Nairobi is drowning in its own waste

Katy Fentress, Nairobi Community ManagerKaty Fentress, Nairobi Community Manager

Ridding Nairobi of the mountains of trash that threaten to engulf the city has been a hot topic for the last couple of decades.

The issues to contend with range from what to do with the heaps of bags that are suffocating the city and its rivers, and how to close down the Dandora dump site that should have been decommissioned decades ago, to how we can create an environment that encourages recycling and provides jobs for low-income people.

The reality, however, is that although the topic remains hot and the issues ever more pressing, nobody ever seems to actually do anything about it.

Since the 1990s, many a government task force and international organization has drawn up documents that propose ways of tackling the problem. Unfortunately, though, the pages and pages of suggestions, prescribed solutions, and stated targets contained in these documents have systematically failed to produce anything concrete.

The most recent plan — the Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan (ISWMP) — was drawn up in 2010 as part of a collaboration between the Nairobi City Council (NCC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The ISWMP contains a detailed roadmap for action with point-by-point specifications describing what will be done to reduce the vast volumes of waste generated daily throughout the city.

The ISWMP document identifies the Dandora dump site as one of Nairobi's biggest health hazards. It confirms that although the closure of the dump site is absolutely long overdue, it still continues to receive about a third of Nairobi's waste each day. The other two-thirds of the city's waste remain essentially unaccounted for.

The ISWMP report refers to the town of Ruai as the intended alternative location for the official Nairobi dump site. Nevertheless, no progress has been made on that front, as the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) says the site's proximity to Nairobi's main airport may cause increased numbers of birds to populate the area, thus causing problems for commercial air traffic. So far, no further locations have been proposed and the situation appears to be as badly stalled as ever.

The three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle

There is virtually no knowledge in circulation to help Nairobi residents make sensible decisions or to encourage them to reduce, reuse, and recycle, and no incentives to persuade people to separate their waste at a household level.

"There is almost no government role in waste management here in Nairobi," says Patrick Odipo, 25, who runs a garbage collection company in Dandora. "It's down to private companies like ours to serve the needs of almost all the households."

Odipo's company picks up unseparated rubbish from private residences and then drives it to Dandora. Once there, the garbage is separated and the recyclables transported to middlemen, who will then sell them on. This process increases operating times considerably and means they use more fuel for transportation than is necessary.

Polythene bags are at the lowest rung on the ladder of recyclable plastic; beyond weaving them into carrier bags — an initiative launched by various NGOs, but not something that can be considered a sustainable solution to the problem — there is nothing anyone can do with them, except perhaps to burn the occasional trash pile when it gets too large and foul-smelling.

According to Odipo, the ideal solution would be to provide everyone with three different containers: one into which people could put their hard plastic, metal containers, and glass; one into which they could put their organic waste; and one for everything else. This would also reduce the need for bags, as the collectors could simply empty the containers directly into their designated sections. However, Odipo insists that companies like his are too cash-strapped to modify their trucks for this purpose or to provide households with the extra bins. Furthermore, he continues, it would be unrealistic to expect households to pay any extra cash for the new service; in his view, people need to be sensitized about the environment or to receive some concrete incentives to separate their waste.

Odipo's solution appears to be a practical one, and the ISWMP does indeed mention "restructuring the collection of source-separated waste streams" as one of its main priorities. Nevertheless, with the year 2013 set as the deadline by which people should have been sensitized about the importance of recycling, there is no evidence of any awareness campaign going on in the city center, the residential areas, or the city's slums.

A lethargic City Council and its unhelpful tenders

When it comes to collecting and disposing of solid waste, one of the biggest problems has been that the Nairobi City Council (NCC) subcontracts refuse collection to private companies because it does not have the capacity to collect all of the waste itself. A detailed audit conducted by the Kenyan government in 2007 describes how most of the private subcontractors were using only half the number of vehicles they were supposed to use, and that they were not following the safety guidelines with respect to their vehicles and their work force.

The 2007 audit also uncovered what appeared to be dubious ties between the NCC and the companies that were subcontracted to do the work. Instead of focusing on companies that were already providing the service privately to Nairobi residents (giving them incentives and subsidies to increase their productivity), the council awarded the tenders to "firms lacking adequate capacity in finance, management, and equipment ... small operators with old equipment and unmotivated workers lacking technical knowledge on solid waste management."

Optimism about the future

The ISWMP clearly talks about liaising with community groups that are already working in recycling. On this front, there appears to have been increased mobilization over the last few months, with a series of forums organized by Concern International (Ireland), CESVI (Italy) and a Dandora-based advocacy group called Kutoka Network. The forums aimed to discuss potential solutions to minimizing the health and environmental impact of the Dandora municipal dump site and were financed by the office of the Prime Minister.

Representatives from the solid waste pickers communities, different local CBOs, ministries, private sector leaders, and civil society all attended the forums, which focused on four main questions:

  • The communities of Korogocho and Dandora are the ones that have contributed least to the problem, yet they have suffered the most from the environmental fallout. What can be done for them?
  • Given the historical lack of interest on the part of the NCC in protecting poor communities and safeguarding their interests, the Korogocho and Dandora communities are the least likely to benefit from the decommissioning process. How can their interests be protected?
  • How can all decisions related to the ISWMP be made more participatory?
  • How can the information on Dandora and the ISWMP be made easily available to everyone?

On the 9th of July this year, the results of the forums will be published and presented at a conference. Whether these will mark a significant turning point for Nairobi's biggest blight remains to be seen.


Is there any latest report available on the quantum of solid waste being generated in Nairobi and its composition. How much of it is being collected and recycled?

Hi Asif, if you refer to the report that I linked above you will find alot of interesting information regarding how waste is being collected and recycled and what is being done to improve the situation.

Katy Fentress
URB.IM - Nairobi Community Manager

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