On the narrow paths of Mukuru Kwa Njenga’s Sisal Zone village, a man struggles to make his way out of the slum pulling a handcart with him.
He looks neat in a navy blue overall, a pair of gumboots and a nuisance odour mask pulled to his forehead. The hands balancing the cart behind him are covered in gloves.
He doesn’t seem to notice the bystanders and in retrospect, most people are going about their business undeterred, apart from a group of school children playing on the road ahead of him.
As he attempts to weave through them, some hang on the handcart but the carter makes an abrupt stop sending everyone scampering. At this point we catch up with him.
Alex Mirera is a human waste collector at Sisal Zone. This, he says proudly, is what he does for a living. And has done so passionately for almost two years now.
"This is where I get my daily bread. This is what sustains my family of three,” he says.
Mirera is one of many human waste collectors in Mukuru, who are full-time employees drawn from the community by Sanergy, a social enterprise that is providing non-sewered sanitation solutions in Nairobi’s slums.
For a stranger, the cartridges sitting on Mirera’s handcart might pass for water containers. In Mukuru Kwa Njenga, like in many other slums where water supply is a problem, handcarts and plastic jerricans are the common mode of transport for the precious commodity. But Mirera is ferrying something different. Inside these tightly closed barrels, similar to those used to ferry water, is human waste. He is headed to a dislodging point where all the waste collectors in Mukuru Kwa Njenga empty their waste.
One of the places where Mr Mirera passed by to collect human waste from a toilet a few moments ago happens to be Ms Eunice Wanjiru’s rental building.
Ms Wanjiru is a landlady who owns a corrugated iron sheets building. It has 16 rooms and plays host to close to 50 people.
She confided with DN2 that safe sanitation has been a challenge here for as long as she can remember.
“We did not have toilets for a long time. So people would answer the call of nature in the bushes nearby. At night, they would do it in plastic bags and in the cover of darkness toss it outside the building.”
This practice, she says, made the paths impassable and the area stinky. Even more harmful, this kind of lifestyle has been blamed for waterborne diseases such as cholera which, Ms Wanjiku says, broke out at least twice a year.
But you might want to cut the residents here some slack. Much of Mukuru Kwa Njenga like many other slums is not connected to a sewer system.
This is partly because such urban slums mushroom with little planning, if any. It is also partly because every corner and opening is occupied by a building with just a few metres left for access paths.
Ms Edith Karimi, the communications director at Sanergy, who has been working closely with slum dwellers to find a solution for their sanitation woes, told DN2 that the only way out of the sanitation lacuna, in this and indeed many other slums is through innovation.
“Even if you were to start constructing a sewer system now, it would be cumbersome and expensive since you would have to displace and possibly resettle these people,” she offers.
Born out of a thesis project by three graduates of Massachusetts Institute of Technology –MIT (US-based private research university ranked among world’s top universities), who have been in the country implementing it since 2010, Fresh Life toilet, has seen many slum dwellers enjoy what most would take for granted: a toilet. And a clean environment by extension.
LOW COST SANITATION
And this is not your typical toilet. It is an innovative toilet that uses a low-cost sanitation technology dubbed urine diverting dry technology (UDDT).
To put it simply, the toilet is made in such a way that it separates the waste, with urine being collected in a 20-litre jerrican and the solid waste in a plastic barrel, placed below the toilet pan.
Instead of water, users cover their waste with sawdust after use, which also works to eliminate the bad odour associated with toilets.
The toilet also comes with a hand wash container, a mop and bucket for cleaning, a bucket of sawdust and sanitary towels container. Once full, someone will retrieve the barrels and replace them with empty ones, while those containing the waste will be carted away to a dislodging point by waste collectors like Mr Mirera.
Ms Karimi says. “The lack of sanitation has implications on the economy and environment— where about four million tonnes of waste produced yearly is deposited.”
“Things have changed, we have toilets now and cholera is a thing of the past.” Ms Wanjiku says. “Back in 2013, I was attending a community health baraza when two people from Sanergy were given an opportunity to sell the idea of a toilet they called Fresh Life. I liked the idea immediately.”
LEAP OF FAITH
You could say that being a community health volunteer, Ms Wanjiku was bound to jump at the idea, but that she had to take a two-year-long Sh50,000 loan from Sanergy’s partner Kiva to facilitate the toilet installation shows a certain commitment and will power; all that is required to put the sanitation woe behind the 60 per cent of Nairobi residents not covered by the sewer system.
For Ms Wanjiku the benefits from the huge leap of faith she took five years ago have been countless. “My houses are occupied throughout the year. One of the things people consider here has got to be the bathroom and toilet. I am glad mine is clean and odourless and it is emptied daily.”
