“Taka ni pato”—can (organic) trash be cash in Mukuru Kwa Reuben?
Jackie Waithaka, SDI Kenya’s Communications Officer, reports back on recent discussions with Mukuru residents, and argues that by creating systems and enterprises for collecting and then converting organic waste into compost and non-organic waste into recycled materials, informal settlement communities can themselves work to address their local waste management problems, protect their neighbourhood environment, and, in the longer term, convert slum waste to income and resources.
The word Mukuru means ‘garbage’ in Swahili, and indeed some parts of Mukuru—a huge informal settlement in Nairobi of around 100,000 households—were and are dump sites for industrial and household waste. But despite the name there are high ambitions in Mukuru to one day change that narrative.
A fortnight ago, the Muungano alliance, with Mukuru residents, carried out a solid waste survey in the area of Mukuru that covers the three neighbourhoods of Mombasa, Feed The Children and Gatoto. This area is home to about 7,819 families, and in the ongoing Mukuru SPA planning process is known as ‘Mukuru kwa Reuben segment 1’.
What does your waste weigh?
The survey asked residents how they think about, handle and dispose of their household garbage. Community researchers and their support staff even examined and weighed the rubbish a few sample households were generating.
The survey findings then formed a starting point for discussions at a community meeting in Reuben Centre, Mukuru, where residents gave their views and, together with some of the Mukuru SPA planning team, put their heads together to think about different ways to address a waste challenge that has plagued the settlement for years.
A garbage mountain of an issue
Garbage and what to do with it is one of the most pressing environmental problems facing people living in informal settlements in Nairobi today. As the already enormously dense slum further densifies, the quantity of solid waste Mukuru generates continues to rise tremendously. With a lack of adequate management structures and resources to deal with waste, residents continue to grapple with serious problems, like sanitation risks and blocked drainage channels which contribute to serious flooding, especially after heavy rain.
“Our drainage systems are a mess. Food waste is often dumped into the drains”, complains one Mukuru resident.
“When the heavy winds blow, the garbage from Bins area is usually blown into our village” another says. Others nod in agreement. Bins is a neighbourhood in the Mukuru SPA’s Reuben Segment 2 that is named, with no little irony, after Binscape, a formal waste-collection company operating in Nairobi.
The survey established that about 78 per cent of residents pay for some waste disposal, costing them around Ksh 50–80 a month (US$ 0.50–0.80). Respondents who said they used a garbage collector service chose to do so because they think it is safe, sanitary and affordable.
But “where do these garbage collectors take the waste the collect?”—was a good question posed by one resident, looking straight at a group of youth sitting together in another corner of the meeting room. These youth had helped administer the survey, but many such young people also act as garbage collectors in their communities.
It was clear from the findings that even with the existing collection activities in place, many residents continue to throw away most of their rubbish rather than paying for waste disposal. And that even when waste collectors collect a household’s garbage, there is little evidence to suggest it is then safely disposed of in a designated local dumping area. Compounding the problem, some of these dumping areas have been encroached on by informal dwellings; and conversely, some vacant shacks in the settlement are being used as rubbish dumping points.
Rubbish thinking: Suggestions from the residents meeting
“Taka ni pato (trash is cash)”, Mr Ochola, one of the community residents, says. “Taka ni pato” another resident echoes, and the discussion turns to solutions.
Many entrepreneurs in Kenya today are cutting themselves a niche in dealing with waste materials. Collecting non-organic waste for recycling and organic waste for composting are two options being considered by Mukuru’s residents.
One of the findings from Muungano’s survey was that as much as 72 per cent of the waste generated in the area is organic waste—at an average of 15 kg per household. By this we mean ‘garden’ waste, food waste, and other animal and plant based material. At the meeting, people were interested in potential entrepreneurial opportunities from converting the organic waste Mukuru produces into renewable resources—for example bio gas or compost. Compost can be sold to farmers, and a 50 Kg bag of such organic fertiliser can get 750 Kenyan shillings (US$7.50).
In terms of non-organic garbage, discarded plastic can also be re-used, to create various goods, like termite-proof fencing posts and roof tiles. These are manufactured by heating plastics of all varieties to about 120 degrees Celsius, so that they melt. The liquid plastic is then scooped into moulds. A single fencing post contains 15 kg of recycled plastic waste.
Mukuru’s waste situation continues to be fraught with major hurdles and the primary cause of this problem is a severely inadequate waste management system. About half the survey’s respondents thought there was nothing being done to deal with Mukuru’s solid waste challenge. But the other half said that they know of existing community organizations working toward solutions, and most believed that these are effective in their efforts.
For the Muungano alliance and our efforts in the Mukuru and within the Mukuru SPA, the main hope on the horizon is that sustainable garbage management structures can be put into place—and that these will be driven by an ambitious community leading the charge, recognising and realising available income-generating opportunities, and understanding that change also begins with themselves at the household level.