Wrapping up the Toilet Tour in Nairobi, Kenya

Co-written by Anthony Kilbride and Sasha Kramer

For the complete photo set check out SOIL’s Flickr page

Last stop on the toilet tour Nairobi, Kenya

Our last stop on the toilet tour was Nairobi Kenya where we would spend 4 days visiting some well known urban sanitation projects that we have been fascinated with for some time.  SOIL’s primary work in Haiti focuses on sanitation solutions for densely populated impoverished neighborhoods, one of the most challenging situations facing humanity today.  Each year millions of people flood into cities searching for life, or ‘chache lavi’ as they say in Haiti. In places like Haiti, where there is little to no existing sanitation infrastructure it is impossible to provide safe and dignified sanitation for all of the informal settlements that people flock to.

Much like Haiti, Nairobi has vast areas of land on the edges of the city where people are living without access to basic services.  We wanted to see how some innovative international and local organizations were tackling this problem using ecological solutions. We lined up 3 visits for our short stay and spent most of our time in Nairobi looking down into toilets.  But we did manage to visit the Nairobi National Park on our last day and share some quality time with an ostrich.


On our first day we set off to see Sanergy, who were making big waves in the in field of ecosan with their sustainable business model for private community toilets. We arrived at their base on the edge of the informal settlement ‘Mukuru’ and met with their Founder & Chief Executive, Ani Vallabhaneni and their Director of Waste Management, Lara Kraft.

Lara kindly gave us the entirety of her morning and early afternoon to take us around the project area and explain the Sanergy method. We started off in Gumboots (Sasha still in her habitual blue flip-flops) and after squelching through the mud on the ‘main road’ for a few minutes (we had arrived towards the end of the rainy season) we came upon a small clearing by the side of a stream and beheld 2 of Sanergy’s branded toilets. The brand name was ‘Fresh Life’ (hereafter referred to as FL).

2 Fresh Life Choos in Mukuru

We had seen the toilet plans and photos online but now it was time to see the real thing. After meeting Hannah the Fresh Life Operator (FLO) who both owned and operated the toilets, we wasted no time in checking them out. The toilets were very bright and shiny and clean, beautifully painted in light blue with the Fresh Life logo on the front. Hannah was clearly very proud of them. What immediately struck us, having been recently exposed to emergency style wood and tarp toilets in Port-au-Prince, was that these toilets were small but at the same time they felt solid and safe. Sanergy had created a solid concrete box toilet, with a high quality ventilated wooden door, and clear perspex roof for light. We would later see the assembly line where the dozen or so FL toilet component parts were constructed, but it was clear why the FL toilet was proving so popular; it was a very good product.

Lara explained to us that Hannah’s toilet business was working out so well that she recently bought another toilet that had just been installed, and was now awaiting its paint job. Lara explained how Sanergy’s sales for the Fresh Life Toilet, or “choo”, had really taken off and there were now 28 toilets in Mukuru since the first was installed in November 2010. Each toilet had a urine diversion squatting slab, with plastic containers for poop and pee below the slab.

We were fortunate to be visiting Hannah’s choo when the waste collection team came around the corner with their trusty cart “Michigan”. The two waste collectors were well kitted out in overalls, gloves, boots, and masks. They removed the full drums and replaced them with empty ones in under 5 minutes.

The waste collection team out on their daily run.

There were two collection teams like this who removed and replaced one drum per toilet per day. The toilet capacity was limited by this drum removal service, and so where toilet demand reached beyond the capacity of a single drum, a second toilet was needed. This was unlike the SOIL system in Haiti where toilet managers sometimes have to remove up to 8 drums in a day, store them locally, and await for the weekly drum removal team.

After taking a ‘short haul’ in Hannah’s choo (priced at a reasonable 3 Kenyan Shillings per adult visit, incidentally the same price as a ‘long haul’) we followed the waste collection team back to the Sanergy base, visiting another few toilets on our return. The toilets all stood out in their vivid trademark blue amongst Mukuru’s shacks, with their attentive FLO standing by.

