Kenya slum seeks cleaner solution to its sanitation problem

Pit Latrine in urban slum school with painted signs on bright blue wooden doors saying "girls", "boys", "guest" (Photo by Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images)
Pit Latrine in urban slum school with painted signs on bright blue wooden doors saying “girls”, “boys”, “guest” (Photo by Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images)

According to a recent UNICEF report,  proper toilets and sewage systems are still out of reach for billions around the world. UNICEF says roughly 673 million people still practice open defecation.

While many countries have made rapid progress in improving access to sanitation, more still needs to be done.

Mukuru Kwa Reuben in Nairobi, Kenya is one of the country’s countless informal settlements.

The region is characterized by open sewers and dense alleys that pose a significant risk to sanitation-related illness.

The area was, unfortunately, better known so-called ‘flying toilets’, and open defecation. ‘Flying toilets’ are large plastic bags that are used in slums for human waste which are frequently thrown out of windows or otherwise casually discarded once full.

Josephine Leah who has lived in Mukuru for nearly 30 years is well familiar with them.

”I came here in 1993 and at that time it was throwing toilet that was what was most sustainable, you could  be leaving for work and you hear something has fallen on you so it forces you to return home and change attires as for others they would prefer going to the bushes.”

Sanergy, an eco-initiative, is working towards ensuring Kenyan informal settlements have access to safe and improved sanitation in line with UN Sustainable Development Goals.

They have installed 3,000 sanitation facilities across 11 informal settlements within Nairobi. Dubbed ‘Fresh Life’, the toilets use sawdust as opposed to water as a way to clean the environment as well as maintain the cleanliness of the toilets in a region that access to water is a challenge

”We use sawdust because the owners of the toilet normally use the waste, they use it for making manure and if mixed with water it won’t be beneficial to them, and the sawdust also removes the toilet odor and removes the water on the feces’, says one of the Fresh toilet users Felistas Wanjiru

Every year, Sanergy safely removes, treats and converts 12,000 metric tonnes of waste, producing high-quality products, which include agricultural inputs (organic fertilizer, insect-based protein for animal feed), and clean energy. 

”We employ a circular economic approach where we are able to sustainably solve two problems simultaneously; we are able to solve the problem of safe sanitation and at the same time we are able to solve the problem of food insecurity in our country”, says Sanergy External Relations Rep., Sheila Kibuthu.

Sanergy’s Fresh Life toilets have not only created a better sanitation environment for Mukuru residents like Josephine and Felistas but the company says the area also has seen a reduction of sanitation-related diseases that would otherwise emanate from poor sanitation.

Poor sanitation is estimated to cause 432,000 diarrhoeal deaths every year across the globe. The problem also contributes to an estimated global GDP loss of $260 billion because of health cost and productivity losses according to data from the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

Sanergy says it costs only $13 per person per year. The cost is split between the government and individuals with the government paying about $6 per person per year. The company says its approach is 5 times less expensive than what the Nairobi government spends on sewers.

By 2022 Sanergy expects a million Nairobians to be using their toilets. It hopes to expand to other major cities in Africa and Asia by the middle of the next decade.