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The Treasure Buried In Nairobi's Dumps

By Parselelo Kantai, The East African (Nairobi), 18 December 2000

Nairobi - After decades of haphazard struggle, Nairobi has all but lost its battle against garbage. The city's spirit lies choking beneath tonnes of uncollected, unmanaged waste, while its residents live unwittingly on the brink of environmental disaster. PARSELELO KANTAI suggests a way to avert the crisis, and in the process reinvent Nairobi.

Even in those early, mud-splattered days, punctuated by the hiss of the railway snaking its way up the Kikuyu Escarpment, the sounds and smells of workers, imperialism and commerce - surprising a place into existence - Nairobi was already demonstrating its capacity for chaos. Forests yielded to tin houses and wagon tracks, a railway line, dukas and factories, not necessarily in that order. Cow dung and dead leaves gave way to more modern forms of waste - scrap metal, cigarette butts, used oil, sewage.

Unlike Kenya's other major towns, Nairobi just occurred, an accident, and it wasn't even its fault. It just happened to be in the right place at the right time, narrowly beating out Machakos to become Kenya's administrative capital. Later, Nairobi's disorderly beginnings would be glossed over, like new paint over rust, by the brisk spread of commerce and the colonial obsession with order.

Africans over there on the dry plains, omnipotent white administrators up where it was cooler and tree-lined, coolies and dukawallahs somewhere in between and, much later, garbage everywhere.

A brief history of the Green City in the Sun.

Flash to the present, and chaos still reigns. Nairobi's modern play is an absurdist tragedy; a heap of garbage, representing our history of consumption and civic failure, is both backdrop and main character. East Africa's keystone city is awash in the grim reek of its uncollected, unmanaged garbage, a frank, constant embarrassment that cripples its image and causes serious danger for visitors and residents alike.

Nairobi produces an estimated 1,500 tonnes of garbage a day, somewhere between a half and three-quarters of which rots uncollected close to its source. The rest is carted away to a dumping ground on the arid plains to the south of the city, out of sight and out of mind, where the voiceless reside.

Established by City Council in the mid 1980s, the Dandora dumpsite sprawls over a disused quarry and the grounds once allocated to "Sector 6," the last, unsuccessfully executed phase of a World Bank-Kenya government experiment in low-cost housing designed to accommodate 100,000 people. Somehow, though, plans for both housing estate and dumpsite went horribly wrong. Dandora is now home to a quarter of a million desperate neighbours of Nairobi's vault of accumulated filth. The dumpsite is 30 solid acres of garbage. It emits a stench you must experience to imagine. The sky over Dandora is dark with noxious smoke, the result of City Council's half-hearted attempts at incineration, and the spontaneous combustion of pent-up methane.

We would learn as we toured the dumpsite one Saturday morning that it is controlled entirely by street children. They call themselves jeshi (armies) and have divided the dumpsite into 12 bases pitted against each other in intense rivalry. Fights are common between the different jeshi, and only end when someone is beaten into submission, or killed.

"Have you ever seen wild animals fighting?" Odongo, a former scavenger and our guide, asked us. "That's how it is here." The dead become part of the garbage, as faceless in death as they were in life.

The dumpsite is a society apart, with its own laws - the apartheid of filth - and its own language: bomb (marijuana), madanse (the police), wagondi (thugs), kuro (prostitutes). As many as 2,500 people, mostly children, but also men and women, make their "living" here. So complete is their control of the dump that even the police stay well away. As for the City Council, it is yet to fish out a bulldozer that disappeared under a mountain of garbage it had been trying to move. That was in 1991. It's not been seen since, although speculation is high at the dumpsite that it will soon explode. It had a full tank of diesel.

Every day, garbage trucks from the Nairobi City Council and those private collection companies that choose to pay the dumping fees make the journey to dump their loads here. At the entrance, a jeshi member jumps onto a truck and directs it to a specific base. As the truck unloads, the kids assess the garbage and begin sorting it into resellable categories. Other trucks come to buy the sorted garbage.

Companies such as Kenpoly and Premium Drums buy waste plastic; Central Glass Industries buys glass bottles. The scavengers are cheap labour. A kilo of plastic containers sells for four shillings, a kilo of paper for two.

Some take a deeper commercial interest. One company employs scavengers to process discarded fish, which is made into fertiliser and animal feed. Each worker is paid, they told us, Ksh250 ($3.1) a day. At another base, women sift through heaps of tin, old bulbs and batteries, and use what they find to make lamps for sale.

The dumpsite is - not potentially, but actually is - a multimillion shilling recycling enterprise.

