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KENYA: Sustainable Energy in the Heart of the Slums

Miriam Gathigah

NAIROBI, Mar 29 2011 (IPS) - Talk about foul foundations: the Katwekera Tosha Bio Centre is built on the stuff that goes into toilets. This community centre in the Nairobi slum of Kibera goes well beyond solving sanitation problems – it is a model for green energy, a meeting place for locals, and turning a profit for its operators.

The dire sanitation systems available to the hundreds of thousands living in Kibera, often called Africa’s biggest slum, has been well-documented.

Less talked about than the infamous flying toilets – bags full of faeces tossed as far as possible, neighbours beware! – is the challenge of household energy for the urban poor.

The high, and rising cost of fuel – kerosene, paraffin, charcoal, firewood – takes an enormous bite out of the income of poor households. The use of polluting energy sources in closed spaces levies an additional charge against the health of the poor; the wider environmental implications of fossil fuels or inefficiently burned biomass completes a glum accounting.

Every challenge an opportunity

“The Umande Trust is a rights-based agency which believes that modest resources, strategically invested in support of community-led initiatives, can significantly improve access to water and sanitation for all,” says Paul Muchire, the Trust’s communication manager.

This mission statement has guided the Trust towards partnerships with community-based organisations to improve the living conditions of people in places like Kibera.

The Trust first set out to build toilets and bathrooms, but had a larger vision: TOSHA, “Total Sanitation and Hygiene Access”, was born.

“The idea was to exploit biogas from these toilets to provide household energy that could be used by the community in preparing their various dishes,” says David Kihara, who manages the business side of the Katwekera Tosha Bio Centre.

The centre has toilets and bathrooms on the ground floor – the toilets are connected to a bio-digester, with a dome-shaped holding tank in which biogas is produced. Raw human waste from the toilets flows in, and bacteria break it down, releasing methane gas which collects at the top of the domed tank.

“A pipe is then plumbed into these toilets and connected to the first floor, which is where the cooking area is located,” says Kihara. The gas is piped to collective stoves one floor up – and is usually sufficient for community members to cook on throughout the day.

“We pay a very small fixed fee for whatever dish we would like to cook. It is a very cheap source of energy and we cook on a first-come, first-served basis,” says area resident Nina Oyaro.

More than merely functional

Muchire explains that the centre is intended to be much more than a utilitarian place where people can relieve themselves, take a bath or cook.

“They are centres for many things. We have built the capacity of the CBOs attached to various bio centres to a level where they can fully exploit the space on where the centres stand.”

It is left to the community to decide what sort of venture to set up on the top floor. “Some bio centres have set up DSTV [satellite television], where people can come and watch matches for a fee, as is the case with Katwekera Tosha,” says Otieno Owour, another resident.

Muchire says the centres have become important places to exchange information as well, as can be seen from the posters lined up on the walls communicating one message or another.

“They are not just community kitchens but also meeting places where people can leisurely while away the evening after a long day’s work,” Muchire adds.

From a business perspective, the profits from these centres are also significant. Katwekera Tosha makes a monthly profit of between 350 and 650 dollars.

This money benefits the residents who have registered with the community-based organisation.

The centre opens at 5:30 a.m. and closes around eleven at night. Muchire would like to extend these hours: “The ideal situation would be to operate 24 hours, but insecurity in the slums is a reality.”

Perhaps that’s the next challenge for the community and Umande Trust. Centres like Katwekera Tosha are a giant, sustainable step towards assuring the energy security of slum dwellers.

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