Lagos Informal Settlements as Learning Centers for Innovation, Resilience, and Inclusion: Community-Led Solutions to Citywide Challenges [ARTICLE]

This article is was published on 27 January 2016 by hbs Nigeria, Nsibidi Institute Lagos, and Fabulous Urban Zurich as part of the Open City Lagos publication. The full publication is available for download here:

Lagos Informal Settlements as Learning Centers for Innovation, Resilience, and Inclusion: Community-Led Solutions to Citywide Challenges

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By Megan Chapman & Andrew Maki,
Co-Directors, Justice & Empowerment Initiatives – Nigeria

A Lagos of extremes - exclusive estates v. inclusive settlements

On the other end, informal settlements rely largely on collective but nevertheless private mechanisms to provide for the basics of life that are not provided by public authorities – collectivized1 security (called “vigilante”, but functioning like a neighborhood watch), collectivized access to public water, public or shared toilets, collectivized access to public electricity, collectivized maintenance of access ways such as roads (where they exist) or footbridges. Lagos offers this as an “open source” dream: different lives coexist under the supervision of local leadership structures – landlord associations, community development associations (CDAs), and at-times diverse traditional leadership structures representing coexisting ethnic constituencies within a settlement – with a certain degree of poverty as the common denominator.

So much in common and yet so much at odds; this is one of the mysteries of Lagos. While estate life tends to be better documented and projected to the outside world through literature and Nollywood, the collective mechanisms that make informal settlements work are less understood though much more broadly felt. That over 60% of Lagosians live in informal settlements testifies to the effectiveness of these mechanisms at providing real solutions to basic human needs at a price the average city dweller can afford. These undocumented secrets are the keys to the “open city.”

Collectivizing basic/ essential services

In well functioning informal settlements, the answer lies in collectivized access. Collectivized access cuts out the “overheads” – the costs relating to the infrastructure of service delivery, billing, and payment collection – that increase basic service costs beyond the affordability point for poor households.


Getting water into informal settlements neither relies on the most expensive, fully privatized, and most reliable option – the private borehole and private pump – nor does it rely on the physical infrastructure of a public utility reaching every household. Instead, informal settlements generally rely on a few access points that lessen the costs of bringing water into the settlement. 

In some communities that are close enough to the “grid,” this is a single plastic pipe running from the water main. In communities close to the Lagoon or on islands off CMS or Apapa, this is by way of wooden boats loaded with water tanks filled from boreholes to the bottom of the Lagoon in Makoko. In both cases, the water reaches informal settlements through a single entry point and fills fixed water vendor tanks from which individual residents buy water by the bucket. Not as convenient as water piped into the home, but accessible and affordable.


Getting electricity into many informal settlements uses a similar mechanism, but can run the undue risks of overloading or electrical sparks in unsafe connections. Recently, one community off Costain in Ebute-Metta has partnered with Eko Electricity Distribution Company Plc (EKEDP) to innovate a win-win solution to formal delivery problems by collectivizing electricity payments through community-level bulk metering.

Due to settlement density and lack of infrastructure, EKEDP’s predecessor had difficulties metering and billing individual households in the settlement. The community overcame this hurdle by organizing a community association that took up the challenge of household-level billing and collection in exchange for EKEDP installing designated transformers with a bulk meter, but at lower residential rates rather than the usual higher bulk metering rates that apply in estates. This “win-win” solution – implemented through a negotiated memorandum of understanding between the distribution company and the community association – has facilitated safe electricity provision to all residents at more affordable rates, while simplifying and reducing collection costs for EKEDP.


Informal settlements also have to deal with crime and insecurity but cannot afford walls and gates and private security; nor do they always have the political capital to demand proactive patrolling from the Nigerian Police Force. In response to a spate of rapes and other violent crimes occurring in some informal settlements around Otto in Ebute-Metta – an area where the police often failed to respond, especially at night – the community came together to form a “vigilante” force that patrolled the community during the night. This night patrol is responsible for arresting suspects, turning them over to the police, and following up with the appropriate authorities to ensure diligent investigation and prosecution. To make this possible, the community supported the salaries and uniforms for the vigilantes through monthly household levy of just N200 (~$1). These vigilantes were drawn from youths in the community and indeed were sometimes reformed “bad boys” who could use their own local knowledge to help to curb crime in the community, epitomizing the Yoruba proverb, “It is the thief who can trace the footsteps of another thief on the rock.” In fact, the model has worked so well that its successes are being replicated in neighboring communities.


Sanitation is serious problem in Lagos where public sewage systems appear fictional and the private “soak-away” (septic system) – where it can be afforded – is the norm. In informal settlements, the terrain – which is often swampy or sandy – and lack of road infrastructure make this option practically impossible.

Consequently, many households in informal settlements do not have access to a private or even a shared toilet. Where public toilets exist, they are often run as a business with a per-use charge that can at times be cost prohibitive for the poor.

To solve this accessibility/affordability problem and simultaneously protect community health, one informal settlement located on an island off Apapa has communalized rather than privatizing the public toilet. Households make a one-time contribution to construct and subsequent, as-needed, contributions to maintain a public toilet that is free and thus encouraged for residents to use.

