by traffic congestion during peak hours in the morning and evening when most residents were going to and from their workplaces. The traffic congestion was attributed to an increase in the number of vehicles in comparison to the existing road network in the area (Kinyua, 2013). A former resident of the area indicated that in the past it took him eight minutes to get to the city centre from their home in Kileleshwa, but at the time of the interview, it took his parents who still reside there 45 minutes to one hour to get to the city centre. He indicated that the residential area had lost its glory from a leafy suburb with green living fences, lots of trees and a cool environment, and was now transforming into a high-end “Pipeline” (A low-income group tenement at the Eastern part of Nairobi). He added that if given the option to buy a house in Kileleshwa, he would opt to buy it in another location. Minaz Manji, a resident of Kileleshwa, indicated that the once prime neighbourhood was slowly losing its former much-sought-after exclusivity, a fact that he attributed to uncontrolled developments in the neighbourhood that led to the deterioration of roads, sewer bursts and water shortages. “Kileleshwa is not what it used to be a few years ago; we have not had water for a while now. Some of the roads are in a deplorable state, leading to long hours of traffic jams” (Okande, 2015).

15The residents blamed the infrastructural challenges on the high-density developments. In 2012, Pinewood Management Trustees, a residents’ association indicated that the residents of Riverside Drive were receiving water three days a week and had to contend with power shortages as a result of the increasing population. Further, the residents were constantly experiencing heavy traffic before the rehabilitation of the road in 2013 because roads had not been expanded to cater for the increasing population (Michira, 2012). Hon. Peter Mwathi raised the issue at the Kenya National Assembly, indicating that there was increased traffic congestion following densification in the area (Kenya National Assembly, 2009). The rate of densification in Kileleshwa necessitated road infrastructure to accommodate the increasing population in the area, with the government implementing the belated construction of the Nairobi western ring roads to ease traffic congestion, open up the area and connect it to other neighbourhoods like Hurlingham, Westlands and Kilimani. Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in collaboration with the Ministry of Roads and the Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) implemented the project funded by the Government of Japan through a Grant of Ksh. 2.54 Billion. The 8.4-kilometre project, implemented between 2011-2013, connects several roads in the western part of the city. This diversified traffic flow away from the main highways and reduced congestion in the Central Business District. The belated government response shows that the developers seem to have outpaced the National and city governments in terms of the provision of essential services in the area.

Tension between the residents and the developers

16The transformation of Kileleshwa created tensions between the residents of Kileleshwa, developers and government actors. The issue of contention was the scale of developments that investors were putting up. The more the number of storeys that developers constructed, and the more they maximized on the plot coverage, the higher the profits they made. The original homeowners were opposed to high-rise developments beyond the allowable four floors. A former lecturer from the University of Nairobi who participated in the re-zoning of the area from single dwelling units to apartments of up to four storeys indicated that the process was led by the university and the then City Council of Nairobi (CCN) with no consultation of the residents of Kileleshwa. As a result, there were some court cases with the residents contesting the number of levels apartments could be constructed. One such litigation was in 2005 when residents of riverside in Kileleshwa opposed an appeal for the construction of an eight-storey building in the vicinity of their neighbourhood in a tribunal appeal at the high court between Phenon Limited vs National Environment Management Authority & Riverside Gardens Resident’s Association. The residents were aggrieved that the City Council of Nairobi (Now Nairobi City County) had approved an apartment that was beyond the required four floors and argued that the apartment would negatively affect the environment.

17Developers seeking to undertake developments that do not conform to the conditions registered against their properties are required by the Physical Planning Act of 1996 to undertake a ‘change of use’ which must be processed in consultation with the public. The developer is required to publish the intended change of use in the newspaper to allow for comments from the public. The change of use has often been abused with developers circumventing the required public participation process and getting the approval illegally. There have been past claims of ‘hidden’ notices that residents and stakeholders discover when the change of user has been already approved. The Riverside Gardens Resident’s Association complained that the particular plan was not accompanied by a change of use application as required by the Physical Planning Act of 1996.

18In the high court tribunal case between Phenon Limited vs National Environment Management Authority & Riverside Gardens Resident’s Association, the then City Council of Nairobi in its testimony agreed that it erred in approving an apartment of seven floors beyond the allowable four floors. Loopholes in the approval process showed irregularity in that the building plan had been forwarded to the Town Planning Committee by a Councillor as opposed to being forwarded by the technical officers, which was not procedural. Further, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) admitted that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report approving the construction of the nine-storey apartment in Kileleshwa erred in that it was granted without prior consultation with lead agencies and consideration of applicable Nairobi City Council’s zoning regulations.

