Napenda choo sounds the death knell for ‘flying toilets’ in slums

Wednesday October 15 2014

Kibagare biocentre is an innovative solution to

Kibagare biocentre is an innovative solution to the pervasive sanitation problems in the slums. PHOTO | JOHN MBARIA  

By JOHN MBARIA

Many dreams, it is said, are dreamed on the toilet. Now, for some residents of informal settlements in Nairobi, the toilet is making their dreams come true.

“Napenda choo” (I love the toilet), reads one of the posters in a toilet in Mukuru-Kaiyaba slum. But the toilets described in the poster are not the ordinary 3ft-by-6ft tin-and-wattle “long-drop” latrines. They are multi-storey complexes, where businesses find a home amid state-of-the-art technology. These are places you go for meetings, to transfer money, take a hot shower, type your thesis, watch World Cup, cook your food or read a Robert Ludlum thriller.

They are also innovative solutions to the pervasive sanitation problems in the slums of Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya that have drawn the attention of and financial support from, among other agencies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Aptly called bio-sanitation centres (or biocentres), the complexes are one-stop shops for a host of services and businesses: Money transfer, offices, residential rooms, halls for hire, libraries, computer labs, kitchens (where clients pay a fee to cook), and bio-digesters that convert human waste into biogas and chemical fertiliser.

The complexes are found in Mukuru-Kaiyaba, in Kibagare area off the Nairobi-Nakuru road, in Kibera, Korogocho, Mathare and other areas. The use of ICT to ensure transparency and accountability in the collection of daily revenues at these facilities stands out.
Although it is yet to be widely embraced by clients, the Kopokopo cashless payment system is nevertheless picking up. Every time a client visits the facilities, they are required to carry a card (called Beba pay card) loaded with cash via Mpesa.

They then hand over the card to the caretaker who flips it against a smart phone. This results in an instant deduction of the amount of cash the client is required to pay to use the toilet or bathroom. Then automatically, messages are sent to the client’s phone indicating that the cash has been deducted and another to the group’s phone stating that the deducted cash has been deposited in its bank account.

According to group officials, the system has not only improved revenue collection in the biocentres, it has also improved transparency and record keeping besides reducing the costs and inconveniences of travelling to a bank and queuing to deposit their daily or weekly collections.

This innovative approach has received support from the Gates Foundation under the auspices of the Biocentres Innovations. It relies on mobile technology in order to track cash transactions and to automatically transfer it to the bank. The Finland embassy has also supported the construction of one of the biocentres.

The facilities have given hope to groups of people who have been on the receiving end of violent evictions, official neglect, indifference and apathy.

“We have planned to purchase our own residential plot in December,” said Roise Muthoni Kariuki, a middle-aged woman whose group manages the Kibagare Haki Zetu Biocentre.

Ms Kariuki has reason to be hopeful. Between December 22, 2013 and January 26, 2014, the group collected Ksh119,550 ($1,374) while its expenses amounted to Ksh39,120 ($450). The balance, Ksh80,480 ($925), is recorded as the profit that was deposited in the group’s account. With this kind of cash, the group has planned to purchase plots and build homes for all members, moving them away from the slum.

Much of this has been achieved through efforts of the Umande Trust, an organisation that has been dealing with sanitation and water problems in the slums of Nairobi and Kisumu. With offices in Kibera, Umande is a rights-based organisation that is partially involved in campaigning for poor people’s right to water and sanitation as well as offering tangible low-cost solutions to such challenges.

“We believe that when modest resources are strategically invested to support communities, this can enable them to have reliable and affordable water and sanitation services” said Josiah Omotto, the chief executive of Umande Trust.

Omotto said Umande had joined hands with the Athi Water Services Board, Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company, Equity Bank, Diamond Trust Bank, former Nairobi City Council, donors and self-help groups in the slums. Umande’s staff has been involved in designing and the construction of more than 60 such biocentres in Kibera, Mukuru, Mathare, Kibagare and Korogocho areas of Nairobi.

The facilities are now managed by organised groups of slum residents with Umande monitoring progress and helping whenever the groups encounter technical difficulties.

The facilities have not only been giving hundreds of thousands of slum residents a much cleaner and environmentally friendlier sanitation option than the notorious “flying toilets,” they have also been catering for the economic needs of the communities while bringing different ethnic groups together to solve common problems.

For example, the residents are now able to join the Tumaini ya Jamii insurance cover that has premiums ranging from Ksh450 ($5.2) to Ksh4,200 ($48.2) and compensations between Ksh10,000 ($115) and Ksh100,000 ($1,150). The insurance product was developed by Jubilee Insurance and Citadel and caters for funeral expenses, permanent disability, domestic fire and damage to people’s possessions.

Common man’s loud ‘No!’

The biocentre solution could be interpreted as a common-man’s loud “No!” to the pursuit, by the Kenya government, of a market approach to the provision of municipal services and officialdom’s lack of concern for the plight of the financially weaker members of society.

This is largely to blame for one of the most pervasive challenges facing urban management in Africa — the exclusion of millions of poor people from land, municipal services and the benefits of urban planning, growth and development.

“Indeed, 60 per cent of Nairobi residents live in informal settlements” said Omotto. 

“To get around this systematic neglect, the poor have devised survival methods that more often than not, bring them into conflict with authorities and private land owners… (with) the latter accusing them of illegally squatting on land that does not belong to them and consequently using different methods — including violence — to evict them.

“For too long a time, the people inhabiting these areas were forced to rely on water vendors who not only sold the water at high prices but were also quite unreliable.” 

Omotto explained that most slum residents had either to cope with the few filthy pit latrines available or to resort to “flying toilets” — essentially meaning defecating in a plastic bag and flinging it away over your wall — and the subsequent health risks that had become synonymous with life in the informal settlements.

In many of the slums, the toilets are no longer flying. The residents now have a better, healthier option in the form of biocentres; with each meant to cater for residents living within a radius of 60 metres. The residents are grateful that the flying toilets phenomenon reduced tremendously.

“Most parents would not enrol their children in my school” said Eveline Kathere, a mother of two who runs the Little Angels Pre-Unit School located a few metres away from the KUUM Biocentre in Mukuru-Kaiyaba slum.

Ms Kathere said that before the biocentre was put up, “flying toilets” would land outside the classrooms, making parents reluctant to register their children there. When the facility was put up, the school population rose from 50 to 102. 

Boiling bath water using gas from the bio-digester is the thing that Gilbert Kinyua is most happy about. The 28-year casual labourer who lives in Mukuru-Kaiyaba says that he is merely required to pay Ksh10 (US cents 11) to warm bathwater while earlier, he would buy water for Ksh5 (US cents 5.5) and use Ksh20 (US cents 22)-worth of paraffin to warm it. He says that warming water in the facility is far cheaper and faster than using charcoal or kerosene stove.

However, some of the residents are unhappy that the facilities are closed after 10pm.

“It would greatly help people with stomach upsets if those manning biocentres kept them open 24 hours,” says Jeremiah Achinga, a 27 year-old resident of Kaiyaba area.

Not every group

However, biocentres are not for every group. For groups to benefit, they must have shown a desire and effort to better their lot. For example, they must be registered with the Social Services Department, must have opened accounts with different banks.

Most importantly, they must secure the land on which the biocentres are now built and provide labour for excavating the site on which the bio-digesters are constructed.

Before they are given the mandate to run the facilities, the group’s officials are taken through a training in leadership, proposal writing, biocentre technology and business management skills as well as how to run the facilities transparently and in an accountable manner and how to promote hygiene in the settlements.

“The training enabled us to budget and manage the project and to prepare financial reports,” said Ms Kariuki.