However, only a small percentage of the dumped garbage is actually sorted and recycled. Once a week, a City Council bulldozer arrives to push the unsorted garbage onto a massive heap that sits at the edge of the quarry. The heap is then set on fire, releasing who knows what toxic gases into Nairobi's rarefied air.

Japan, which incinerates most of its garbage, is now grappling with a sharp increase in cancer cases linked to dioxin released by burning plastic. But no environmental impact assessments have been done in Dandora. The effects of constant exposure to the dump's stench and fumes on the residents and scavengers of Dandora are unknown, although doctors report a high incidence of respiratory tract infections.

The most exhaustive study of the Dandora dumpsite was published in 1998 by the Japanese International Co-operation Agency (JICA) as part of an assessment of solid waste management in Nairobi. But the report is vague on the environmental hazards that the site poses, citing only "a high risk of air pollution, which may affect the health of scavengers and neighbouring residents," and suggesting a possible threat of ground water pollution: "A long time-delay in waste collection generates a foul-smelling liquid called leachate, which is considered a high polluter when it reaches water courses."

The recent tragic collapse of the Smoky Mountain dumpsite in the Philippines should serve as a cautionary tale for Dandora - 193 people, all resident scavengers, died and another 760 were feared buried beneath the garbage. A Greenpeace study cites levels of chromium and zinc 30 per cent beyond safety limits in the nearby La Mesa reservoir, the main source of water for Manila's 10 million residents.

One stays in Nairobi, one does not live there. The cleaner areas of the city are also the wealthier ones, not only because they are less crowded and the rich have the means to have their waste removed for them, but because they have a stake in cleaning up: it's their neighbourhood. The dirtiest areas are not necessarily the poorest - although in many cases they are; this distinction belongs to the spaces that nobody "owns" - government and council housing estates, hawker zones and neighbourhoods that have also become business enclaves, as opposed to areas where residents have acquired ownership by dint of long occupation or economic status.

Nairobi is not unique for the fact that its waste disposal systems are mismanaged. All the world's cities learn how to deal with solid waste through a process of trial and error. Tokyo battles its dioxin problem, Manila looks for a more efficient way of dumping, and Kampala grapples with growing numbers of marabou storks and crows attracted by its heaps of rotting garbage.

"For a lot of city managers," says Mr. Graham Alabaster of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, "waste management is about taking waste away from the wealthy areas and places where these people will see it, to places where they won't."

In some cases it has taken a public health disaster for cities to change the way in which they manage garbage. Surat, India, 1996: an outbreak of plague, the direct result of solid waste mismanagement, kills 50 people. It also leads to a $60 million loss of new investment, tourism revenue and rejected exports, the city's image severely damaged by the outbreak of disease. "It would have taken perhaps $60,000 to clean up the city and prevent what happened from happening in the first place," said one waste management expert.

Nairobi's problem is not that residents haven't tried to clean it up. One organisation or the other is always attempting to tackle the mess in day- or week-long "Clean Up Nairobi", "Clean Up Nairobi River", "Clean Up this or that Neighbourhood" campaigns, or by convening seminars to address the issue of urban waste management. The history of waste management in Nairobi is a sad repetition of disjointed duplication and a near total lack of co-ordination. There are today four major responses to dealing with garbage in the city.

At the most basic level are the people who bury, burn and recycle their household garbage in their own small shambas, bypassing City Council completely. Glass containers and newspapers are sold to the chupa na debes, the dishevelled one-man mobile hawkers who buy various usable discarded items, hoarsely advertising their services up and down neighbourhood streets.

But the city produces an overwhelming amount of waste, and not everybody has their own compound. According to most estimates, more than half of this waste is organic, which is where organisations like the Mukuru Recycling Centre and City Garbage Recyclers come in - the small-scale organic waste recyclers making compost manure and waste-fuel briquettes. These community groups and small businesses are few and under-appreciated, as City Garbage Recyclers' Mr. Andrew Macharia will attest, only coming to the attention of the influential if their work happens to find its way into the press on slow news days.

Typically, these initiatives are born out of desperation, run by poor women operating in broken-down neighbourhoods. They lack the skills and resources to standardise or market their products. And if they somehow manage to court commercial success, the neighbours might get jealous, or somebody could grab their quarter-acre plot, or City Council askaris, citing by-laws but not bribes, might pay them an early morning visit with bulldozers or quit orders.

At the third level are the private collection companies. Bins Nairobi Services Ltd, the city's largest and oldest private garbage collection service, has made significant progress since it started in 1988, the beneficiary of City Council's efficiency vacuum. Bins' relative success has spurred a flurry of others interested in tapping into this "easy money". After all, what more do you need than a one-tonne heap of scrap metal on wheels, a small office and a telephone to set up a garbage collection company?