19The lack of adherence to zoning regulations was acknowledged by the Nairobi Integrated Urban Development Master Plan (NIUPLAN) which noted that the actual regulation of the zoning regulations seemed to be more ad-hoc than the adopted scheme. The mapping regulations indicating the regulations were planned for public reference but were not realized. “Thus the zoning itself lacks discipline and strength to control the day to day development activities appropriately” (Nairobi City County, 2014). Due to the weaknesses in the implementation of the zoning ordinance, this issue was a source of disagreement between the original residents of the area and the developers. The residents were opposed to high-rise developments beyond the allowable floors.

Illustration 5 - Upcoming High Rise Apartment juxtaposed to a Maisonette

Illustration 5 - Upcoming High Rise Apartment juxtaposed to a Maisonette

Source: Field Survey

20Stephen Mutoro, the chief executive at the Kenya Alliance of Resident Association was of the opinion that resident associations could do little to resist redevelopment of prime estates like Kileleshwa, attributing the associations’ helplessness to insensitivity and underhand dealings at City Hall – who grant the final approval on any construction activity. “It is unlikely that a residents’ association alone could stop the redevelopment of an estate, City Council has the overall responsibility to preserve these neighbourhoods” (Michira, 2012). Developers who circumvented the zoning guidelines to build apartments beyond the allowable four-level story buildings also fuelled the densification of the area. Those residents who are not happy with the current high-rise buildings are opting to leave Kileleshwa and move to low-density residential areas.

Tension between the middle-income and upper-income groups

21The socio-spatial transformation of Kileleshwa has led to a class tension between the upper and middle-income groups in Kileleshwa. The residents of the area feel that the densification has an impact on the provision of infrastructure and services. They also felt that it had led to the loss of the area’s allure, exclusivity and tranquillity. The owners of low-rise bungalows and maisonettes have to contend with little or no privacy or, sadly, being forced to move out further from the city. Stephen Mutoro, the chief executive at the Kenya Alliance of Resident Association indicated that the original homeowners had been forced to relocate to other neighbourhoods, and the only options was to sell their property or redevelop them. “Residents have been pushed to either shape up or ship out. Their privacy has been compromised by these new developments which have in turn stretched infrastructure in the areas to the limit,” (Michira, 2012). The original owners have to not only endure the discomfort during the construction of new apartments (see illustrations 6 and 7), but also get overshadowed by the high-rise apartments. The trends in real estate development in the area were that of apartments extending up to 15 floors (see illustration 5).

Illustration 6 - Construction of Cresent Apartment with maisonettes in the Background

Illustration 6 - Construction of Cresent Apartment with maisonettes in the Background


Illustration 7 - Construction of Signature Apartments with maisonettes at the Background

Illustration 7 - Construction of Signature Apartments with maisonettes at the Background

Source: URL​

  • 2 Kahura D., 2018. East of Uhuru Highway: Inside Nairobi’s Most Iconic (And Much-Maligned) Neighbourh (...)

22Property analyst Martin Dias indicated that high-end clients preferred much more tranquil areas, with less concentration of high-density apartments and were thus moving out of Kileleshwa to low-density areas such as Lower Kabete, Spring Valley, Nyari, and Runda (Okande, 2015). On the other hand, the displacement of rich people out of Kileleshwa is a sign of a growing middle-class that wants to assert itself within the spatial landscape of Nairobi. They feel it is their right to live in every part of the city and want a share of the comfort and elegance of the best the city has to offer. Thus, the middle-class is seeking to purchase or rent out apartments in what were previously exclusive neighbourhoods. “The gentrification of Kileleshwa and Kilimani occasioned by the new money of the nouveaux riches and the recently minted millennial millionaires”2. The construction of the studio and one-bedroom apartments in Kileleshwa has additionally opened up the neighbourhood to segments of the young professional middle-income groups who are either single or with young families. Investors are also converting the units to furnished apartments and B&B (bed-and-breakfast) facilities. Soila a resident of the area pointed out that “houses in Kileleshwa were initially cool, not as tall and the place was not crowded. But now, even people living in these blocks of apartments can hardly be trusted to be upright residents” (Okinda, 2020).

