February 21, 2013
NAIROBI, KENYA – Sludge fills the rough and dusty road leading to the Mukuru neighborhood, a combination of eight villages located east of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.
In one area of the road, a big crater holds a combination of waste and 3-day-old rainwater – signs of improper drainage systems. Pedestrians walk along narrow edges on both sides of the road, while motorists have no choice but to drive through the water.
Thousands of small shacks made of rusty iron sheets squeeze closely together. Smelly water from households flows through the narrow streets, which are congested with people. The water drains into small local rivers.
But in one of the villages, Mukuru kwa Ruben, bright blue toilets stand conspicuously in the streets. The toilets are made of concrete slabs with metal doors emblazoned with their name, “Fresh Life,” and “CHOO,” the word for “toilet” in Swahili.
The toilets don’t use running water, but there is no stench. Each toilet has two shallow bowls, one each for solid and liquid waste. The waste drains through holes in the bowls to separate containers below.
Lucia Kambua, a mother of two and casual worker at a nearby industrial area, has lived in Mukuru kwa Ruben for 11 years. She says that the Fresh Life Toilets opened in her neighborhood during August 2012.
Before then, she and her children didn’t use toilets to relieve themselves.
“The only toilet that was close to my house was about half a kilometer away,” Kambua says. “It was very dirty.”
It also cost 5 shillings (6 cents) each for her and her children to use.
So instead, she used to go to the bathroom in the trenches outside her house.
“I used to wait until dusk to relieve myself,” she says. “As for the children, they would use plastic bags, and we would throw the waste into the trenches.”
But the new Fresh Life Toilets are closer, cheaper and cleaner than other bathrooms in the slum, Kambua says. Adults pay 4 shillings (4 cents) to use the toilets, while children pay 2 shillings (2 cents).
They are open from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m. and have lights. Kambua says she is happy that she can make her last visit just before she goes to bed.
Kambua says her neighborhood is clean from waste since the Fresh Life Toilets opened. People no longer defecate in the streets because the new toilets are affordable, accessible and clean.
A lack of sanitation poses health issues for residents. But a pilot program is changing that in one of the communities, where a company is selling toilets to improve access to sanitation. Buying and running these toilets also offers business opportunities to entrepreneurs living in the slum. In addition, the company collects the waste and processes it into organic fertilizer to sell to local farmers. It plans to expand the program across Kenya.
About 60 percent of Nairobi’s population lives in similar conditions, according to Mukuru Promotion Centre, a nongovernmental organization that runs several schools, a rehabilitation center for children who live on the streets, a clinic and a community-based health care program in Mukuru. The 600,000 people who live here lack access to basic sanitation facilities, such as toilets.
The lack of proper waste disposal causes health issues for civilians.
Stanley Kariuki, a health coordinator at Mukuru Promotion Centre says that poor drainage and a lack of sanitation make diarrhea one of the major health ailments of Mukuru residents.
“We treat 15 to 20 cases every day,” he says.
To target the sanitation problems, a local company called Sanergy is constructing and selling the Fresh Life Toilets. It has distributed 160 toilets in Mukuru kwa Ruben, which serve about 8,000 people a day, according to the company’s website.
Five young graduates of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States founded Sanergy in July 2011. They are from countries all over the world.
David Auerbach, an American and one of the founders of Sanergy, says he first came to Kenya three years ago to understand how people live in low-income communities and how to solve problems facing residents.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the power of entrepreneurship, building an entity from down up and providing sustainable solutions to problems facing people,” he says.
In addition to improving sanitary conditions, the Fresh Life Toilets also provide economic opportunities to local residents.
Mary Kioko runs a small grocery shop and lives in a small room behind it. A block of four bright blue toilets stand adjacent to her shop.
“I used to run a food kiosk here, but I closed it to start the toilet business because it is more profitable,” says Kioko, standing at the entrance to her block of toilets.
She says she makes 500 shillings ($5.70) every day from the four toilets.
“We advise our customers to use the toilets properly, as they could smell if urine is mixed with poop,” Kioko says. “The customers are also required to sprinkle some sawdust into the toilet bowl to keep off bad smell.”
Auerbach says Sanergy makes its profits through toilets sales. A toilet costs 25,000 shillings ($285) to construct, and entrepreneurs buy them for 50,000 shillings ($570) each. The company assembles the toilets at its workshop nearby.
Sanergy partners with microfinance organizations to give credit to those who can’t raise the amount. The entrepreneurs first make a down payment of 14,000 shillings ($160) before paying the rest in negotiated installments.
Sanergy workers collect the waste from the toilets for free every morning with plastic containers. The only thing operators have to do is buy sawdust, soap and water so that customers can keep the toilets clean and wash their hands.
Owners also must maintain high standards of cleanliness. Sanergy’s field officers check and assess the toilets’ conditions. If toilets don’t meet the expected level of cleanliness, the company threatens to withdraw them.
Auerbach says it’s easy to manage the toilets because community members feel as if they own them, so they take better care of them.
The program also generates organic fertilizer to sell to local farmers.
Sanergy workers mix the solid and liquid waste that they collect from the toilets at the company’s processing site. They then seal it in rectangular, wooden boxes the size of pickup trucks using polyethylene paper. Auerbach says the waste decomposes naturally for six months into fertilizer without chemicals.
“The waste in the boxes is about 3,000 tons,” Auerbach says.
Behind the boxes sits a mountain of processed fertilizer. The company packages it into smaller containers to sell to farmers.
Auerbach says local farmers love the fertilizer because it is organic.
Brian Kwena, an environmental officer with the National Environment Management Authority, which licenses fertilizer producers, including Sanergy, says any type of waste can serve as fertilizer. The use of human waste poses no more harm than other fertilizers.
“It all depends on how it is processed,” he says. “In fact, human waste is considered the best, as it has all the nutrients.”
Auerbach says Sanergy sells the fertilizer at 48 shillings per kilogram (50 cents).
“With this pilot project, we’ve demonstrated that there is value in waste,” Auerbach says, digging into the heap of fertilizer with his bare hands.
The initiative in Mukuru kwa Ruben is a pilot program for Sanergy to test how it works before rolling it out countrywide.
Despite the thousands of people who use Fresh Life Toilets every day, Auerbach says this is just a drop in the ocean considering Mukuru’s large population. He says the company plans to distribute toilets in other villages in Mukuru before moving on to other parts of Nairobi and the country.
“We are planning to expand our services from Mukuru kwa Ruben village to other villages such as Viwandani and Mukuru kwa Njenga,” Auerbach says.