Slums Find Dignity In Sanitation

By: Emily Haggstrom Issue: Conscious Capitalism Section: Collaborator Profile

Social Entrepreneur David Kuria Thinks Beyond the Toilet to Improve Sanitation and Help Citizens Re-Claim Their Self-Worth

Slums Globally, sanitation issues affect 2.6 billion people on a daily basis. Of this number, more than 6,ooo die every day from water related diseases, with the majority being children under the age of five.

more than 6,000 die every day from water related diseases, with the majority being children under the age of five

In one such area, roughly three quarters the size of New York City’s Central Park, lives a population of roughly 1 million people exposed to these unsanitary and unhealthy conditions. It is the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. It is the second largest slum in Africa and one of the largest in the world. Because of the way these settlements (slums) came into existence, receiving government aid and assistance is out of the question, leaving the citizens of Kibera to survive in some of the most squalid, inadequate and dangerous conditions on earth.

Kibera is a city that has been placed under an international microscope for its dehumanizing conditions. It is not only known for the nearly half million people infected with HIV/AIDS out of a total of 2.2 million people infected in all of Kenya; but as a breeding ground for lethal water borne diseases that affect the entire population of Kibera. To further exacerbate the problem, the average Kibera shack measures just 33 square feet and often contains large families who live on top of each other. There is no proper way to use or dispose of human waste either because the infrastructure is non-existent. Public facilities are few and far between with only 600 toilets for the entire community, of which many do not work properly or have been abandoned. Due to these conditions waste is not disposed of properly. Latrines are over-filled and drainage is incorrectly diverted to city streams and open sewers that are already full of human excrement. This leaves residents to search for private places to go in an effort to relieve themselves. However, with so many people in such a small area it is hard to find a secluded and/or safe place to go.

Women and children experience some of the roughest conditions and often resort to flying toilets; which are plastic bags or small vessels to use and hold defecation. These flying toilets are often thrown out of windows, into the streets, road-sides, and into community trash ravines; often finding their way into rivers and streams that run through the city. With no trash service or collection, these bags are left to fester and open, spilling their contents out where ever they land, creating a cesspool of deadly micro-organisms that children play in and citizens walk through. However, with uncleanly conditions and high prices to access the facilities (on a per use or per month basis) it has become a luxury beyond the average person’s means and has caused limited investment into these structures. As a result, it is not just women and children, but men that are left to the alternative solution of flying toilets. This has created a spiral effect intensifying the problem and adding to the increasing accounts of illness and deaths.

The urgency for change is real and necessary. However, the government of Kenya does not recognize Kibera as a legal settlement and therefore will not support any programs proposed within Kibera city limits. Slums Slums Slums Additionally, because the issue of sanitation is so taboo, in not only the African culture, but in cultures all over the world, finding people to sit down and discuss the problem or create a sustainable use project in regards to public health is not likely. In lieu of its lack of social acceptance, government officials are also unlikely to address the issue of sanitation therefore reducing any support through political initiatives focused on water treatment or environmental health. This problem has spilled over into the public school systems too. Kenya has been rated by the Ministry of Education Science and Technology as “dangerous,” with over 100 school children using a single pit-latrine. Once more, this affects young girls who are using the same restroom as the boys. As a result of the lack of hygiene and ridicule from peers, these girls often miss at least a week of school a month and many do not ever return. Consequently, because of the lack of higher education, this situation creates an adverse long term effect on the socio-economic outcome for many families in Kibera and the city as a whole because girls cannot adequately contribute to their family structure. As a result, they will reduce their chances of receiving a college education, the possibility to make it out of Kibera, or simply to have some sort of financial stability.

Everyday however, there are people that do succeed; in the face of adversity and a meager subsistence. There are people who persist and break through the stereotyped destiny of a Kiberan dweller. One such slum dweller named David Kuria, grew up in Kibera amongst these conditions and at the age of 13 had rented his first apartment, started his own business, learned to expand in his area of trade and was managing his own money all b efore turning 15. With his accumulated wealth, Mr. Kuria continued on with his education receiving a degree in Architecture from the Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. After his graduation, Mr. Kuria went on to be a leading member of his community, representing the very town that prepared him for his life’s journey in the field of sanitation - the one aspect of life Mr. Kuria had personally experienced and knew intimately. Unlike foreign aid workers whose projects had been built and failed, Mr. Kuria knew what would work and what was best for the people of Kibera.

Now as the Chief Executive Officer of Ecotact, a company focused on the environment and its effects on social behavior, Mr. Kuria began working on an idea that would be the new model for clean dignified latrine facilities in Kenyan slums.

