As the spread of COVID-19 accelerates in Africa, the continent’s urban poor are fighting back

Posted by
Maya Verber
5 August 2020
WaterAid/ Eliza Deacon

Download images

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread in parts of Africa, WaterAid is calling for the voices of the 230 million people living in informal settlements across the continent to be heard, and for the work they are doing to prevent the spread of disease to be recognised, and scaled-up. 

Nearly a third of the world’s urban population live in informal settlements, characterised by overcrowding and a lack of basic services like clean water and decent toilets. However, government strategies to combat the spread of disease often do not consider these conditions and so their recommendations are simply not possible. 

Informal settlements can be highly organised, with local groups providing services, communicating widely and collecting data on residents and facilities, and they are now stepping up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. International charity WaterAid says governments can learn from community-led activities and adapt plans accordingly.

WaterAid, supported by partners such as H&M Foundation, have been working with groups within informal settlement in their work to bring handwashing facilities, clean water and decent toilets to everyone in their community.

Mbaye Mbéguéré, Senior WASH Manager, Urban at WaterAid said:

“Regular handwashing with soap and water is the first line of defence against COVID-19 but in sub-Saharan Africa, 63 per cent of people in urban areas – that’s 258 million people – lack access to decent handwashing facilities. 

“There is often no space for physical distancing in crowded informal settlements, especially for those who need to leave their homes to collect water or use communal toilets. With the informal economy, working from home is unfeasible or unaffordable. Despite this, in many places informal markets have been cleared and people evicted in response to COVID-19, ignoring the rights of the urban poor and the role they play in the rest of the city, and failing to address basics, such as access to water and hygiene. 

“Some of the most inspiring responses to the pandemic we are seeing have been led by residents of informal settlements. They are installing handwashing stations, producing maps and situation reports, and even highlighting isolation areas. Government plans should be adapted for informal settlements and we must learn from, and scale up, these community-led activities, and empower people across African cities to protect themselves from COVID-19.”

In Kamwokya II in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, which is home to more than 6,000 people in less than half a square kilometre of land, Christopher Tumwine leads a community action group called ‘Weyonje’ (clean yourself’), supported by WaterAid and the Kampala Capital City Authority. 

For Chris, clean water, good hygiene and decent toilets are always front of mind. Weyonje goes house to house talking to people about how to use toilets properly and dispose of the waste safely. Worried that advice and programmes aimed to protect the population against COVID-19 are leaving informal settlements behind, they are now also teaching people about the importance of hygiene and handwashing.  

To create long term change, Chris needs the support of government, business and his neighbours, and in recent years, he has spent his time campaigning for a sustainable solution to protect his community’s health, safety and dignity from overflowing sewers, filthy water and disease. 

Chris said:

“Our settlement is densely populated, and houses are near each other. Social distancing is a myth in the slums, it is something designed for people living in affluent places of the city. We have shared toilets, bathrooms and public water taps, and our children always get out of the houses to play with other kids in the neighbourhood. We are just lucky that Coronavirus has not reached the slum.”

Chris believes community groups like Weyonje are crucial to stopping the spread of diseases such as COVID-19 in the area:
“In Kamwokya, we have created a Weyonje WhatsApp group during the lockdown where group members share information on how best we can help the community. This is a good platform that we can use to counter misinformation about COVID-19 that is circulating on social media. Using megaphones, we carry out house to house community education; teaching the community residents that proper and regular handwashing with water and soap is a defence against the spread of coronavirus.”

As many in the community don’t have a water source close to home they create makeshift handwashing stations, filling a plastic bottle with soap and water and tying it to their front door with string, so they can wash their hands before entering their homes.
Across the world there are groups and organisations just like Weyonje, working tirelessly to protect their communities from the spread of illness and convince the public and government alike that clean water and decent toilets must be a priority. In Kenya, for example, Muungano wa Wanavijiji – which means 'united slum dwellers' – are using their knowledge of the country’s informal settlement to help track cases of COVID-19 and communicate government messages about preventing the spread of the disease to those who are the most vulnerable.

In 2019, and before the Covid-19 pandemic started, WaterAid followed Weyonje and its leader Chris to film their work and witness an exciting moment for Kamwokya. Watch the film, supported by H&M Foundation, to see what the team achieved here.  

WaterAid and H&M Foundation are working with communities, governments and partners, to create long lasting change, and bring clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene to communities around the world.


Find out more about Chris, Weyonje and watch the film supported by H&M Foundation here.

Download photos

For more information, please contact:
Maya Verber, Senior Media Officer, [email protected];
Laura Crowley, PR Manager, [email protected];
or call our after-hours press line on +44 (0)7887 521 552;
or email [email protected]

Notes to Editors:

WaterAid & H&M Foundation

H&M Foundation is a non-profit global foundation, privately funded by the Stefan Persson family, founders and main owners of H&M group. Its mission is to drive long lasting, positive change and improve living conditions by investing in people, communities and innovative ideas. Through partnerships with organisations around the globe, H&M Foundation aims to accelerate the progress needed to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.  
WaterAid and H&M Foundation are working together to bring clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene to communities around the world, globally and locally. 


WaterAid is working to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. The international not-for-profit organisation works in 28 countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalised people. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 26.4 million people with clean water and 26.3 million people with decent toilets. For more information, visit, follow @WaterAid or @WaterAidPress on Twitter, or find WaterAid UK on Facebook at

  • 785 million people in the world – one in ten – do not have clean water close to home.[1]
  • 2 billion people in the world – almost one in four – do not have a decent toilet of their own.[2]
  • Around 310,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. That's almost 800 children a day, or one child every two minutes.[3]
  • Every £1 invested in water and toilets returns an average of £4 in increased productivity.[4]
  • Just £15 can provide one person with clean water.[5]

[1] WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG Baselines

[2] WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) Progress on drinking water, sanitation and hygiene: 2017 update and SDG Baselines

[3] Prüss-Ustün et al. (2014) and The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2018)

[4] World Health organization (2012) Global costs and benefits of drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to reach the MDG target and universal coverage