How Bio-Centres Can Help Africa Eliminate Open Defecation
By Kelvin Tembo
Kibera, Kenya – Twenty years ago, Peter Umbeka now 52 years of age left his village, Nyaza in Kisumu County in Kenya for the Capital City of Nairobi in search of better opportunities. Upon arrival, Umbeka searched for an affordable place to live. Bearing in mind his financial status, he found one in the slums of Kibera.
Living in Kibera was the start of a new experience for Umbeka. Here, things were a bit different. Whenever Umbeka and his family of four girls wanted to use a bathroom, it became an anxious moment as options were limited.
“When I arrived in the area, few households had pit latrines and majority depended on public community toilets. During the day there were long queues for latrines at a cost of KSH5 which were overflowing because owners could not afford to pay for the sewage to be collected,” Umbeka told Rural Reporters during a visit to the area.
”At night, we would relieve ourselves in a plastic bag which could be thrown away out of the window. It was not the most hygienic ways but since we had no other options, we just had to,” he said.
This is just an example of how stressful living in Kenya’s largest low-income informal settlement was in terms of sanitation.
For years, Nairobi’s Kibera slum, home to approximately one million people has been synonymous with the so-called “flying toilets”. The flying toilet involves a person defecating in a plastic bag and tossing the waste on rooftops, dumping sites, and drainage trenches.
This has been the case as the majority of shacks in the area, have no toilet facilities or space to construct one for each shack to have a private latrine. One latrine was usually shared by up to 50 shacks, and because of this many Kiberans used flying toilets.
The scenario meant the slum was polluted by human excreta leaving residents in the area prone to water-borne diseases.
Studies show that one gram of feaces can contain 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, and 1000 parasitic cysts. These infectious parasites enter the human body through the skin or contaminated food and water, transmitting diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio. They are killing more people than measles, malaria, and AIDS.
Apart from lacking toilet facilities, residents of the slum have also been grappling with a lack of potable water. Water has been scarce such that until recently Kibera had no water and it had to be collected from the Nairobi dam a few kilometers away. The dam water, however, is not clean.
“The challenge of water and sanitary facilities has been contributing to the outbreak of diseases triggered by poor hygiene including cholera, typhoid, and diarrhea,” Umbeka said. “Not only water-borne diseases but malaria has also been rampant as most sewage runs downhill in open trenches, resulting in stagnation and pooling problems, a breeding ground for the notorious anopheles mosquitoes.”
Water and sanitation efforts in Kibera
Over the last decade, Kibera has experienced a major sanitation transformation. With the growing demand for sanitation and other crucial services in this informal settlement, a number of NGOs have been working to get rid of the flying toilets as well as ensuring access to potable water.
Umande Trust is one of the NGOs. The trust has transformed the water and sanitation challenge of most residents in the slum. For most people who live in the slum with poor or non-existent sanitation facilities, Umande offers a sound solution to the immense problem of waste disposal.
Through the Katwekera TOSHA (Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access) project, Umande embarked on a project of putting up bio centres. The bio centres make smart use of human waste something that is helping to improve neighborhood sanitation and public health.
The facilities are designed and built in collaboration with the community. Each bio center has latrines, showers, washing space, offices and a conference hall on the rooftop.
The technology uses human waste to produce biogas. It is based on biological reactions which convert human waste to biogas through bio-digester systems and produces fertilizer as a by-product.
Umande Trust Public Relations Officer Fredrick, Amuok told Rural Reporters that “the human excreta from the toilets are fed directly to a holding tank and bio-digesters. Bacteria go to work on the waste, which is filtered and converted into acid, after 21 days, methane gas collects above the surface of the waste, by then in liquid form, the methane gas is pumped to communal kitchens and is also sold to local residents as fuel.
“The gas produced is in turn used to heat water for those who need hot showers and also for cooking by residents. For as little as KSH20, one can access different services under one roof.”
