An elderly man in a blue shirt and grey pants kicks off his faded pink flip-flops. Abubakar Andama Oluoc passes him by, lugging a blue plastic basin on her way to a two-burner gas stove. Atop it sits a colossal pot brimming with hot water. She scoops the water into the basin, and the man nods his head. He takes it and heaves it toward a door labeled “Shower”.
21-year-old Abubakar heads the Kibera Kids Youth Organization (KIDYOT), which operates this “biocenter” in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Nairobi and one of the biggest in Africa. In the large, cylindrical facility are toilets, showers, and gas stoves. The whole thing runs on poop fumes.
When residents come to use the toilets, their ‘human investments’ fall into a 31,000-liter bio-digester underground. Inside the oxygen-free receptacle, a process called anaerobic digestion takes place, and the waste breaks down into mostly methane gas. The methane is piped throughout the facility to fire up stoves, which heat water for showers and communal cooking.
Maureen Achieng’ Opondo cooks up fried food for her street stand here. The 23-year-old pays 5 shillings (USD 0.06) per day to use a stove in the adjacent kitchen room. Pipes transport gas from the bio-digester directly into the burners, with valves to control the output. She saves about 100 shillings (USD 1.13) per day now since she no longer has to buy charcoal. “Business is better,” she says.
Kibera’s biocenter is one of nearly 70 facilities run by different groups in informal settlements across Kenya. KIDYOT has about 90 members, mostly between 10 and 30 years old. Its goal is to not only improve the area’s sanitation but also generate an income for the slum’s residents—something other than “low-paying manual labor and construction work”, says member Collins Liko.
Along with cooking costs, the group charges 5 shillings (USD 0.06) to take a seat in the bathroom. A shower costs 10 shillings, plus an extra 5 shillings if you want hot water. On the second floor, you can pay to watch football broadcast on TV in the community space. Each month, the biocenter rakes in about 60,000 shillings (USD 705), and the profits are reinvested into the community.
KIDYOT was formed eight years ago by community organizers in Kibera, who raised money from Umande Trust, a nonprofit group, to buy land for a biocenter. KIDYOT received some outside technical support to build the facility, though Kibera residents handled most of the construction. Abubakar, Collins, and others dug the foundation for the building, transforming themselves into masons virtually overnight. Steve Biko, a 22-year-old self-taught electrician, wired the place by himself.
But when the facility opened in 2010, residents were largely uninterested. “Open defecation was very high,” Collins explains. Many people used plastic nylon bags, known as “flying toilets”, and would toss them in ditches or along the roadside once they were filled. It was a challenge to shift people from “doing it for free”.
And the idea of using human waste to fire up food kept some people from the stoves. “People used to say cooking within a toilet…that food is inedible,” says Abubakar, who, along with running the biocenter, recently became a junior police officer.
KIDYOT held meetings across the slum to explain how the new toilets could help prevent disease and churn out some income. Within four months, the facility began making methane biogas, and now the center averages 300 to 500 visitors each day.
“The people who use it consume alcohol, and that is an advantage,” jokes Japheth Igaiza, a 27-year-old group member. He says the high-alcohol waste boosts production of methane captured by the digester.
Even after adoption ramped up, KIDYOT continued to face challenges. Crime and insecurity is high in Kibera, and people have been raped or mugged on their way to the bathroom. So now it operates daily from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Their initial plans to share revenue with the community also flopped. Instead, the group began investing in skills, lending money to young people to earn university degrees in specific fields. Steve, the electrician, and Collins both used their family’s proceeds to pay for high school. Steve is now studying business and teaching in Kibera, while Collins holds a degree in community development.
After investing in skills, remaining profits are set aside for new projects. Over the next decade, KIDYOT wants to build more biocenters and run a biogas and fertilizer processing plant. With it, Kibera can sell fertilizer and energy cheaper than conventional charcoal and paraffin supplies, Japheth says. The group will need a biogas reactor worth 2.5 million shillings (USD 30,000) to help the facility break down waste and produce the gas.
From there, all they’ll need is a bit more fecal matter.