There are now, by City Hall's count, 70 garbage collection companies in Nairobi, many of which have greatly assisted the city in its efforts to become dirtier. All the Council requires to set yourself up as a licensed garbage collector is Ksh7,000 ($87) and your scrap-heap on wheels. And because operators are required to pay a fee to dump waste in Dandora, many dump anywhere but Dandora.

At the fourth level are the industrial-scale recycling firms, which collect waste paper, plastic, tins and a variety of other waste materials mainly from large manufacturing concerns, and turn them into useful second-generation products, such as cardboard packaging and plastic containers.

There are few, if any, links between these four levels of waste management. Each operates on its own, rarely improving or expanding operations. As a result, most of the city's garbage goes uncollected. According to JICA's 1998 study, about 1,130 tonnes of the total 1,500 tonnes of garbage that the city generates each day stays right where it is.

The main problem and prime waster, of course, is City Hall. In 1994, under pressure from a mayor trying to shake off the stigma of years of inertia and a public fed up with living under a constant cloud of rot and stench, the council finally looked inward to try to identify the problem. The findings would be laughable if the issue wasn't so grave: the garbage collection department had been hiding in the Medical Officer of Health's docket. It took a study to discover this.

"That department had over 11 sections," explains Mr. Shadrack Opiyo. "It was overloaded. For the purposes of efficiency it was recommended that [garbage collection] be put in a new department, the Department of Environment." Two years later, in June 1996, the Department of Environment (DoE) was finally established. Mr. Opiyo now serves as its director.

Once created, however, the DoE remained in a relative lather of inactivity, until 1998, when JICA stepped in with its 15-month study and the promise of funding if the recommendations were implemented. The report highlights three main points: One, waste collection services can be progressively increased and improved so that by 2008 the city's garbage production and collection are at par. Two, this will cost money - about Ksh17 billion ($212 million). Three, and most important, this exercise can only succeed if City Hall reorganises the DoE, makes it financially autonomous, upgrades its equipment, sub-contracts out (at least partially) garbage collection, and ensures environmentally-friendly disposal.

The DoE claims that it is well on its way to making this a reality. Since 1998, Mr. Opiyo says, garbage collection in the city has nearly doubled, from 370 tonnes to about 700 tonnes per day, with City Hall collecting 40 per cent of the total. The reason for this, he says: "We have managed to buy additional equipment - 19 garbage collection trucks, two bulldozers working in Dandora and four wheel-loaders. The increase in the fleet and equipment has been a major factor in the increase in garbage collection. "His figures, however, are questionable. According to JICA's projections, the council would require at least 81 trucks to double collection. They have only 35 in operation.

The department's primary role is that of regulator, but its track record in this regard has been woeful. Garbage collection was officially privatised only last year, even though collection companies have been thriving for years. The council has yet to institute any performance requirements for registered companies; mere "proof" that one can do the job suffices. Worse still, the DoE is well on its way to implementing some of the study's most crucial recommendations without consulting anyone else concerned.

This December, for instance, the council plans to close the Dandora dumpsite and open a new one - in Ruai, as well as five intermediate disposal centres closer to the city, at a total cost of about Ksh2 billion ($25 million). The council has identified the intermediate centres, but has yet to involve or solicit feedback from other waste management players.

Which makes people like Mr. Peter Shewan, managing director of Bins, hopping mad. "The suggested site is ridiculous," Mr. Shewan says. "It is 55 km outside Nairobi, which will make it completely uneconomical for companies like us to exist. To collect garbage within Nairobi and then to send it 55 km outside the city to be dumped just isn't going to work.

"They haven't thought it through properly. They haven't asked the private sector for their advice on how things should be done. And let's face it, the private sector knows more about this than they do."

This belief - that the private sector can do a better job than the council - is justified considering City Hall's pathetic service record. However, in part because of City Council's lack of support and regulation, private garbage- collection companies are still a low-volume business, operating mostly in the city's wealthier neighbourhoods. Few have taken the initiative to look beyond waste collection and focus on longer-term management measures.

Mr. Shewan agrees: "The problem with this industry is that most of us are not looking at our role within a wider perspective. At the moment all we do is collect garbage." If Bins could establish its own dumpsite, however, as Mr. Shewan says it has been planning to do for many years now, it would be able to manage waste far more effectively. The problem is that the cost of establishing a dumpsite is prohibitive.

To date, no garbage collection company has established a formal relationship with any large-scale recycling firm, primarily because there are no legally- designated spaces to do the initial sorting and separation. It's Dandora or nothing, which means that vast opportunities are being missed.

