To mark World Water Week 2015, Grand Challenges Canada is featuring an innovator addressing Nairobi’s polluted groundwater. Susan Naipanoi Letuya is the Partnership Manager at TakaTaka Solutions, a Stars in Global Health project that is tackling health challenges in urban Kenyan households.
Every day, around 200 trucks enter Dandora dumpsite, Nairobi’s official landfill, to dispose of more than 800 tons of waste. After queuing for hours, drivers slowly maneuver their heavy trucks across the waste, careful not to get stuck, as Dandora has no real roads. Once a truck reaches the offloading location on the outskirts of the landfill, Dandora’s 3,000 waste pickers begin their work, carefully sifting through the garbage for valuable materials. Finding these materials is no easy task: the majority of Nairobi’s waste is organic and whatever else comes out of a waste truck is often too dirty to be resold. So the waste accumulates, and Dandora swallows up more and more of the neighboring slum of Korogocho.
Dandora is a health and environmental disaster. At 43 hectares, equivalent to 60 football pitches, it has grown much too vast to be managed and the waste has been contaminating the groundwater for years. This affects half a million residents living around the dumpsite. A 2007 study by the UNEP that examined 328 children living close to the dumpsite uncovered that half had blood lead levels equal to or exceeding the poisoning threshold of 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Exposure to such high levels of lead is linked with damage to the nervous system and the brain. It can also cause cancer.
Yet, this is not the full extent of Nairobi’s waste management problem. One of the capital’s main rivers runs through the waste dump area, carrying the polluted water downstream where it is used for irrigation of food products and drinking water. Moreover, the 800 tons of waste going to Dandora every day only represent one third of the city’s total waste. The rest is illegally dumped on smaller landfills, disposed in rivers or burned. This is because two thirds of Nairobi’s residents, around 2.5 million people, cannot afford waste collection services in the first place. Thus 1,600 tons of uncollected waste pollutes Nairobi’s environment and waterways through thousands of “mini-Dandoras” – every day.
Our company, TakaTaka Solutions, a social enterprise supported by Grand Challenges Canada (funded by the Government of Canada), has developed an innovative model to tackle these challenges (takataka means waste in Kiswahili). We not only offer affordable waste collection services to low and medium income areas, but we also manage to recycle or reuse 93% of the waste that we collect. Our waste is separated into more than 40 different fractions that re-enter the production cycle of various industries. We use the organic part of the waste to produce high-quality compost that is sold to farmers as a key input to improve soil fertility, a major challenge to Kenya’s agriculture.
Our 93% recycling rate is one of the highest globally. In comparison, Canada has a recycling rate of 27% — similar to that of most developed countries. Since TakaTaka Solutions barely disposes of any waste and can generate additional income from recyclables and compost sales, we are able to offer waste collection services at only 80 Kenyan Shillings (1 CAD) per household per month. This is affordable for everyone in Nairobi.
After an extensive pilot programme with many iterations, we are beginning to inch towards our ambitions. We currently collect waste from more than 8,000 households (25,000 people), handling more than 10 tons of waste every day. We operate three recycling points and one large composting plant. The majority of our more than 80 employees are women, and we offer fair employment: good salaries, food programs, health insurance and saving schemes. Our organic fertilizer, which launched recently, is gaining popularity with farmers.
That we are able to reach our current volume of collected waste suggests the kind of impact we are able to have at the household level. We are beginning to change behavior, giving people in low-income areas attractive and affordable alternatives to their typical waste disposal measures.
Faith Njema, our recycling point manager in Githogoro, can see evidence of this behavior change every day. Faith joined us less than a year ago as a waste sorter, but after seeing the dedication of the mother of two, we promoted her to her current role. She now manages collectors, drivers, sorters, and many others, and we could not be happier with her results. Faith recounts: “When we started in Githogoro, people were skeptical. They would ask: ‘Why pay for waste collection services when you can dump anywhere?’ Fortunately, this is changing. I am struggling to train our new sorters fast enough to catch up with all the waste they need to sort. Our clients just keep getting more.” Yet, TakaTaka Solutions currently serves less than one percent of Nairobi’s population. We want to serve many more than that.
As we keep growing, TakaTaka Solutions is committed to provide viable alternatives to dumping at Dandora. Our work is not only about closing cycles in production and consumption, but also about keeping Nairobi clean, saving its waters and keeping its children healthier. The real testament to our impact will come when we change the behavior of hundreds of thousands of people. We are excited about these challenges.
Considering the enormous amounts of mismanaged waste in Nairobi and beyond, scaling innovators like TakaTaka Solutions will help Kenyans lead cleaner and healthier lives.