Enhancing Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) services in protection of vulnerable households in Kenya during COVID-19 Pandemic

We used interactive radio and SMS, targeting informal settlements, to improve WASH services.

WASH services context in urban areas in Kenya

The urban population in Kenya is on the rise with severe implications on provision of water and hygiene services in cities that are already experiencing water challenges as a result of pollution, infrastructure and water availability to meet the high and rising demand.

According to the World Bank Group report, “Kenya Urbanization Review,” more than 12 million Kenyans reside in urban settlements. The report projects that the numbers will triple to 40 million by 2050.

A walk in the slums paints a picture of squalid living conditions, a situation that has been exacerbated by overcrowding, lack of quality social amenities, poor planning and poor infrastructure. One would hardly miss to run into women and children making long queues to fetch the precious commodity. Carts transporting jerry cans of water would be all over. Middle class estates are not spared of this shortage either. Water bowsers have now become commonplace.

Photo by the Department of Engineering, Cambridge University

Impact of WASH services during COVID-19

The World Health Organisation’s recommendations on the management of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that provision of key resources like water, sanitation and hygiene services must be prioritised by duty bearers. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the underbelly of underinvestment in the WASH over the decades.  According to the World Health Organization, handwashing with soap for at least 20 seconds is one of the key weapons in fighting the deadly virus.

Despite high standards of hygiene being a prerequisite in the fight against COVID-19, the jury is still out on whether millions of citizens in the low income settlements in major cities in Kenya (Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu), have adequate  access  to safe drinking water, not to mention water for washing hands.  

Our intervention

Combination of interactive radio and 1-to-1 SMS conversations 

Oxfam-Global Kenya engaged Africa’s Voices Foundation (AVF) to support the implementation of the WASH project dubbed Covid19: protection of vulnerable households in informal settlements through assistance of water and hygiene Promotion. The project was designed to contribute to Oxfam’s public health messaging to promote positive behaviours as well as address stigma and misinformation in response to COVID-19 prevention. To do so,  AVF deployed its radio and a mobile technology tool designed to enable radio dialogues and collect and analyse feedback from listeners via SMS relating to their perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes during the COVID-19  outbreak.

The Oxfam’s project aimed to reach 73,820 households in low income areas , specifically informal settlements and high density urban settlements in Nairobi (Kayole-soweto, Kibagare, Kibera,Kawangware), Kisumu informal settlements (Obunga, Nyalenda, Manyatta) and urban settlements in Mombasa (Old-town, Kibokoni) to address WASH challenges and cushion them against the impact of COVID-19 pandemic.

In the months of November and December 2020, AVF leveraged its partnership with regional radio stations (Radio Kaya, Ghetto Radio and Radio Nam Lolwe), to broadcast  interactive radio shows in the country’s major cities targeting low income urban settlements on WASH matters. Partners were carefully selected to respond to the programming needs and ability to reach the target audience. 

The radio stations hosted expert guests who helped to drive conversations on the importance of citizens following the right WASH and COVID-19 prevention practices while also demystifying rumours and addressing stigma by providing correct information about the pandemic. Listeners were encouraged to participate ( by asking questions or responding to the radio question) by sending their SMS responses to a toll-free number. 

In addition, AVF’s unique 1-to-1 SMS platform called “Katikati” came in handy in carrying out in-depth conversations with individual listeners by using a tailored response to respond to questions and rumours, misinformation and stigma.

The project engagement in numbers 

Key lessons from the project 

  1. Participants see WASH from a water perspective where it is largely unavailable. Hence, it’s important to put water at the center of these conversations. 
  2. Hygienic practices such as hand washing are highly influenced by availability of resources including water and soap. This has a significant influence on citizens’ behavior. 
  3. There’s a strong link between a citizens’ economic situation and their ability to actualise desirable WASH practices. Because many citizens in these settings struggle financially, prioritizing WASH is a huge challenge due to the need for resources for water and soap. COVID-19 has largely exacerbated this. 
  4. Citizens expect the duty holders to avail the necessary WASH services in their locality but also see a critical role of the community especially in protecting those resources. 
  5. An overwhelming majority (90%) found the conversations useful, suggesting using interactive radio remains a valid channel to provide information on Covid-19 and enable discussions on ways to improve WASH services and practices and wellbeing in the community.
  6. At the time this risk communication and citizen consultation was done, there were minimal instances of misinformation. We only received 12 messages in week 1 that contained misinformation and none in weeks 2 or 3. 

The project recommendations are that:

  1. WASH community-based activities should include provision of clean water in the urban low income areas.
  2. Behaviour change should focus on the structural barriers more than attitudinal. WASH based activities should also include ensuring the citizens have access to supporting material including soap as well as other necessary needs in order to practise right behaviors. 
  3. To improve WASH in low income areas, efforts to improve economic conditions should be prioritized. Citizens can only prioritise WASH needs if they have the necessary resources. 
  4. The duty holders, more specifically the local authorities, should ensure that low income households in informal urban settlements have functioning WASH services as a matter of right and priority. 
  5. There is a need for an inclusive and collective approach in provision of WASH services in low income urban areas, including government and local authorities, non governmental players and communities themselves to ensure both provision and protection of WASH services. 


Ignorance in most homes about the hand washing activities with little information from the community health workers, I believe some homes are neglected.

Woman, 30, Nyalenda.
Speaking on what can be done to ensure that community members adheres to the COVID-19 prevention measures.

Citizens should be educated on the importance of conserving the environment and maintaining cleanliness every time.

Man, 25, Bondeni.
Speaking on what can be done to improve hygiene in the community.