As we walked back Lara explained more about the Fresh Life Businesses: The FLO must first apply for a FL toilet and is then evaluated to ensure that he or she has the administrative acumen to run a toilet business, and has the land available on which to build the choo. The successful FLO then undertakes a 2-day training course before purchasing their new “business in a box” for $450 US. The business in a box has everything needed for a new toilet start-up: The FL toilet; a handwashing station; cleaning equipment; and one years servicing (drum removal and replacement) of the FL toilet. After the first year, an annual service fee of 100US$ is then charged to cover the drum removal and replacement service. This was a bargain, and it was clear why the FL toilets were proving so popular to the new sanitation entrepeneurs of Mukuru: A mere 30 adult users per day could cover the initial capital cost in the first year, whereafter there would be a handsome profit for the FLO for quite some years to come given the toilet’s robust concrete box construction. The FL toilet looked good, was financially viable for both toilet entrepeneurs and users, and was cleaning up the community; a ‘win-win’ for sanitation, jobs, health and the environment.

Sanergy compost bins getting aerated.

Back at the Sanergy base, we saw their composting operation. Like SOIL in Haiti, Sanergy use thermophilic composting to treat their waste. We had seen ecosan toilets in South Africa and Burkina Faso which used drying and not heating to treat the poop: Finally here was an organization using the same technology, with which to discuss common challenges and share ideas. The waste treatment site was in the corner of the Sanergy compound against a high wall. The wall made us feel quite jealous as this is an essential feature for a waste treatment facility located near a residential area. SOIL found this out to its peril in February 2011, when action by local residents forced one of SOIL’s waste treatment facilities in Port-au-Prince to relocate.

The Sanergy waste treatment site composed about a dozen full compost bins, each with dimensions 1.5 meters squared by 1.5m deep. The bins were simply made from wooden slats, and a zinc sheeting roof; similar to the ones used by SOIL, but about one sixth of the size. Given the burgeoning demand for FL toilets in Mukuru, a team was preparing new land to make way for new compost bins, which were constructed one by one, as the need arose. Team ‘Michigan’ who had collected and replaced the drums in the choos, were also responsible for emptying them into the compost bins, covering the poop with sawdust, pouring in the urine, and then mixing it all together. The entire operation, just like the drum removal and replacement, was slick and efficient and safe for the workers.

The temperatures reached in the Sanergy compost piles were lower than those of SOIL’s compost in Haiti. There are many factors to influence the temperature of a compost pile, but certainly the ambient temperature in Nairobi (pleasantly sunny and cool compared to Haiti’s oppressively hot and humid) as well as the use of sawdust and not sugarcane bagas, certainly made a difference. To help reach the required temperatures, Sanergy used forced aeration using an electric blower: For a period of about 6 hours per day, once per week, each compost bin was aerated from the bottom. It was great to talk with Lara and her colleagues Joseph and Kui about the evolution of their composting operation and the common challenges we face, like how to deal with maggots, how to deal with ji-kaka (poop juice) and how to reach and sustain the magic temperature to kill pathogens and produce beautiful compost. The Sanergy compost certainly was beautiful; rich, dark, springy, fluffy, living compost. Here was the proof (always to be substantiated by laboratory test results) that the composting process was working.

Sasha loving the compost!

We could have stayed for much longer observing Sanergy’s composting teams at work, and digging our hands into the pile of black gold that had been converted from poop to prosperity. We just had time for a quick lunch with Lara and Ani before the heavens opened above Mukuru and more groups of visitors arrived to see Sanergy’s work. We heard from Ani about plans for ‘back-end revenues’ including compost sales outside of Nairobi, and production of biogas, but these had not yet materialised. Like EWS in Durban, and EAA in Ouagadougou, and indeed SOIL’s own work in Haiti; the successful valuation of the transformed waste and the successful marketing of humanure compost was still proving to be the elusive step in the ecosan process.

We left Mukuru very impressed by Sanergy’s work, committed to sustaining what we hoped would become a fruitful professional relationship, and inspired to try some new ideas out in Haiti. It was great to see so many parallels between our operations, and also very revelatory to be exposed to some key differences which determine the success of a composting operation.

Peepoopled and biodigested

The next day we went to the largest of Nairobi’s informal settlements; Kibera. We had arranged to meet 2 sanitation actors here, Peepoople and The Umande Trust, who were fortunately located right across the street from each other.

