Mathare Slum visit

Thursday was a very interesting day for Sanergy. My perspective changed significantly concerning the reality of pay toilets in slums after our visit to the Ecotact (makers of the very successful urban pay-per-use toilet “Iko Toilet”) unit in the Mathare slum.

The unit there is operated very differently from the units in downtown Nairobi. Some key differences:

  • Payment: the slum unit accepts payment on a per-family basis, and only costs 100 shillings for a membership per month; the urban units are only pay-per-use and cost 5 shillings
  • Location: the units downtown are generally in prime, high-traffic areas (because the city authorities are leasing the land to Ecotact there); in Mathare, the unit is hemmed in on all four sides by mud and corrugated tin houses, and sees little foot traffic (at least during our visit)
  • Ownership/operators: The units in the city are managed professionally by Ecotact; the unit in the slum is operated by a youth group called River Jam (more on them later)
  • Profitability: while the units downtown are bustling places of business (with people not only using the toilets but buying drinks or getting shoe shines), only one user visited the Mathare unit during our 30 minute visit. Ecotact describes this situation as “the profitable units subsidising the slum unit”
  • Quality: the Mathare unit’s ceilings were falling in, there was no music, and the men’s urinals were replaced by a metal sheet with a curved bottom that sloped to a drain

However, I want to point out that none of these aspects are necessarily “bad.” They merely illustrate some of the differences when trying something downtown versus trying something in the slums. It was interesting that the architecture was exactly the same as the units downtown. The quality of the facilities were probably better than that of Umande, which has over 30 units in slums around Nairobi.

Still, I think that simply transplanting the same facilities from busy urban streets to the slums is not going to work in the long run. If the slum units are to be profitable, costs must be cut drastically to match the lower revenues achievable in the slums (by some estimates 10,000 KSH per month vs. 750,000 per month downtown). The young men who operated the unit showed us their entrepreneurial spirit in the multitude of side businesses they set up around the toilets: homemade ice-pops out of an old freezer, a hair salon out back, a store (which they closed), and a water-selling business. Still, revenues come nowhere close to the units in the city, which left me with a lot of doubts concerning the scalability of the transplanted Ecotact model in the slums.

After visiting the Iko Toilet, we went to check out some of the other work by the River Jam youth group. Youth groups are a common phenomenon in the slums: groups of up to around 25 young boys will form a group around an activity (soccer, etc) or business (trash collection, toilet operation, etc.). The groups tend to have boys who pride themselves on doing positive things for the communities; some mentioned that “other” boys laugh at them and then head to the downtown area to snatch purses and shoplift.

We walked down to River Jam’s garden by the filthy Mathare river which splits the slum in two sections. I was overwhelmed at the positivity this group was trying to bring under such visibly dire circumstances. They cleared land that was once a massive trash dump (trash is not collected by the city in the slums, so it usually piles up somewhere), and turned it into a beautiful garden with corn, beans, squash and a pig pen. The contrast with the other side of the river was dramatic — pigs wandered aimlessly through a stinking mound of garbage looking for food.

The boys themselves were very welcoming and told us all about their activities, and were evidently proud of the work they do. I couldn’t contain my awe at their dedication to improving the slum they live in. It was just not something I expected to find. To be honest, I was more inspired by the work they did than people who have accomplished amazing things but were raised in environments conducive to success. All odds were against these boys (AIDS, drugs, gangs, illness), but they not only persevered, but actually made a powerful contribution to their community.

This post is dedicated to their achievements.


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