From waste to renewables, how one organization is working to transform life in Nairobi's slums

Hilary Nicole Zainab Ervin, Nairobi Community Manager
Nairobi, 1 April 2015

It is estimated that the average household will spend around 9,200Ksh (USD $100) a month on charcoal for cooking — a price that often spikes during the rainy season and is a direct contributor to widespread deforestation and linked to increased global warming. However, for many residents of Nairobi's slum communities, charcoal remains one of the only accessible and relatively affordable sources of energy.

In a prior article, "Gendering development planning to address persistent quality of life challenges," we discussed the water and sanitation (WASH) challenges associated with living in Nairobi's slum communities. As we highlighted there, the complex security issues faced by many women and girls to access pit latrines or flush toilets are very real and contribute to the high utilization of "flying toilets" by many. The practice of open defecation also poses environmental and health sanitation concerns, and contributes significantly to the high rate of premature deaths estimated to cost Kenya over US$244 million a year.

As the saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure. Across the slums of Nairobi, an organization called Umande Trust has been demonstrating how the right mix of science, entrepreneurship, and community education can transform human waste from a hazard to an asset.

Founded in 2007, the Umande Trust currently operates 72 biogas centers across Kenya — 44 of them in Nairobi's informal settlements — that provide improved sanitation options to tenants of informal settlements, income generating opportunities to cooperative self-help organizations, and, most importantly, an affordable and highly sustainable source of fuel for cooking to residents. Each biogas center has an underground digester that uses bacteria to digest the human waste, which is then filtered and converted into acid. It takes roughly one month for the methane gas to convert to liquid form; it is then piped out to communal kitchens and sold to individual residents.

Tackling perceptions proved to be one of the organization's largest challenges: assumptions that food cooked with the methane gas would be unhygienic, smelly, and foul-tasting required targeted education and information campaigns within the communities where the centers where installed. With targeted social marketing, the Umande Trust has been able to empower local self-help groups not only to address the immediate challenges of widespread lack of water and sanitation access for many of Nairobi's slum residents, but also to provide a clean and renewable source of energy that will not degrade.

The average human produces anywhere from 100 to 250 grams of feces on a given day, meaning that the roughly four million impoverished households living in Nairobi's informal communities collectively produce upwards of 400 metric tons of excrement daily. By transforming this waste into a useable energy source that is highly accessible, costing only 390Ksh a month (USD $4) per household, the Umande Trust is supporting local communities in addressing a complex public works issue in ways that empower and employ residents directly in the process.

Photo: United Nations

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