We had learned about Peepoople after the earthquake in Haiti. Their single use biodegradable bags were used by some NGOs as emergency sanitation immediately after the earhquake, but here in Kibera – a non-emergency context – people were using them as their first choice sanitation technology. Our own experiences with a Peepoo bags had ended in a messy disaster (too much of a ‘long haul’ perhaps), and we wanted to learn where we were going wrong…

We started off our morning with an introduction to the Peepoo project in Kibera by Stella Kitonga, Peepoople’s Deputy Project Manager. We explained to her our apprehension with the Peepoo bag, and about its difficulty in use. Stella explained to us that for the majority of Kibera’s population, the flying toilet (i.e. pooping in a bag and then throwing it out of sight) was still the most used toilet method. Thus, Peepoople were just building on what people did already; a logical approach. The Peepoo bags were used with something called a ‘Kasaku’; a little plastic cooking oil pot. The bag was opened up and supported inside the pot, and then the ‘short-haul’, or ‘long-haul’, could commence. Stella explained to us that when used to this method, the users could both pee and poop into the bag at the same time.

Peepoople pot for pooping in a biodegradable bag

The clever part about the Peepoo bag, and that which differentiated it from a normal plastic bag, was that it contained 5g of urea granules in a sealed compartment at the bottom of the bag. The seal was broken by the weight of the short- or long-haul, and thus the poo and pee made contact with the urea. After a contact time of 14 days, this contact time was supposed to destroy all the pathogens present. The bag itself is biodegradable and will break down into soil in 6 months if buried.

Stella explained to us Peepoo’s operation in the village of Silanga, inside Kibera: The Peepoo bags (“between 500 and 2000 used in Kibera per day”) were sold to users by a handful of Peepoo saleswomen who were also community health workers. The saleswomen sold the bags at 3 Kenyan shillings, on their door-to-door health rounds inside Kibera, or sometimes at organized ‘plot parties’ (like Tupperware parties) for distinct plots of land. After each single use, the Peepoo bag is removed from the Kasaku, closed by tying a knot in the bag, and then deposited at one of 2 drop-off points in Silanga. The drop-off was done by the users themselves, but also by Peepoo bag collectors (small scale entrepreneurs who collect other people’s bags to recive the deposit. For each Peepoo bag deposited at the drop-off point, 1 Kenyan shilling was paid.

After a similarly brief introduction to the Umande Trust team over the road we set off with Margaret Owate, Edwin Otienu and Mohamed A. Mohamed of Peepoople, and Fredrick Amyok of the Umande Trust, on a walk through Kibera. Walking through Kibera was an unforgettable experience. This was one of the largest informal settlements in the world, with a population estimate varying contentiously, but somewhere in the region of 500,000 inhabitants. Like the informal settlements of Haiti, Kibera is traditionally characterized by its dense housing, poor infrastructure, and marginalized population. But walking through Kibera, the characteristics that struck us were the hustle of a vibrant population centre, the shacks and streets which were teeming with a diversity of business, from butchers to shoe shops to mobile banking stores, and smiling kids everywhere shouting ‘how are you?’. Kibera felt huge and vibrant, alive and positive, a city within a city.

Peepoople hand-washing station at the drop off point

We walked for a good half an hour until we reached one of the Peepoople drop-off points. Here we met another of Peepoople’s staff; Felix, who told us how each day he would receive full Peepoo bags, dropped of by households and collectors, and each day at midday the bags would be collected by the Peepoo truck, and taken to the compost research site at the University of Nairobi, for further testing. The Peepoo collection point itself was a metal cabinet with a covered space with seats. It was very neat and clean, with a built-in handwashing station and space to store the used peepoo bags in a large plastic drum inside the cabinet. Felix was great to talk to, very enthusiastic about his work and about the work of Peepoople.

Our final stop on the Peepoople tour was to Bethel school, where Peepoople had installed toilets to replace the old latrines. The toilet holes were for pee only, with Kasaku present for poop. Whenever a child wanted a poop, he or she would ask the toilet manager for a Peepoo bag who would then distribute them free of charge. The bags were also picked up daily. Margeret explained that Peepoo currently provided free sanitation to 30 schools in Kibera, with a goal to increase the coverage to 100 schools by the end of 2012. This model, though no doubt a critical sanitation intervention, is highly costly to maintain.  Peepoople is currently working on the production process to get down the cost of the bags (which currently cost about 17 Kenyan shillings each)

During our walk through Kibera, we visited projects of both Peepoo and the Umande trust, who we had also met earlier that morning. We had heard about Umande’s biocentres; 2 –storey blocks that incorporated toilets and biodigesters and space for community rent, all within the same building footprint. We also heard that Umande were trialing a household toilet project, in partnership with Oxfam GB.