23Stoll (2018) indicates that there has been a growth in the young professional category of the middle-class in the City of Nairobi attracted by the freedom away from the extended family and aspiring to succeed just like their peers. He adds that these young professionals are ready to spend and have a flashy lifestyle and ready to experiment with what the city has to offer. Biko (2011) & Mark (2016) describe the character of the young middle-class Nairobian man as one who lives beyond their means; wants to fit into the crowd; is a spendthrift; desires a good life in the city; drives expensive cars; goes to expensive clubs and restaurants; and portrays an image of one who has made it in life. “They are never doing as they want to make you believe... life for them is image” (Biko, 2011). This group of young professionals at times crash with the upper class who are not comfortable with their dressing, frivolity or sexuality. The older richer residents some of whom are retired workers who have lived in the area for a long time prefer to leave the ‘noisy’ and crowded neighbourhood to other tranquil locations in proximity to the City of Nairobi. The movement of the middle-income in the area portrays their aspirations to live their urban dream and their social mobility. (Okinda, 2015) points out that “a running joke has it that the upwardly mobile Nairobian, starts off in Eastlands estates like Umoja, works his way to Buruburu or Langata Road and on to Kileleshwa on his way up.” A 23-year-old online content creator and influencer who claims to earn between Ksh. 800,000 to Ksh. 1. 5 million per month from YouTube gave her followers a tour of her newly acquired two-bedroom house in Kileleshwa, showing them the amenities that were available in the house including larger spaces, security features, swimming pool, modern kitchen, expensive marble finishes and balcony with exquisite views. She previously rented a house located at a distance from Nairobi near Murang’a that was much smaller, indicating that she liked its proximity to the city centre given the nature of her work.

24The resultant effect is that the rich original owners have to give in and accept the realities of the social-spatial transformation or move out to other neighbourhoods as indicated above. Soila a resident of the area indicated that she moved into the area seven years ago, attracted by its exclusivity, serenity, security and proximity to the city of Nairobi, but with the densification of the area, there was congestion and the area had lost its allure. “With new high-rise apartments on a rapid rise, she says, the neighbouring towering homes not only feel overwhelming, but also breach the privacy of low-rise home dwellers. Someone in the higher floors of the tall apartments can see whatever happens in the next-door compound which has a maisonette or bungalow” (see illustration 5). She indicated that she was considering moving to the outskirts of the City (Okinda, 2020). The study also reveals that the original occupants were ready to defend the exclusivity of their neighbourhood but were unable to due to weaknesses in urban governance that the developers took advantage of to circumvent zoning regulations. It portrays a growing assertiveness among the growing middle class who are out to have their presence felt in the urban landscape. Ng’ang’a a real estate agent pointed out that “these areas might have lost their shine as exclusive half-acre neighbourhoods but they now accommodate more rich cosmopolitan Kenyans.,” a phenomenon that he indicated was being experienced even in other parts of the City and driving the original owners to the outskirts of the City (Okinda, 2020).

25This rich category of landlords who are moving out of Kileleshwa fit into Neubert's (2019) clusters of Nairobi residents' socio-economic groups namely: “stable upper cluster” or the “political and economic top elite.” These are the residents that had settled into the area having acquired these residences from the government or developefrs. The category could also fit within the “upper class” as per African Development Bank definitions of different income groups in Kenya. Neubert’s categorisation goes beyond the income classification to include aspects like social networks, asset base of residents, entitlements, and their social obligations. This process is driven by their search for more conducive neighbourhoods that offer the serenity which they feel has been lost due to densification. Given the high land value in the area, they are able to sell their homes at high prices and buy homes in other suburbs. There could also be instances of property owners attracted by the offers given by the rich developers on their property given the high property values in the area.

Conclusion: Losers and beneficiaries in Kileleshwa densification

26The densification of Kileleshwa is driven by investors and seems to have outpaced the rate at which national and regional governments were able to intervene in terms of zoning regulation and provision of services. The National government and the Nairobi City County were a step behind the development process in Kileleshwa, making belated responses regarding infrastructure interventions and zoning of the area. This led to disagreement between the residents and the government on the policy interventions affecting their neighbourhood. This last phase portrays a middle-class community that wants a share of the best that the city has to offer, creating social tensions with the original affluent property owners. A section of the middle and upper class have been forced to move out of the area to other suburbs because of the loss of the character of the residential areas as a green leafy and tranquil neighbourhood.

27The densification in Kileleshwa has led to both positive and negative outcomes. On the positive side, it led to an increased housing provision, and employment opportunities for casuals and domestic workers. It also led to increased investments in the area, high property values and real estate development. The biggest beneficiaries of the densification exercise are the property developers who are taking advantage of the property market boom to make huge profits and the landowners who are selling their land at exorbitant prices. The transformation of the area also benefitted corrupt government officials who were involved in the flawed transfer of the houses and corrupt officials at the then Nairobi City Council who irregularly approved the construction of apartments that did not conform to the zoning guidelines. Nonetheless, the densification of the area emerges as a sustainable urban planning model that encourages compact urban growth at the core of the city as a measure of containing urban sprawl. The densification can eventually aid in addressing issues of carrying capacity, optimum land utilization, vulnerability to climate change, and inclusiveness in urban housing. It is also a source of revenue to the Nairobi City County in terms of land rates, building approval fees and licencing of business enterprises. The losers are the individuals who have been forced to move to other neighbourhoods. The densification has also led to a strain on the provision of essential services such as transportation, sewer, water and energy provision.

