Our Work in Nairobi

In April 2022, the Government of Kenya launched the Digital Economy Blueprint. This Blueprint seeks to provide a conceptual framework adopted by Kenya in its quest towards the realization of a successful and sustainable digital economy in line with Kenya’s Vision 2030 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The Blueprint defines the digital economy as “the entirety of sectors that operate using digitally-enabled communications and networks leveraging internet, mobile and other technologies'' irrespective of industry. The Blueprint proposed five pillars as foundations for the growth of a digital economy. The pillars are: Digital Government; Digital Business; Infrastructure; Innovation-Driven Entrepreneurship and Digital Skills and Values.

For the growth and expansion of a digital economy, it is evident that the Government has invested in critical internet infrastructure. Therefore, the question begs: how do we measure Kenya's level of internet infrastructure development? The Network Readiness Index (NRI) is one of the leading global indices on the application and impact of information and communication technology (ICT) in economies around the world. In its latest version of 2022 the NRI Report maps the network-based readiness landscape of 131 economies based on their performances in four different pillars: Technology, People, Governance, and Impact.

Globally, Kenya ranked at position 77 out of the 131 economies included in the NRI 2022.  Its main strength relates to Technology and Governance. The greatest scope for improvement, meanwhile, concerns Impact. Regarding sub-pillars, Kenya's strongest showings relate to Future Technologies, Governments and Trust, among others. In the group of lower-middle-income countries, Kenya is ranked 7th. In terms of pillar performance, it has a score higher than the income group average in each of the four pillars.

At the sub-pillar level, it outperforms lower-middle-income countries in nine of the twelve sub-pillars: Access, Content, Future Technologies, Governments, Trust, Regulation, Inclusion, Economy and SDG Contribution. Kenya is ranked 3rd within Africa. It outperforms its region in each of the four pillars. With regard to sub-pillars, it has a higher score than the regional average in each of the twelve sub-pillars.

With these statistics, technological advancement in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, is inherently attributed to the level of internet infrastructure. For instance, government services have been automated and are accessible through the citizen portal which has enhanced service delivery to the citizens irrespective of their location. As technology advances human relations and socialization is also affected in both positive and negative ways and therefore reshaping the traditionally existent social contract among its dwellers.

Looking at Edgelands research project “Digital Urban Security and Surveillance Technology”, it places Nairobi City as a city of interest with a robust topology and demographic to be explored. It allows us to reflect on the development of sustainable digital economies and on the role of governments in providing technological infrastructure.

Nairobi's Historical and Political Background

The need for surveillance goes as far back as 1963 and way before Kenya’s independence. This was a legal requirement to monitor and control the social movement of Kenyans under British colonial rule but most importantly, to monitor the labor force.

Fast forward to 1998 when the US Embassy in Kenya is hit by a terrorist attack and thereafter plagued by recurrent attacks in more public places in Nairobi. In a bid to ramp up counterterrorism efforts, security is beefed up along the Somali-Kenya border with proposals to build a wall, increase surveillance using cameras and increase border patrol.  The porous border is claimed to be an access route for the militant group, Al-Shabaab and other affiliate terrorist groups, striking Nairobi’s high-traffic areas and other parts of Kenya.

While we see the rise of identity politics and concerns about human rights, efforts to weed out persons who may have snuck into the country are followed especially by major crackdowns within the Somali communities. Subsequently, news about the disappearances of young men and women said to be radicalized by these militia groups are on the rise and broadly attributed to the dire socioeconomic situation in the capital.

Often, we see lists of crime hotspots in Nairobi shared on various messaging and social media platforms and some of the novel crimes, with intelligence shared by the Kenya Police Service urging residents to be vigilant. The fast-growing population, changing demographics, growing middle class, the rising cost of living, inflation, high unemployment rates and a looming global recession after the Covid-19 pandemic have also hit this fast-growing economic hub and we see these vulnerabilities exploited by criminals.

While many hope the county government could work on curbing the recent cases of muggings and robberies, private entities have continually worked on upscaling security surveillance with the acquisition of CCTV cameras, biometric systems, facial recognition software and other equipment.   In this research project, we explore these initiatives to glance a critical view at the new forms of social contract being developed in Nairobi.

Our Research Interests

1. Crime

According to the National Research Crime Centre, the Crime rate in Nairobi has been on the rise in the last 2 years. Another report titled Criminal Activity Trends- Nairobi also indicates that crime has been on the rise. This is attributed to several factors, one being the global pandemic, the recently concluded national elections and the change of guard in the government leadership that reshuffled the security set-up.The post Covid effects, such as loss of source of income for citizens working in the informal sector and lack of employment, are some of the major effects of the pandemic.

Apart from that, Kenya is just from conducting its national elections. This period comes with unprecedented challenges such as electoral related insecurities in different parts of the country. The campaign period which tends to start off earlier than the gazetted time has always resulted in a rise of criminal activities especially in Nairobi.

The steady rise in armed and opportunist robberies in residential and commercial areas across Nairobi is an indication of a gap in our security administration system and has placed the National Police Service and the government in the spotlight. The incidents mainly target pedestrians, traders and the motorists which has increasingly featured the use of motorcycles and bodaboda taxis.

The Nairobi Central Business District (CBD) has been on the news for rampant muggings, despite frequent operations conducted by the police surveillance team based in the city. It is worth noting that, in November 2022, police officers arrested at least 200 motorcycle taxi operators linked to criminal activities across the city.