Use-based levies for non-essential community development projects

Many Lagosians cannot imagine living in a home without road access. In Lagos informal settlements, however, roads – like certain other community development efforts – are actually a luxury, needed only for those whose businesses require or bene t from access by motor vehicles. Additionally, some residents in informal settlements live and conduct their business in the settlement, for instance selling provisions or cooking food for sale. This group may not need to leave on a daily basis. Thus, when Government fails to provide or maintain roads, the cost of doing so may not be easily imposed on all residents. A use-based model is more t for purpose, allowing the costs of such community development to be imposed on users, including non-residents.

In an informal settlement off Costain in Ebute- Metta, the one motorable road in the community was originally built by the local government, but maintenance has been a problem ever since. The road was built with a high-walled cement gutter on each side, poorly adapted to the water flow in the community. The gutter actually traps water on the road, which is severely eroded and chronically flooded, often nearly impassable for pedestrians. Consequently, the community has to do regular road maintenance throughout every rainy season. To nance such maintenance, the community has established an informal tollbooth that operates on an as-needed basis. Every vehicle –mainly okada and keke marwa – plying the road pays a daily rate until the community can afford to bring a few tippers full of crushed cement block to ll and repair the road.

In another informal settlement, this time in Ajah, the only existing road was developed by residents into a motorable road through the settlement down to the edge of the Lagos Lagoon where there was a major local sand- digging business. The road mainly exists for the purpose of this business, which attracts many big trucks every day. The large, heavily loaded trucks cause constant wear-and-tear on the road. Because of this and the regularity of the business, the per-trip/truck toll operates year-round.

A final example is a pedestrian-only access road leading into one informal settlement in Lekki Phase 1. Because of nearby construction outside the community that is not well suited to the water flow pattern in the area, the only access to the community is chronically flooded with knee- deep water during rainy season. The community youths cooperated to buy bags of sand and build a block-long path through the pooled waters. To cover costs, youths at either end of the path collect a modest toll from pedestrians. After paying, the pedestrian takes a chip as proof of payment and returns it to the youths at the other end. This makeshift solution offers a bene t to those who can or want to pay, while the free alternative – walking through water – remains.

Multi-ethnic inclusion through parallel traditional governance structures

If wealth is the key to accessing exclusive high-end estates, then informal settlements are the opposite in terms of posing little barrier to entry and being open to anyone who shares the common bond of poverty. Yet, as indicated above, most informal settlements rely heavily upon high degrees of cooperation and internal governance to provide the basic essentials of life where no external governance system will do so. While many informal settlements were traditionally settled by a single tribe and may continue to have a dominant ethnic group, many have also opened up over the decades to urban migrants from various tribes, nationalities and religions, especially as informal settlements have been displaced and scattered to new informal settlements.

This being the reality, some of the large and diverse informal settlements illustrate how community cooperation around development and internal governance can work based on flexible and respectful coexistence of parallel traditional leadership structures.

One example of this it is the previously mentioned deal negotiated between the Ebute-Metta settlement and EKEDP, the electricity distribution company. A typical visitor to this community climbs a commercial motorcycle or okada and indicates his destination as “Ilaje,” referring to the community’s origins as a traditionally Ilaje people’s fishing settlement. However, its demography has diversified somewhat in the last few decades. Now, the community has Ilaje leaders who have descended from the original settlers, working alongside a set of traditional leaders who represent the large Ndigbo population in the settlement. In recognition of this, the two sets of tribes were carefully and deliberately represented in negotiations with EKEDP as well as in the community welfare association that runs the electricity arrangement. These same structures have to cooperate to counterbalance and check the power of two Yoruba Baales appointed by the White-Cap Chieftaincy family asserting itself in the area.

The community in Lekki Phase 1 has a name meaning “village in the bush” in Egun, given by its founders Egun fishermen migrating from Badagry generations ago. Much of the community still reflects the traditions of an Egun fishing settlement, however it has with time opened itself to many different ethnic backgrounds. When facing threats, the community demonstrates resilience by embracing such diversity instead of turning insular and feeding fear and panic. At a big community rally held to find solutions to a nearby dredging and sand-filling project that threatened the community’s fishermen, various ethnic and religious leadership structures came out in force. Alongside the Baale and council of elders representing the majority Egun populations, time was taken to recognize the leaders of the Ndigbo and Arewa populations within the community, hear solidarity songs in the various languages, as well as prayers from the leaders of the various churches in the community as well as the community’s Chief Imam.


Such examples of inter-ethnic/religious coexistence and partnership to find solutions to community needs and to face down threats or challenges underscores the unique way that informal settlements hold the keys to an inclusive and resilient future Lagos. Held together by poverty and the pursuit of basic needs, as well as the near constant struggle against various powerful forces, Lagos informal settlements survive and thrive by (1) finding solutions to the basic needs of human existence in a way that is affordable to the poorest of the poor, (2) endeavoring to provide important-but- less-essential community development through use-based mechanisms, and (3) organizing tolerant and adaptive coexistence of different peoples through parallel traditional and social/ religious structures rather than the insistence on dominance by a single group.

As the government in Lagos moves toward formalization of the rampant informality that has long been the norm across the city, it is critical to remember that, in informality, are the solutions to entrenched problems the city struggles of the city – affordable housing, access to basic services, security, and genuine inclusion and participation of the urban poor and minorities. At times, however, the Lagos “megacity” dream seems premised on principles of formalization that point to the total victory of the libertarian dream of the exclusive estate. For Lagos to continue to be an inclusive and resilient city, even as it incrementally formalizes, urban planners and policymakers would do well to look at and learn from the strategies employed in informal settlements to find lasting solutions. The above are just a few examples; informal settlements have many more to share.