In many ways, the Kenyan capital of Nairobi embodies the promise and perils of twenty-first century Africa. The city is home to a flourishing tech industry that has successfully pioneered innovations such as mobile phone banking. The idea that Africa could make up for its chronic lack of infrastructure and ineffective administrations by leap-frogging into the digital era has long been cherished by optimists.1 And, yet, away from Nairobi’s main commercial street, with its new glass facades and cafés, there’s no escaping the fact that the city is failing to improve the lot of its two million residents, 60 percent of whom live in slums. That’s only marginally better than the average for sub-Saharan Africa (at 63 percent). The United Nations branded African slums a “global scandal” of poverty and neglect.

Lack of access to water and sanitation is at the heart of the problems facing slum dwellers. In 2013, the Nairobi City Council reported that 48 percent of the city’s population is served by a conventional sewer system while “42 percent of the population are served by informal sanitation facilities … coupled with… poor solid waste management and poor drainage, which cause overflows from the pit latrines…and pollution of water in the city.” The rest of the population has no access to toilets, meaning that open defecation and “flying toilets”—i.e., plastic bags containing human excreta thrown away from homes—are not uncommon today.2 Within Kibera, Nairobi’s biggest slum, the village of Laini Saba was reported to have “exactly ten working pit latrines for 40,000 people” in 1998.3

To correct this historical neglect, the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-HABITAT)—which is mandated to halve the number of slum dwellers and improve their sanitary conditions by 2015 (one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals)—began to persuade the Kenyan Government to plan so-called demonstration projects and face its cities’ slum conditions. At the end of 2002, the Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme (KENSUP) was launched, with substantial financial support from the World Bank’s Cities Alliance.

Like many well-meaning aid projects, this initiative suffered from a certain top down utopianism. The demonstration projects focused on enhancing tenure security by resettling the slum-dwellers into “orderly blocks of flats” constructed outside slums, with a view to formalizing informality.4 The resettlement scheme was heavily criticized by the slums’ original landlords who foresaw their rent market becoming distorted.5 As the resettlement proceeded, serious counter-productiveness became apparent. The new flats were “designed for the middle class” following the planning model of the city’s official estates, and slum-dwellers who were used to living in the informally standardized “3×3 meter structures” decided to rent out extra rooms to other family members from outside provinces or sell the assigned flat (albeit illegally) to middle-class families.6 In addition, the resettlement generated a fear of displacement and resentment, since many of the slum-dwellers did not feel that they had control over decision-making.

Faced with mounting criticism, the Kenyan government was forced to take a different approach. In 2007, it published the Vision 2030 for Water and Sanitation, in which it declared that water and sanitation were basic rights for Kenyan citizens. Given the failure of the earlier, overly ambitious resettlement program, this seemed like an impossible dream. However, Nairobi’s City Council adopted a pragmatic approach to achieving the goal. Instead of relocating residents to model villages, they opted to work with existing informal sanitation facilities. These informal facilities were called “biogas sanitation centers” and had been created by local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the heart of Nairobi’s slums. Each center contained compartmentalized toilets and bathing facilities, as well as a water tank. Furthermore, human excreta underground produced biogas, which can be used for cooking and generating energy. Since the poor tend to rely on relatively expensive charcoal for heat—a major source of deforestation—the combination of sanitation and energy production has been considered ideal. At a cost of up to $30,000, they are also cheap to fund.

Josiah Omotto, cofounder of Umande Trust, built the first bio-center in Nairobi following a simple experiment. Together with a professor at the University of Nairobi, Dr. Saad Yahya, Omotto decided to import a bio-digester system that they had first seen in operation in the slums of Mumbai India. At $15,000 for installation, the bio-digester was relatively cheap compared to earlier schemes. In 2004, Omotto and Yahya launched Umande Trust to further develop this experiment. They soon realized that the combination of bio-digester centers could become a hub for a much wider range of activities.