“For women and girls, access to a clean toilet in the confines of where they live means a lot. It means they don’t have to worry about getting raped at night when trying to access a bush somewhere,” notes Ms Karimi.
Schools in the slum too, have been benefiting. Teachers in schools we visited reported to have noticed an increase in the number of enrolment.
Ruben Baptist School for instance began with three Fresh Life Toilets and recently launched four additional facilities. Teacher Janet, a sanitation and hygiene patron at the school, said, “our student population has grown tremendously to over 200 pupils, which prompted us to expand.”
As the city’s population continue to grow, sanitation experts say, so is the need for more innovative ways of handling the sanitation mess that threaten to choke it.
This little village in the heart of Mukuru Kwa Njenga, is coming out as a perfect example of how to kill two birds with a single stone.
The Fresh Life toilets installed by Sanergy are not only solving the sanitation problem but also providing a source of income to the young people here.
In a dozen slums where the social enterprise operates, there are about 60 waste collectors who enjoy full benefits of employment.
According to Ms Karimi, this group of people abide by a certain code of conduct and operate under strict timelines and a level of professionalism.
In total, she said, the company has employed 250 people directly, a majority of them young people drawn from the community.
They comprise of logistics personnel (or waste collectors), toilet fabricators and customer support personnel whose work is to move around the community and find out whether the toilets are serving residents as well as train users. But there are also some 1263 entrepreneurs who operate in a franchise model.
This group, many of them young people, has bought the toilet and set up commercial loos in the slums, market places like Muthurwa and Gikomba and on busy streets where they charge users a standard rate for use. These toilets, Sanergy says, serve at least 65,000 people daily.
“These entrepreneurs have to sign a contract with us, agreeing to abide by certain hygiene standards. The contract also stipulates our role as an organisation. For instance, we provide timely waste collection services and certain essentials like saw dust, train users and do maintenance,” says Ms Karimi.
While previously waste handlers like Mr Mirera would be treated with contempt in the community, their neat look now has not only restored their dignity in the eyes of the community, but has also made their venture more attractive to other young chaps.
But just where does the waste collected go?
“The moment the logistics team have safely removed the waste from the toilet, it is taken to a processing facility where we treat and convert the waste into organic fertiliser called Evergrow and animal feed, which we sell to over 1,000 farmers. These farmers have recorded increased yields of up to 30 per cent. So it is not just about providing the toilet but really thinking about the whole of the sanitation value chain. Where the waste goes is the biggest problem in Nairobi right now and in cities across Africa,” says Ms Karimi.
Mr Alex Manyasi, Sanergy’s Government Affairs Director told DN2:
“Working with government at all levels to provide alternative safe sanitation services is important and inevitable - it is the only way to reach the underserved urban population. In the wake of Nairobi County's shit flow diagram this year, Nairobi County Water, Sanitation and Energy Director Mario Kainga committed to promote sanitation technologies that ensure safe waste containment, emptying, transportation and treatment. That is working closely with organisations such as Sanergy to promote alternative low cost sanitation technologies (such as UDDT) in areas where a sewerage network system is not available. Other important commitments made included constructing more dislodging points in Nairobi City to facilitate the non-sewer facilities."
Nairobi city chokes in faecal waste
In July this year, water and sanitation (WASH) experts from the private sector and the government came together to unveil a “shit-flow diagram” (SFD), a map that depicts the flow of faecal waste in Nairobi.
The stakeholders included the national government Ministry of Health, Nairobi County, Nairobi Water & Sewerage Company, African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), Water Services Regulatory Board (WASREB), Water Services for the Urban Poor (WSUP), and Sanergy.
The SFD, a tool developed by World Bank and has been tested in over 50 cities, revealed that 66 per cent of faecal waste generated in Nairobi is left untreated, posing serious risks to the environment and public health.
Additionally, only 40 per cent of the residents are connected to the sewer system. So what happens to the 60 percent who lack access to sewers? You may ask.
54 per cent of these residents make use of different forms of non-sewered sanitation options. In particular 30 per cent of waste emanating from these offerings is poorly handled –making this segment of the population, the biggest contributor of unsafely managed faecal waste.
But while the community surrounding Ms Wanjiku has abandoned the old-age practice, findings from SFD still revealed that the remaining 6 per cent of Nairobians who lack access to sewers still practice open defecation (OD). This puts them at the risk of epidemics, it degrades the environment and comes at a huge cost to the economy.
Just to give you a bit of context to the problem, 4.5 billion people in the developing world lack access to safe sanitation.
In Kenya alone, we lose about two per cent of our GDP due to lack of safe sanitation, when people get sick.
Further, poor sanitation in Kenya causes an estimated 17,000 deaths of children under five each year, 90 per cent of which are due to diarrhoeal diseases.