We met Josiah Omotto, Umande’s director, and a Kibera man born and bred. Joseph gave us the warmest of welcomes; “Karibu! It means welcome from the heart, not from the head!”. Joseph explained that the household toilet project was currently being piloted in 200 households. It used a specially designed small bucket toilet, the “Jitegemee”

Umande household toilet model the Jitegemee

with a sealed lid. Joseph was a genuine sanitation enthusiast, who gave us a refreshing description of poop as “Human Investments” which chimed in with SOIL’s attitude that poop is not a waste, but a resource to be harvested and transformed. After a quick burst of information on the biocentres and the household toilets (“What we want to offer people is a ‘Sanitation Supermarket’”) and a round of introductions by the team, we were walking through the streets of Kibera with our Peepoople / Umande trust entourage.

The first biocentre we saw was the NIKOFELI biocentre, run by the local Kibera community group NIKOFELI. All biocentres were owned and operated as social enterprises by local community groups, who had also to provide the land for the biocentre. Umande’s role was to secure the capital for the construction, and provide the community with a functioning biocentre. The sanitation components of the biocentre varied according to their ages (Umande had constructed 52 biocentres since 2004). The newest model comprised 9 water-flush toilets, 4 urinals, 4 handwashing basins, and 4 showers. All the wastewater was discharged to the biodigester which was situated directly below the toilets. Umande’s specific innovation, sparked by the lack of available space in Kibera, was to construct a second story space, which could be used as the biocentre operator saw fit. In NIKOFELI’s case, the second story space was used as a children’s library. Thus, the biocentres provided a sanitation service for the community (at the usual price of 3 Kenyan shillings per long haul) and provided a business opportunity for the community group.

One of Umande's two story biocentres

The biogas generated by the human investments was another benefit. The NIKOFELI biocentre operator explained that the biogas was available “throughout the day”, at a price of 20 shillings per use. This cost was very competitive as the other cooking fuel; charcoal, cost approximately 40 shillings for a similar energy yield. Our very attentive guide from Umande, Fredrick, explained that “100% of the biocentres had functioning biogas”, but during our visit, we didn’t see any meals being cooked other than by the biocentre operators. Perhaps there were cultural considerations concerning the use of biogas that were still to be overcome.

Regardless of the functionality and acceptance of the biogas, it was clear that Umande were on to something with their dual-function, service/business approach to sanitation. By packaging sanitation with another service, the communities were getting the sanitation service they needed, but in a discrete way which allowed the communities to focus on the second story business opportunities, and not the ground-floor trade in human investments.

Lessons to bring home

As we walked back through Kibera, on the last day of or toilet tour, we discussed what we had seen in Nairobi, and how it could be applicable to out work in Haiti. Our visit’s to Mukuru and Kibera confirmed our sense that for sanitation to be high quality and sustainable, it is essential to develop a business model, so that people are not only provided with toilets but also jobs, because let’s face it, you can’t eat a toilet.  For toilets to be well maintained someone needs to be taking care of them, and for that care to be ongoing there have to be livelihood opportunities involved.

One issue that will make developing a sustainable business model for household sanitation in Haiti more challenging than Nairobi, is the culture of paying for sanitation, which was well developed in the communities that we visited in Nairobi, but has yet to develop in Haiti.  Also the fact that Nairobi, despite the similarity between informal settlements in Kenya and Haiti, also has a much more developed infrastructure than Port au Prince.  Roads are better, centralized sanitation and water networks exist and products are easier to come by.  As Haiti continues to recover from the earthquake these things are beginning to fall into place, but the progress will be slow and in the meantime the lack of infrastructure increases costs and further deepens inequalities.

However, we were deeply inspired by what we saw and we have returned to Haiti with renewed hope, lots of new ideas to put to the test and some wonderful new friends and colleagues from across the world.

Sasha's new friend.




2 Replies to "Wrapping up the Toilet Tour in Nairobi, Kenya"

  • patience
    November 12, 2013 (11:32 am)

    am a student in kennyatta university doing a degree in community development.am doing a project on the reliability of biocenters kindly assist me in my litrature review thanks

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