Kamongo Waste Paper Ltd, for example, recycles an average 100 tonnes of waste paper each day, and has the capacity to handle at least twice this amount. "Kamongo processes about 40-50 per cent of the total paper collected," says director Mr. Karim Fina. "But the industry as a whole is not even collecting a third of what's out there. Our sources are mostly in town, Industrial Area and Eastleigh.

We haven't moved into more residential areas like Westlands, Parklands and farther down." Kamongo is now considering expanding into garbage collection to tap these smaller sources.

This would be unnecessary, if only garbage collection companies went to him. If partnerships between collection companies and recyclers were formalised, the implications for waste management in this city would be enormous. As it stands, Bins and others do not now encourage their customers to sort garbage at source, because, as Mr. Shewan says, there is no percentage in it.

Clearly, the solution to solid waste management in Nairobi, and indeed in all of East Africa's cities and towns, lies in a concerted effort involving all participants: city authorities, donors, private collection companies, NGOs, community- and industrial-scale recyclers, scavengers, and, perhaps most important, the residents.

How would it work? Let's start, for ease of argument, with the City Council/JICA initiative, and assume that the Ruai site and its five intermediate centres are a done deal. City Council will own the sites; JICA will provide the funding and engineering expertise to develop them.

First, a small matter of cosmetics and image: we'll change intermediate disposal centres to "waste management and recycling centres (WMRC)." Then, realising that the actual collection and management work is best left to others, City Council will lease the sites to established, reputable private collection firms, each with a demonstrated capacity and/or a solid, long-term plan to collect and process the required quantities. If there are only five centres, this would mean capacities of at least 300 tonnes of waste per day per company. Bins, for example, while the largest of the existing companies, now handles only 50 tonnes a day, and so would have to either merge with other companies or raise the necessary private or donor capital to increase its capacity.

So let's say Bins, or the new expanded firm, wins the tender for one of the five sites, and is allocated certain areas of the city from which to collect garbage and charge standardised, city-wide, per-household rates for its services. It begins collecting garbage, and brings it to the WMRC. As the garbage arrives, it is sorted by category of waste - organic, paper, plastic and so on - and moved to its own site within the site, where it is cleaned and processed according to its specific requirements for resale or recycling.

Perhaps Bins has won its tender in part on the strength of a commitment to employ ex-Dandora scavengers, giving them a decent wage, proper equipment and safe working conditions. Perhaps they will have enlisted a local NGO to train the scavengers, giving them the skills they need to ease the transition to formal employment.

Perhaps the company has also entered into a subcontracting arrangement with the Mukuru Recycling Centre or City Garbage Recyclers (in fact, Mr. Shewan and CGR's Mr. Macharia are already discussing a possible partnership), in which the recycling group processes organic waste on-site, and then packages and sells tested, Bureau of Standards-approved compost fertiliser and waste fuel briquettes to farmers, businesses and households countrywide.

There is room for hundreds of such opportunities; for example, making fence posts and attractive household products from plastic bags or formalised production of the tin lamps that women now make in Dandora.

Bins might also organise an education campaign for its customers to encourage us to separate our garbage at source. Their incentive: cleaner waste that takes less time and effort to sort, which could then be passed on to customers in the form of reduced rates. We might be given different coloured bags for different types of waste.

Perhaps they could even work with the Kenya Institute of Education to get this message into Nairobi school curricula, so that children can educate their parents.

Back at the WMRC, the waste that cannot be resold or recycled - say, conservatively, 25 per cent of the total - is trucked to Ruai to be properly landfilled or incinerated by City Council workers. Now a fraction of the city's waste, levels are more manageable, and the site operates productively for decades. There you have it: at a stroke, all the "major stakeholders" working in concert to help the City in the Sun reclaim its former glory, this time for real. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste that would have otherwise ended up fouling our air and poisoning our water would instead re-enter the economy as raw materials for industry, agriculture and energy production.

Of course it would not be entirely this simple. No existing firm, for example, can handle anywhere near the 300 tonnes per day this scenario would require. And the scheme would need City Council, whose record in such matters is shameful at best, to actively regulate and monitor performance. But these problems and others could be ironed out, if everyone who had a stake in successful waste management (that is, all of us) agreed to make it work.

Compared with the alternative - our present quagmire of filth, rot and disease - it's just a matter of common sense.

This article first appeared in 'Ecoforum', the East African environment and development magazine, published quarterly by the ELCI Office for Africa.

E-mail: ecoforum@africaonline.co.ke .

Parselelo Kantai can be reached at: peejay@africaonline.co.ke

Copyright 2000 The East African. Distributed by allAfrica.com. For information about the content or for permission to redistribute, publish or use for broadcast, contact the publisher.