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1 The middle class in Nairobi, as per the classification by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (2023), is categorized based on their expenditure. Individuals or households spending below Ksh. 46,355 as of February 2016 are placed in the Nairobi Lower Income Group, constituting 70.89 per cent of all households in Nairobi. Those with monthly expenditures ranging from Ksh. 46,356 to Ksh. 184,394 are designated as the Nairobi Middle Income Group, comprising 25.58 per cent of all households in Nairobi. Finally, households spending over Ksh. 184,395 or more per month are categorized as the Nairobi Upper Income Group, representing 3.53 per cent of all households in Nairobi. [1 United States Dollar equalled 162.63 Kenyan Shilling as of 24 January 2024]

2 Kahura D., 2018. East of Uhuru Highway: Inside Nairobi’s Most Iconic (And Much-Maligned) Neighbourhoods. The Elephant - Explaining Society to the People [En ligne]., April 26, 2018. URL:

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Table des illustrations

Titre Illustration 1 - Kileleshwa ward in Dagoretti North sub-county
Crédits Source: fieldwork.
Fichier image/jpeg, 250k
Titre Illustration 2 - 1948 Master Plan of a Colonial Capital (
Crédits Source: Wanjiru-Mwita & Giraut, 2020.
Fichier image/jpeg, 305k
Titre Illustration 3 - Vasudev Apartment, Kilelelshwa
Crédits Source: Field Survey
Fichier image/jpeg, 378k
Titre Illustration 4 - A single-dwelling bungalow on a half-acre plot representing the old order
Crédits Source, fieldwork
Fichier image/jpeg, 236k
Titre Illustration 5 - Upcoming High Rise Apartment juxtaposed to a Maisonette
Crédits Source: Field Survey
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,0M
Titre Illustration 6 - Construction of Cresent Apartment with maisonettes in the Background
Crédits Source:URL​
Fichier image/jpeg, 599k
Titre Illustration 7 - Construction of Signature Apartments with maisonettes at the Background
Crédits Source: URL​
Fichier image/jpeg, 429k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Jackson Kago, Catherine Gateri et Owiti A K’Akumu, « A Growing Middle Class and Real Estate Development: Social change and urban densification in Kileleshwa (Nairobi)  »EchoGéo [En ligne], 67 | 2024, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2024, consulté le 24 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jackson Kago

Jackson Kago,, is a Lecturer, Kenyatta University. He recently published:
- Kago J., 2024. Application of Google Street View Images in Identifying Mobility Patterns in Small and Intermediate Towns (Kiambu County, Kenya). Sources. Materials & Fieldwork in African Studies [Online], n° 7. URL: - DOI:
- Bartke S., Forster T., Githiri G., Jering A., Kago J., Schlimmer S., Sietchiping R., 2021. The UN-Habitat Urban-Rural Linkages Guiding Principles: Assessment of the Adoptability to Topical Land Management Challenges in Germany, Kenya and Tanzania. In Ginzky H., et al. (ed.), International Yearbook of Soil Law and Policy 2019. Springer Nature Switzerland AG, p. 369-398. URL: – DOI:
- Kago J., Loose S., Sietchiping R., 2019. Implementing the new urban agenda: urban and territorial integration approaches in support of urban food systems. International Yearbook of Soil Law and Policy 2018, 271-293.

Catherine Gateri

Catherine Gateri,, is a Lecturer, Kenyatta University. She recently published:
- Hoefsloot, F. I., & Gateri, C. (2024). Contestation, negotiation, and experimentation: The liminality of land administration platforms in Kenya. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 0(0).
- Gateri, Catherine and K’Akumu Owiti Abiero (2023) “Highway engineering and land use change in peri-urban Nairobi: Assessing inclusive development outcomes for host communities in the Northern Bypass corridor”. Local Economy: The Journal of Local Economy Policy Unit.
- Owiti A. K’Akumu and Catherine W. Gateri (2022)”Evaluation of the Nairobi-Thika Road Improvement Project in the Context of Inclusive Development_ Journal of Asian and African Studies”

Owiti A K’Akumu

Owiti A K’Akumu,, is Associate Professor, University of Nairobi. He recently published:
- K’Akumu, O.A. (2024), "Centennium of collegiate real estate education: a prospection on “the search for a discipline” in the American school of business", Journal of European Real Estate Research, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print.
- Nguah, E., & K’Akumu, O. (2024). Strategies for Streamlined Urban Development: A Case Study of Land Use Succession in Upper Hill, Nairobi. Journal of Contemporary Urban Affairs, 8(1), 1–15.
- K’Akumu, O. A., & Gateri, C. W. (2023). Evaluation of the Nairobi-Thika Road Improvement Project in the Context of Inclusive Development. Journal of Asian and African Studies, 58(7), 1325-1348.

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