Kibera, Nairobi. “At the heart of the problems facing slum dwellers is lack of access to water and sanitation,” says the author.

One of the most serious community concerns within a slum is the lack of job opportunities. The majority of slum-dwellers, especially young people, can only engage in occasional jobs, if any, and jobless youth are susceptible to criminal activities and quick to instigate riots, as seen in the 2007-2008 post-election conflicts in Kibera. The bio-centers could become a business for slum dwellers, provided they manage it themselves. These proto-companies would be able to charge about two or three Kenyan shillings (approximately 0.025-0.03 USD in 2010) to the users of toilets, showers, and gas. As a bio-center on average could attract 500 users daily, it could bring about $15-20 a day to the center, a small but significant amount in the lives of many. Bio-centers could also provide mobile phone charging, childcare, schooling, and even television access—especially for football matches.

With these ideas in mind, the first bio-center as a proto-company was established in the Kibera slum in 2005. Kibera, whose origin is found in a settlement of Sudanese soldiers under the British colonial empire (who are now called “Nubians”), is home to at least 15 ethnic groups, and the territory is currently divided into thirteen villages, a reminder that no slum is a homogenous entity. Today, many slum-dwellers still describe their jobs as “hustling.” They originally come from the impoverished countryside dreaming of making money in the city, but fail to engage in formal jobs and thus depend on family members who had arrived before. They are also usually enthusiastic about educating their children, hoping that the children will fare better, but the cost of schooling is also a burden for many and, unfortunately, education rarely guarantees formal employment. The community groups engaged in bio-centers have origins in informal saving groups, previously used to overcome difficulties and survive in slums. Against this background, bio-centers have helped provide a structure for pooling shared resources and opportunities for the common good.

This first bio-center was, if anything, a victim of its own success, with five community groups of different backgrounds setting up office in the bio-center’s three story building, representing the original Kenyan countryside communities from which many of the locals are drawn. While the toilets and bathing facilities have run smoothly—quickly attracting 600 users a day—the management has proven more complicated. Financial management of the centers has been problematic, and there have also been power struggles between groups. In 2009, three of the groups departed to set up their own bio-center, against the wishes of international donors, who considered the potential replication of services a concern and to be against the interest of mobilizing participatory community engagement.

In 2010, at a meeting at Umande Trust, Omotto was reflective about how quickly each group claimed its own bio-center before a larger collective experience could generate a much needed sense of solidarity among various communities in Kibera.

The newly replicated center has also struggled to get a reliable water supply. But despite the fact that effective delivery has lagged, local enthusiasm for more bio-centers should be taken as a sign of their desirability and the still untapped demand for more toilets, washrooms, and job opportunities.

What has been learned this far is that the real challenges of the slums are indeed about how such projects are developed and supported. Ideally, NGOs, the state authority, and international donors should continue facilitating bio-center construction and management by community groups. As bio-centers expand, implementers will be able to learn from each other’s experiences in order to make the centers more responsive to the needs of slum dwellers.

The Kenyan National Council of Science and Technology recommended including bio-centers in the government’s Vision 2030 for Water and Sanitation as the most promising water and sanitation technology in its cities’ slums. It encourages civil society, the state, university researchers, and students to work with communities and informal infrastructures throughout the country. This move reflects a process by which civil society-led infrastructure development begins to influence higher levels of governance.

Ten years ago, when the slum and its watsan conditions were fully placed on the international development agenda, UN-HABITAT’s flagship report, The Challenges of Slums, asserted that the challenges of slums in the world were about how to overcome “the failure of governance,” which had led to “the failure of … [housing, national development and urban] … policy … at all levels.”7 The bio-center experiences in Nairobi are now showing us that the failure of governance has also provided possibilities for the slums’ citizens and civil society organizations to take the lead in providing their own services and making innovations.


Kei Otsuki

Kei Otsuki is a research associate at United Nations University Institute for Sustainability and Peace. Her work centers on linking social transformation and sustainable development in the global South,...

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