Umande Trust has managed to put up 20 such facilities across Kibera, serving almost half of the population. In addition, the Trust is also working in four other informal settlements in Nairobi which include Mukuru Kwa Njenga, Korogocho, Mathare, and Kangemi. They are also in Kisumu and Nakuru counties.
The bio-centres initiative has now been adopted by other NGOs in WASH initiatives in Kenyan informal set-ups due to its contribution in eradicating open defecation.
These sanitation facilities have engineered a revolution in changing the status of sanitation in Kibera and other informal settlements as many residents now have access to clean latrines as well as potable water, Umbeka explains.
“We had no toilets nearby, now we are happy as you can see that we have this facility where I can relieve myself as well as take a bath. In addition, this facility is so clean unlike the old community toilets where you could find them dirty all the time,” Umbeka said.
In addition to providing the community members with affordable water and sanitation facilities, bio-centres are also serving as a source of money. Umande left the management of the facilities in the hands of residents who organized themselves in groups.
When Umande Trust came with a sanitation project in Kibera, Umbeka was more than happy to participate in the new initiative and together with 11 other residents organized themselves under a group called Multi-vision.
The group is making a fortune. Approximately, economic gain per day by selling the products of the sewage treatment centre (that is cooking, bathing, and toilet use) brings the group about KSH4 000-KSH5 000 (US$40-US$50).
“Using a toilet for a day cost KSH10 per entry while for monthly customers it costs KSH200, for cooking it cost KSH10 per cooking,” said Multi-vision secretary Kennedy Daya Joshua. “We use 30 percent of the money for maintenance works, 10 percent for operational costs and the remaining 60 percent we share among members at the end of the year.”
Peter Umbeka explains how his life has changed from the dividends members get at the end of the year.
“On the financial part, I have gained a lot from this facility. I am able to pay school fees for my children and this year once I get my dividend, apart from paying school fees, I am planning to boost my small scale business,” Umbeka said.
The bio-centers apart from being a source of income are also offering cheap energy, according to Fredrick Amuok. He said a family of six spends less than US$4 on biogas a month, which compares very favorably with charcoal costing as much as US$100 for the same period.
“Charcoal is expensive and when it rains, it becomes more expensive and less available. But biogas is available and cheap and you can get it at the biogas centres,” Amuok said.
“Using charcoal also means putting pressure on our forests which has long term effects such as climate change while bio-centres are environmentally friendly,” he added
Lessons for African countries
Kenya is not the only country facing sanitation and hygiene problems in Africa. Many other African countries are in the same situation.
While African Governments have on several occasions tried to get rid of slums in major cities there has been little success. The situation has been made worse by rural to urban migration. The search for a better life, education, and employment have increased the demand for housing thereby giving rise to the growth of informal settlements.
Sanitation challenges in Africa are also costing countries millions in health costs by treating waterborne diseases.
Nigeria has the highest number of people defecating in the open in Africa and spend US$191 million treating water-borne diseases followed by Ghana on $54 million, Kenya $51 million, Mozambique $22 million, Uganda $21 million, Tanzania $19 million, The Democratic Republic of Congo $17 million and Malawi $12 million according to a WHO and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme Report, 2017.
All these losses can be minimized with sound investments and scaling up of sanitation efforts. A study by the World Health Organization calculates that for every US$1 invested in sanitation, a return of US$5.50 is made in lower health costs, more productivity and fewer premature deaths.
“Current Open defecation elimination rate of 2.2 million people per year needs to be increased to 5.5 million people in order to eliminate open defecation by 2030,” WASH Specialist and UNICEF’s Regional Lead for Eastern and Southern Africa Sahr Kemoh recently said during a media briefing on sanitation.
In 2019, the landscape is expected to change with six out of 10 practising open defecation coming from Africa as India will almost be open defecation free. This is a food for thought for African countries and stakeholders in sanitation efforts.
Nevertheless, African countries can equally draw lessons from Kenya. Innovative sanitation efforts like the bio-centres are there to avoid the 2019 projected change in sanitation landscape and if implemented across Africa, the change in the landscape can be decreasing the number of people practicing open defecation in the continent thereby minimizing current health costs.