It’s a typical morning in Kibera’s Laini Saba, and as usual, the Community Cooker is already buzzing with activity.
Since 5 am, local women have queued up — each with Sh10 in hand — around this strange and wildly popular contraption.
Some use the cooker’s large ovens to bake cakes and bread. Others have dozens of eggs boiling away in large sufurias, destined for sale in local markets.
Still others wait in line to cook breakfast for their families, or to relish the extravagant luxury of a hot morning shower. Believe it or not, this hotbed activity is powered by the plague of the slum — garbage.
Since 2008, this remarkable device has been burning all manner of trash collected from Kibera’s filthy streets, and converting it into cheap, useful energy for cooking and hygiene.
The brainchild of leading Kenyan architect James Archer, it has proven a godsend to residents scraping by in one of Africa’s most famous slums.
This made-in-Kenya machine has attracted attention from around the world, and, with backing from big businesses and NGOs, is now poised to take the slums of the world by storm.
The Cooker — known in Kiswahili as the Jiko ya Jamii — is located in an alleyway branching off one of Laini Saba’s hilly, snaking paths. Approaching the cooker, you can see its large steel stovetop has eight depressions onto which pots are laid.
Two heavy doors on its sides, meanwhile, open to reveal large ovens. On the premises are also five ablution stalls, where locals can take hot showers for Sh10 — the price of hot water from the cooker’s large tanks.
The cooker is operated by a local community-based organisation called Ushirika wa Usafi, or The Corporate of Cleanliness.
Each week, four groups of residents take turns collecting refuse and bringing it to the cooker, each time providing enough garbage to power the incinerator for two days.
The incinerator burns at over 800 degrees, meaning the cooker can consume nearly anything, from paper and plastic to corncobs and old rags.
The trash is first placed on a series of three racks, where it is sorted and dried before burning. Batteries, rubber and other items that must not be burned are removed, while recyclables like plastic bottles are taken away and sold.
Next to the drying garbage is a small ‘forest’ of sukuma wiki, growing in burlap sacks full of compost. This soil was created from organic materials such as banana peels and maize husks, and now provides free, hearty vegetables for needy locals.
Once dried, the garbage is shovelled down a chute into the cooker’s burn box. After a few minutes, all that remains is some ash and clear, odourless gases rising from the cooker’s smokestack.
Local women praised the cooker for its exceptionally high heat, which they say can cook even the most stubborn dishes — like githeri — in record time.
The sudden availability of this abundant, low-cost heat has spawned a number of small businesses. In addition to mass-production food businesses, ingenious women have also begun using the ovens as kilns to fire clay pots hand-made in Kibera.
“It’s much, much cheaper than using charcoal, and makes the cooking faster too,” says Mary Amwoma as she bakes her cakes.
Since the Community Cooker won a prize at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona in 2008, it has attracted Kenyan and international attention.
Jonathan Warithe, Councillor for Karagita Ward in Naivasha, visited the site and was excited to take the idea to the trash-strewn ghettos in his area.
“It makes a lot of sense,” he says. “People use charcoal, the poor in particular use firewood, so having such a project will mean we can conserve a lot of trees.”
Meanwhile, Julius Njuguna, an executive with a fair-trade flower farm called Naivasha Horticulture, plans to borrow the idea and help disabled people generate income.
“The best way to do it is to establish the jiko at Karagita, where it will be run by the Lake Naivasha Disabled Group,” he says. “They can get income from the rubbish, so we’re going to kill a number of birds with one stone.”
The cooker’s ability to burn some 40 kilogrammes of trash every hour has also prompted interested inquiries from as far away as Comoros, Zambia and Haiti.
These plastic-bag plagued countries, with help from the United Nations Environment Programme, could be the next countries to receive cookers. There is even talk of an airdrop version, which could be parachuted into a disaster zone following an earthquake or flood.
So, why aren’t dozens of community cookers already springing up around Kenya? Mr Archer is still a little nervous about rolling the design out en masse because of the toxic gases produced if garbage is burned at temperatures below 800 degrees.
“If we went off at half-cock and started building things that are not technically efficient, we would be shot down,” says Archer. “We decided that we would not start building more of these until we were comfortable over the 800-degree mark consistently.”
Fortunately, Planning Systems, the architecture firm that built the cooker, is working on a new and improved ‘Mark II’ version. This one will have a more efficient, round cooking surface and other modifications.
The next step is to train a number of local artisans on how to build the cookers so they can spread the open-source technology around the country and beyond. “But they have to be trained to build them responsibly,” clarifies Archer.