Kenyan architect goes a long way in solving sanitation issues in slums

For many years limited access to sanitation facilities in Kenya’s largest informal settlement led to the use of the infamous flying toilets.

Ecotact CEO David Kuria

Ecotact CEO David Kuria

In Kibera and other informal settlements around Kenya’s capital Nairobi, residents would relieve themselves in polythene bags and then dispose of them or use shallow communal pit latrines that release waste into the river during the rainy season.

It is this dire need for better sanitation that inspired architect David Kuria to create accessible, affordable and environmentally friendly toilets. When he started working in the city planning department 15 years ago, Kuria became aware of the challenges slum dwellers faced living in areas in which there were no sewer lines.

“Even in the CBD sanitation was extremely pathetic and almost all the city council toilets had been taken over by street boys,” says Kuria. “A few individuals were making an effort to collect garbage at a fee, but the problem of sanitation was not being addressed.”

Six years ago Kuria founded Ecotact, a social enterprise which provides affordable sanitation within urban areas in Kenya. Through a build-operate-transfer model of public private partnership, Ecotact enters into long-term contracts with municipalities to use public land where it builds and operates public pay-per-use toilet and shower facilities. Customers pay a fee of KSh. 10 (US$0.11) to use the facilities branded Iko Toilet which in Swahili means “there is a toilet”.

Ecotact has been recognised globally for its efforts in solving one of the biggest problems facing urban dwellers. The social enterprise operates 70 toilets malls across the country employing 200 people in jobs ranging from cleaners to cashiers and security officers. The toilet malls also serve as retail outlets selling airtime, snacks and shoe shining services, as well as offering mobile money transfer services.

The company initially took a $1m loan from the Acumen Fund and set up 15 toilets. Over the years, Ecotact has won numerous awards, some coming with cash prizes which it has used to scale its operations.

“I would say this has been a success especially when I see people queuing at our toilets with their laptops and phones with the confidence that they will go in and come out without being mugged as it used to be the case,” says Kuria.

The Ecotact Group CEO attributes the success of the company to commitment and focus.

“For the last six years I don’t think I have done much apart from toilets. I have been talking about toilets across the continent. I have almost become a toilet specialist. If I were doing toilets and architecture and other things, I don’t think we would have been this successful.”

Kuria has been acknowledged for his efforts, winning Regional Social Entrepreneur of the Year for Africa 2009 and the Change Makers competition and hall of fame in 2008 and being named Schwab Fellow 2009 and Ashoka Fellow 2007.

Still a long way to go

While the Iko Toilet has been successful in most urban centres, Kuria says solving sanitation challenges in informal settlements, particularly in Nairobi, remains a hurdle.

“The main reason has been the ownership of land. Who owns the slums? Every time we want to step in and do some interventions the next question is: on whose land? It makes things very complex and has slowed down many initiatives.”

Financing toilet malls and the lack of guarantee that they will not be demolished is also a constraint. But even more challenging is encouraging behavioural changes among slum dwellers, which Kuria says is an expensive and long-term campaign. It is for this reason that in 2010 Ecotact and Unilever Kenya entered the Guinness Book of World Records for mounting a campaign that culminated in bringing together 19,352 people to wash their hands with soap.