Kenya: Human Waste turns into Gold

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Mary Mwendwa
June 16, 2012

Did you know that up to 60 percent of the population in Nairobi- Kenya’s capital lives in slums? Extremely limited access to water, sanitation and adequate housing characterize most of these slums. However, there are agencies that are working towards making sure human waste no longer lies on paths and drains. They are turning this waste into gold as our Mary Mwendwa found out.

Umande Trust, an NGO based in Nairobi, has rolled out a project for constructing biocenters in various informal settlements in Kenya. The move is aimed at improving sanitation, providing renewable energy (bio-gas) and income generation.

The initiative will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It involves diverting human waste into a digester which generates biogas. Biogas is a natural gas which is used for cooking in a gas stove.

Kibera, Africa’s largest slum

Paul Muchire, a communications manager at Umande says, “We came up with this idea because there were many pit latrines in slums and many times they were full and no proper mechanisms of disposing the waste were in place, this resulted in many people to use flying toilets.”

The centers are found in Kibera, Korogocho, Mukuru Mji wa huruma – a slum within one of the high class residential areas in Nairobi, Runda, and Kisumu.

“ Life here in Katwekera has really improved, I no longer use flying toilet with my family, I can also access gas at 20 ksh , which is cheaper than charcoal that goes for 50 ksh per 2 kg tin,” Mary Akinyi, a mother of five aged 36 , caretaker at Muvi – Biocetre in Katwekera Kibera says.

The biocentre is one of the many that Umande trust has built in partnership with Water and Sanitation For The Urban Poor, Nairobi City Water and Sewage Company among others. Multi Vision Self Help Group runs the Biocenter.

Toilets, bathrooms, rental spaces, water and a biogas unit (A mixture of methane and carbon dioxide produced by bacterial degradation of organic matter and used as a fuel) are main services provided by this facility. One pays 5ksh for toilet, water 3ksh per 20litres, shower 10ksh warm and cold 5 ksh to cook with biogas 20 ksh shillings per meal.

Muvi Biocetre in Katwekera, Kibera

Mary adds that life has become easier and environment is very clean, before there was a terrible stench from the human waste that was thrown allover the place. As a mother she is able to cook for her family of five meals cheaply using biogas from the human waste, this could cost her a lot with charcoal energy.

“Nyoyo” in her Dholuo language, a mixture of maize and beans takes a lot of charcoal and time to prepare, but with biogas she can cook faster and cheaper.

A beehive of activity goes on at the Muvi biocenter, the gas heater is on with water boiling for a client to bath, Githeri a Kikuyu language word, mixture of maize and beans are lined up waiting to be cooked by Susan Wanjiku who runs a small kiosk around.

Huge tanks of water and toilet papers are what one glances at first. Mary, the caretaker is with a broom in her hands and water ready to wash the facility. No smell of any form from human waste smells here.

Kennedy Gaya and Charles Otieno, some of the members I found at the facility, comment on the facility in terms of improved hygiene standards in the slum. Through the technical support from Umande Trust, a biodigester is dug underground to help processing of the biogas which produces energy for cooking at the biocenter.

Kibera one of the largest slums in Africa with an average population of 1 million, has biocentres in Lindi, Soweto, Kianda and Kichinjio villages.The biocentres are constructed by Umande and other partners and then handed over to self-help groups within the villages to run and generate income from them.

Michael Francis, a technical service manager with Umande notes that self-help groups are best placed to run the centre because they are able to acquire land for the project and also represent community. Through Umande Trust, members can access microfinance services such as loans to empower them economically.

women cooking using biogas at a Biocentre

Paul Muchire, a communications manager at Umande Trust, emphasizes self help groups are very key in this project. They decide on the design of the biocentre depending on the needs of a specific community they represent.

However, this project faces stigma from some community members especially the men who at times oppose the use of biogas from human waste, but through training from Umande, people are slowly changing and accepting biogas from human waste as energy like any other and with no side effects.

A bagging method to help address this challenge is at the pilot stage .Through the bagging method where people can get gas in canvas bags at 20 ksh for hiring and 20 ksh for the gas will help those who are not near the biocentre to access the gas for use.

Michael Francis, a technician service at Umande confirms that a bagging system is still at the pilot stage and they believe it will really help once it is rolled out fully.

The gas bags cost 11,000 shillings each and therefore individuals from the slums may not be able to afford therefore hiring is best suited for them. They have ten bags already which they intend to use soon.

Biocentres have come as a savoir to water and sanitation challenges facing people in informal settlements.

“Flying toilets” as commonly known among many slum dwellers, have drastically reduced. People in informal settlements like Katwekera in Kibera, had no access to clean water and sanitation.

An easy and available option was to use plastic bags to help themselves then throw the human waste within their surrounding. This contributes to many environmental and health hazards to the communities living in the slums. Waterborne diseases, pollution of the environment through plastic bags pose a great risk to children who don’t have powerful immune systems to fight infections.

Biocenters, through services of biogas and supply of clean water is an option which can help communities improve on their livelihoods in a “green” way.

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