It is from this mantra that the IkoToilet model became reality. It was Mr. Kuria’s hope that these sanitary toilet facilities would unite the community and give them a place to be proud of, a place in which they felt dignified and a place they could afford. It would be a community venture where leaders could generate community support around the sanitation issue. He invited the local community to become involved and share their ideas too. It was from these workshops that new designs and ideas came about. Once members of the community realized the toilets would be neighbor run, the IkoToilet idea generated community ownership and something community members could take pride in.

The benefit of these facilities was apparent. Community leaders donated land and community members donated their time and what limited resources they had. It was then in 2003 that the first three test facilities were built in Kibera with the blessing of the communities who had been involved in the design, planning and construction process. These new IkoToilets were a source of satisfaction, a place of gathering, and a place to be proud of. Included in the toilet facilities, were water vending points where communities, could set a fair market value on the water distributed within the doors of the facility. For the first time, this allowed families who couldn’t afford water previously, to use the facilities and have a safe clean place to go. However, building these facilities proved costly and community members already had so little that the availability of donated supplies would soon diminish.

It wasn’t until 2007 when Mr. Kuria was selected as an Ashoka Fellow, a group of international social entrepreneurs dedicated to addressing social problems, that he began thinking on a larger scale for the IkoToilet project. Under Mr. Kuria’s guidance, the community again came together to create a design that could be sustainable, useful and generate capital for the community. IkoToilet became more than just a toilet - it became a mecca for the community. The new facilities would feature advertising for businesses, meeting rooms, fresh water, shoe shines, newsstands, telephones, showers with hot water, clean toilets, and best of all - it would create employment opportunities for slum dwellers. Mr. Kuria even tackled the issue of maintenance by formulating an idea about what to do with the secreted waste. Replicating a model being used in Mexico, he would recycle both the urine and the feces. Feces would be collected in a "digestor" to be reused as gas, providing light and hot water for the facility and the urine would be collected underneath the facility and used as a fertilizer on local farms to add nutrients to the arid African soil. This would reduce the amount of water needed for cleaning and further driving down costs to use the facilities.

With these ideas the toilets could be self-sustained but first they had to be built. It was then that Mr. Kuria started using his new network and new ideas to garner support within the financial sector of Kenya looking for loans to build these new IkoToilet facilities. But again, with the taboo surrounding sanitation, he continuously was stalled in his efforts. He branched out to private donors, grants and donations. With new allies and the money to move forward Mr. Kuria planned on over a hundred new IkoToilets to be built within the slums of Kenya. He pitched local businesses to give back to the communities in which they served by providing funds to advertise or support the building of a new facility. With increasing financial support of the IkoToilet and more evidence of community use, private investors started coming forward.

Mr. Kuria saw an advantage in IkoToilet’s sustainability and built a new financial model for short term franchising contracts with these investors. In addition to private investors, a local Nairobi bank offered to create loans that spanned multiple projects. With so many more sources of funding, Mr. Kuria expanded the IkoToilets into the public school system to alleviate the cost of health related issues, missing class and privacy issues facing the school children. Shortly after, a new urban model for the IkoToilet was devised, creating three unique designs for specific demographic areas. IkoToilet became the model for dignified, health conscious sanitation and placed Mr. Kuria in the global spotlight for his ingenuity.

By December of 2007 Mr. Kuria was awarded the Ashoka Fellow of the Year. It would be the first time the international award had recognized anyone in Sub-Saharan Africa. His efforts were now being publicized all over the world. Schools, clubs, NGO’s and non-profits were starting to take note of Mr. Kuria and offering their services. In collaborative efforts, these organizations started donating not only their money but their time. The Rotary Club of Denver Southeast in Colorado in partnership with the Rotary Langata, raised between $300,000 and $400,000 dollars as a water grant to be used towards the initiative. By September 2009, 40 IkoToilets were completed and said to be serving over 500,000 people daily.

In conjunction with his continued efforts Mr. Kuria was awarded winner of Africa’s Regional Social Entrepreneur 2009 and also was recognized in the Clinton Global Initiative 2009.

With continued success and support, Mr. Kuria is planning to build thousands of new facilities that span slums, urban centers and schools alike throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. In an email to his supporters Mr. Kuria said, “We are committed to scaling this up, and we strongly belief (sic), with your support, we will be able to make direct impacts to millions of our urban poor in Kenya and the region.” Mr. Kuria has shown the world that a dream to bring his people dignity and clean sanitation, coupled with global collaboration and social responsibility can change the perception of a community and slowly transform a global sanitation epidemic.

Emily Haggstrom has a B.A. in Journalism and Media from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is a member of the Level One Society in Denver, Colorado and sits in on various charity committees. In an effort to impact her local community she also volunteers for Whiz Kids Tutoring, Inc. as well as Denver Health Medical Center.