NAIROBI, KENYA—Saturday morning and I was waiting outside City Hall for the sewer engineer to arrive for our trip to the Ruai sewage treatment plant when I felt the need to make a “long call” (as opposed to a “short call,” the east african equivalent of “number one” and “number two”). When I asked the guard to direct me to the toilet he responded “the toilet might not be up to the standards you are used to.” I have been in Africa for four months. I think I have seen bad toilets. And how bad could this one be if it is inside City Hall?
But what I found was perhaps the most unsanitary toilet I have seen yet. Feces were piled so high above the brim that it was impossible to tell where the toilet was exactly. As the toilet tourist I have become, I took a photo and left.
I asked the guard if this was the only toilet in City Hall. He said there were others upstairs but those were for “VIPs” and in any case were locked on Saturdays. By VIPs he meant anyone above the status of security guard or gardener. Someone has to clean that toilet I thought. What is wrong with this place? I still had to go and thought to myself, “if only there is an Ikotoilet around here somewhere.”
And there was. Just around the corner on the very same city block I found an Ikotoilet to my great relief. It was of comparable cleanliness to an average public restroom in the US which by Africa standards is unheard of. Toilet use cost only about 0.07USD.
A few years ago Ecotact started commissioning Ikotoilets around Nairobi to address the sanitation blight that extended to even the richest parts of downtown Nairobi (“Iko” approximately meaning “right here” in Swahili). There are about 10 public Ikotoilets in Nairobi operating on a for-profit model. Friends from Nairobi say that before the Ikotoilets were constructed, traveling in town had to be carefully planned because there was no way to find a clean public toilet.
The cost of sanitation is subsidized by rent for a shop built into the structure of the Ikotoilet and a shoeshine kiosk at the back of most Ikotoilets. Other advertisements are placed inside and around many Ikotoilets for additional income. Some Ikotoilets outside of the city turn the human waste into biogas while those near a sewer main do not and instead send the waste to the sewer system.
Perhaps inspired by the success of Ikotoilets, many of the disgusting public toilets operated by the city council have been rehabilitated to a sufficient level of cleanliness. (Well, not all of the city toilets. There are some pretty disgusting ones in City Hall!)
I went for a field visit with Ecotact to see a few toilets under construction all of which will process the waste into biogas. Ecotact is working on a program to build clean toilets in schools. Funding comes from, as far as I was able to understand, children in the US. The children in the US raise money which goes to building the toilets at schools in Kenya. Then the students are supposed to pair up as penpals to write letters back and forth. I hope it works.
Lifebuoy has a sign on the side of each of the toilets we visited that give instructions for proper hand-washing techniques. In exchange, Lifebuoy gives T-shirts to all of the students and gives a one time supply of soap. If you ask me, they are getting a hell of a deal. Lifebuoy is teaching customers to use their soap at the age of 7. I wonder what brand of soap these kids will be buying for the next 70 years. Perhaps Lifebuoy could supply soap to these schools for as long as their advertisements are on the side of the toilets. Sure, the kids will still be indoctrinated to buy Lifebuoy but at least the school won’t need to buy soap.
To give you an idea of how pressed these schools in Kenya are for money, at the school above, the school did not have enough money to paint the exterior of the buildings, so Safaricom, the biggest cellphone carrier in Kenya, charitably offered to paint the buildings for free.
In the foreground is a photo of the old toilet at the school and in the background is the new toilet.
At a market near the town of Kikuyu just outside of Nairobi we visited an Ikotoilet under construction. The matatu drivers and conductors were very curious about this new building. We ended up having a nice talk with them. Will the toilet building have hot showers, they asked. How much will it cost? Can I set up a store next to the toilet? They even got creative: can we use the biogas to heat the hot water for the showers? I love talking to the end users.
In cities land is at a premium. Ecotact developed a way to make the digester more compact by placing the expansion chamber on top of the digester, instead of next to the digester, cutting land use in half.
The toilets themselves were designed to be low cost. There is no expensive, imported toilet bowl. This is a good idea. But the toilet hole looks a little too small. And in practice, inspection of the holes showed that students sometimes missed the hole. In the future larger holes might be a better option. The stalls also had a strong odor. Lack of odor is one of the big selling points of biogas systems so I was surprised to find this. The design calls for minimal water usage so the toilets are only flushed a few times a day via a gutter under the row of stalls. Maybe some venting would help the fumes escape. Though I am not sure if the fumes would rise or simply diffuse.