From human waste to community space

Jacob Kushner
On an overcast morning in Nairobi, commuter buses drive down a crumbling road into Kibera, a densely packed slum. A sign at the bus station reads “public toilets,” but the doors are locked.

It’s estimated that Kibera has just one toilet for every 2,500 of its approximately 250,000 residents. Without toilets to relieve themselves, people “use any means, whether it’s a [plastic] bag or a can,” explained Fred Amuok, Community Liaison for a Kenyan rights-based organization called Umande Trust. Most do so under cover of darkness, then simply toss the waste aside.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.5 million people die every year from diarrhea, often the result of poor sanitation. There’s also a financial cost: studies show that Kenya loses US$324 million each year in missed work hours due to sickness brought on by poor sanitation. According to the sanitation company Sanergy, four million tonnes of fecal sludge escape into Kenya’s waterways and fields every year.

Nairobi’s municipal government has been unable to ease Kibera’s sanitation crisis. Amuok walked past a new bathroom built by the local government, only to find that it was also locked. “The government created the structures, but there was no management system in place,” he explained.

Only recently did the authorities even begin putting in sewer lines. It’s a slow process that could take years, if it’s ever completed at all.

Umande Trust isn’t waiting. The organization has come up with an innovative approach to providing affordable toilets for Kibera’s residents and turning human waste into cooking fuel. In 2007, it inaugurated the Katwekera Tosha BioCentre, a three-story, round concrete building. The first floor has a dozen toilets and showers that people pay 5 shillings ($0.05) each to use. The second floor has a small kitchen where people pay 10 shillings to cook food.

“Down here we have the bio-digester,” Amuok said, pointing beneath the building. “All the human waste goes in there.” Without oxygen, bacteria found naturally in poop thrive, creating methane and carbon dioxide in a mixture known as biogas, which fuels the stove two floors above.

Some 1,000 people use the toilets each day, and the center employs two women to collect fees and keep the place clean. One is Winnie Achieng, a 31-year-old single mother. Each day she keeps a ledger of the money she collects, along with the expenses—namely toilet paper, soap and running water. The proceeds are deposited in the bank and will later be divided among the members of a local cooperative that invested to help build and maintain the center.

Tosha is one of 64 BioCentres Umande has built across Kenya, using grant money from organizations such as Oxfam, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and USAID. Even Kenya’s government has started buying in, funding the construction of 20 centers.

These concrete towers aren’t mere bathrooms. They are public spaces where people come to watch soccer matches, hold meetings, study for school, lift weights or cook lunch. On an afternoon in March, a pot of beans boiled on the stove in the kitchen. The woman preparing it would return in a couple of hours to make githeri—a typical Kenyan mix of beans and maize.

Cooking with gas is uncommon in Kibera because it’s costly. Instead, most residents use charcoal, which is made by chopping down trees and carbonizing the wood in a process that emits C02. “We are encouraging people not to use charcoal, because by doing that we destroy the environment,” said Amuok.

But not everyone is fond of cooking in a building that also serves as a bathroom. So Umande is working on ways to build kitchens adjacent to the buildings, one of several modifications that should make the BioCentres even more sustainable and replicable.

Umande is piloting ways to put the gas into thick bags that people could buy and use for cooking at home. “But the bag is huge and the houses are so small it becomes cumbersome,” said Amuok. Now they are trying to figure out how to compress the gas into canisters.

Another challenge is what to do with the liquid and solid waste that accumulates after the gas is produced. Umande is experimenting with ways to convert the waste into fertilizer for farmers.

To be sure, Umande’s model won’t work everywhere. To collect enough human waste to continuously produce the gas takes at least 300 customers a day, which could be difficult in rural areas. What’s more, the gas side of the business has yet to generate much money—Umande can’t afford the equipment necessary to measure how much they’re producing, making it hard to determine how much to charge for it.

Still, the model is catching the eye of private and public donors alike. One U.K.-based NGO, Practical Action, is adapting it in rural Sri Lanka, using animal rather than human waste.

Looking ahead, Umande hopes to let toilet users pay without cash. Already, customers can use their cellphones and send money via the popular mobile payment service M-PESA. But M-PESA charges fees, so Umande has been testing other options including debit cards and monthly access cards. Going cashless helps prevent stealing or corruption, and improves security for Umande employees and users.

Because no independent, scientific studies have been done, it’s hard to know how effective Umande’s approach is toward improving the health of users over the long run. But 10 years since opening shop in Africa’s largest slum, Umande’s BioCentres remain functional, profitable, and above all, used. Across Kenya, tens of thousands of people frequent their toilets each day.

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