Moreover, despite the high levels of private security man-guarding, use of CCTV cameras and vehicle patrol teams across the city, domestic burglaries and muggings remain a serious security concern in Nairobi. Affluent areas of the city such as Kilimani and Karen as well as low income settlements in Eastlands are equally affected by criminal activities.

It is worrying that the crimes are committed in broad daylight where criminals are targeting individuals of all ages, business premises, M-pesa operators and residential homes.

2. Digital Security & Surveillance Technology

In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of surveillance technologies around the world and Kenya has not been an exception to this technological advancement. Conventionally, security was achieved through the use of defensive applications—fences, locks, bolts and other complex mechanical devices—used to secure individuals and their possessions and to protect buildings and other spaces, often by private individuals and organizations as well as local authorities.

Surveillant applications involve the use of technologies to observe people and places. While in the past, surveillance was targeted at specific individuals, today surveillance targets everyone. Kenya has experienced an increased deployment of surveillance technologies such as CCTVs, biometric technology and car tracking application systems by both public and private actors. As indicated above, this is attributed to the increase in criminal activities within the city. To counter terrorist attacks and criminal activities, the government of Kenya partnered with the private sector to deploy surveillance technologies across the city. Through this partnership, 1,800 CCTV cameras were deployed on major highways and in major cities in Kenya such as Nairobi and Mombasa.

The project delivered and installed a wireless infrastructure known as the “Integrated Control and Communication Center” (IC3). This system is operated at the Kenya National Police Headquarters. The system is monitored by the Officers and can report any criminal activity in real time and further dispatch first responders in case of an emergency. The surveillance systems have a number of capabilities such as automated number plate recognition and facial recognition, meaning that it is all but impossible to live everyday lives without leaving digital footprints (traces we leave ourselves) and shadows (traces captured about us).

Contemporary surveillance extends beyond the capacity of the human eye to include infra-red night vision, listening devices, chemical sensors and the like to monitor financial transactions, social networks, and the movement of people through transport networks. These technologies straddle the criminal justice system and the private sphere, being used by the police but also business and local authorities.

Having the surveillance technology been heightened in both public and private spaces as discussed above, the implications on human activity and human relations tend to be both positive and negative. A number of citizens expressed that they felt that they can no longer exercise their right to privacy as the same has been infiltrated by technology either deployed by public or private big tech corporations. On the contrary, others felt safe while running their errands within the city due to the presence of CCTV cameras in public spaces.

3. The New Social Contract

Globalization and the rise of information technology has had an effect on the social contract especially in Nairobi city compared to other cities in Kenya. Consequently, the time is nigh to renew the social contract between governments and their people and within societies, so as to rebuild trust and embrace a comprehensive vision of human rights.

Consequently, as part of our research objectives we seek to understand how digitization and use of surveillance technology has impacted citizens' relations and their government. The term “social contract” is often understood to have its origins in Western or European philosophy. However, related concepts reflecting the reciprocal obligations between people, households, communities and their leaders exist across regions and religious traditions, including in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Middle East. The concept of technology and its impact on human behavior and socialization cannot be ignored in this context.

Administratively, the social contract originates at the subnational and national levels, and its exact architecture is unquestionably up to each society to determine. However, any social contract also has a global dimension. All societies face and are affected by global pressures, while solidarity within countries provides the foundation for our cooperation internationally.

The United Nations Common Agenda Report indicates that the Internet has altered our societies as profoundly as the printing press did, requiring a deep reimagining of the ethics and mindsets with which we approach knowledge, communication and cohesion. Along with the potential for more accessible information and rapid communication and consultation, the digital age, particularly social media, has also heightened fragmentation and “echo chambers”.


In order to conduct objective research on the proliferation of digital surveillance within private and public establishments in Nairobi, we have utilized a Mixed Methods approach that employs observations from people who reside and work in the county.

This societal research consists of interviews with key informants in security enforcement to identify new security threats and interventions. We are also engaging the surveillance systems’ experts to establish the adequate security measures being taken up in the ecosystem and how these have affected the social contract in Nairobi County.

We are also carrying out desk research reviewing policy briefs on the uptick of digital surveillance systems factoring into the technical solutions alongside the societal factors, the introduction of data privacy legislations entering into force recently and compliance of the same.

Due to the general lack of public information and varying reporting estimates, some relevant data collected from authoritative sources may be considerably higher or lower compared to the actual figures and realities on the ground.

Program's Overview

As part of the Nairobi Program, an initial research phase is being undertaken to establish the state of Surveillance in Nairobi and the effects, if any, on Nairobi’s social contract. This research phase shall be guided by the use of the mixed methodology as the team shall be in conversation with various key stakeholders across the city and in various intersecting industries and shall also be involved in desk research. This initial phase shall be complemented by an Art Exhibition by MATZA Edgelands on the 10th to 26th of February 2023, at Wajukuu Arts Centre within Mukuru Lunga Lunga, an informal settlement within Nairobi. Nine artists shall participate in an art residency culminating in an exhibition.

At the end of the initial research phase, the Edgelands Institute will publish a Diagnostic Report enumerating its findings to the public. The second and final research phase shall begin soon thereafter with an eight-week research sprint. This research sprint shall be undertaken by a group of research fellows selected to further investigate a crystallized research question identified after the initial research sprint. This particular phase shall be complemented by a series of roundtables and workshops where, various key stakeholders shall engage in discussions on surveillance and the social contract in Nairobi, through various social and professional lenses.

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