Esther Kahinga

Making Toilets, Building Communities

Social enterprises are helping solve the sanitation challenges in Kenya’s informal settlements

Wading through the narrow pathways in Kibera, Nairobi, can be a nauseating and scary experience. You constantly jump over small streams of dirty, blackish water that never seem to dry up. Alongside these streams, small children play in their bare feet. Some fall into the dirty water and are quickly picked up by the rest and they continue playing. The children are happy, not knowing the danger that lurks in their environment.

Sanitation – defined as the adequate management and disposal of different types of wastes with a view to minimizing harmful effects to human health and the environment – is close to nonexistent in many informal settlements in Kenya. With few or no toilets, open defecation, “flying toilets” (defecating into plastic bags that are then tossed onto the narrow pathways and trenches), no sewerage system and broken water pipes, diarrhea is common.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diarrhea kills 2,195 children every day – more than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Diarrheal diseases account for one in nine child deaths worldwide, making diarrhea the second-leading cause of death among children under age 5. Diarrhea causes death by depleting body fluids, resulting in profound dehydration, and UNICEF estimates that about 88 percent of diarrhea-associated deaths are attributable to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and insufficient hygiene.

Many donor-driven initiatives have been deployed in informal settlements to address the problems of poor sanitation but these often slow down when funds run out. Thankfully, Kenya has a growing number of social entrepreneurs who are addressing the problems of poor sanitation in an innovative way.

Sanivation is one such social enterprise based in Karagita, Naivasha County. It is turning human waste into briquettes. It was co-founded by Andrew Foote and Emily Woods, who were doing research in Naivasha when they saw the poor state of sanitation in the informal settlements in the area. In 2011, they started Sanivation to improve the overall dignity, health and environment of urbanizing communities in East Africa through delivering clean, safe and efficient sanitation services.

(Sanivation, a social enterprise launched in Kenya, turns human waste into briquettes.) 

Foote says, “Sanitation is an issue that has been neglected for too long. More people in the world have access to a cell phone than a simple toilet, which is surprising because the toilet is one of the best public health inventions ever developed.”

Sanivation households have a toilet installed in their homes, pay a monthly fee of (U.S.) $6 and the waste is collected bi-weekly. So far the renewal rate for the monthly subscription is 98 percent, with more than 300 users. Last month, the company launched a new waste transformation facility that will help increase production of the briquettes.

Naomi Chege, who has been using a Sanivation toilet since January this year, says, “Children can even use the toilet without me there.”

Sanivation has been working with public health officials and medical personnel to address waste management and sanitation challenges. Dr. Oren Ombiru, medical officer of health for Naivasha, said, “In Kenya, the leading cause of death for children under 5 is diarrhea. Safe waste disposal is one of the best ways to prevent diarrhea. Where we have the biggest challenges in sanitation is peri-urban areas. I’m proud that we have a partner that is looking at peri-urban and low-income areas.”

In June, Naivasha was one of the areas affected by a cholera outbreak in which 34 cases were reported, 24 of them in Kihoto estate, an informal settlement that relies on shallow water wells. Tests run on water from these wells showed contamination with human waste.Sanivation plans to spread its wings to more informal settlements and refugee camps in East Africa to reach more than 1 million people by 2020.

Sanergy, a social enterprise based in the Nairobi slum of Mukuru, also helps build healthy and prosperous communities by making hygienic sanitation affordable and accessible throughout Africa’s informal settlements.

Sanergy manufactures low-cost, high-quality toilet facilities and uses a franchise model to deliver an integrated sanitation solution. Local residents known as Fresh Life Operators buy and charge for usage of the toilets. The operators become franchise partners and are provided with training plus financial, marketing and operational support, including daily waste collection services. The collected waste is transported in a safe way to a central point where it is converted to organic fertilizer and biogas. The fertilizer is sold to local farmers.

The toilet facility sells for (U.S.) $500 and so far 748 of them are in use, serving more than 33,000 users. Alexander Waweru is one of the 370 informal settlement residents who have started a Fresh Life business; he has three Fresh Life facilities and this year celebrated his first anniversary as a Fresh Life Operator. “Running this business has been very fruitful,” he said, adding that he has been able to clean up his neighborhood – and especially his backyard. He has a medical condition that requires regular check-ups, and he says the extra income from his toilets helps him pay for his check-ups. He also employs his daughter Wangari as an attendant at the toilet facilities, and Wangari uses her share of the money to provide for the basic needs of her two children.

Sanivation and Sanergy are social enterprises that are bringing health, safety and hygiene where none existed. They are giving people in informal settlements an opportunity to experience dignified life in a sustainable way. With more sanitation facilities in the informal settlements, fewer children will die of diarrhea. And because the solution is based on an idea that has health and monetary benefits for the users, it is sustainable and will last much longer than initiatives by non-governmental organizations whose activities are affected by funding.

Indeed, the world is now a better place due to the social enterprises that are being born each day. There’s no doubt that social enterprises are what developing countries need to grow and also solve many of the basic problems related to health, education and unemployment that their citizens face.


Esther Kahinga is the communication and knowledge management officer at the Kenya Climate Innovation Center.

Agriculture, Environment, Health Care
poverty alleviation