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

“In the slums you really need to invest heavily in behaviour change. It’s not like in the city where you put up an Iko Toilet, open the doors the next morning and business starts. In the slums it’s a process convincing people why they need to wash their hands [and] why they need to use soap. Now, who will invest in that?”

Last year Iko Toilet served 12m people in Kenya, but Kuria says there is still a long way to go in addressing sanitation issues in urban areas.

Water shortage

Moving forward, the company plans to roll out vacuum toilets which are commonly used in aircraft where flushing the toilet requires less than a glass of water. The company has been piloting its mobile Iko Toilet Plus, which uses vacuum technology, at corporate events and during emergency situations, such as for two months at the fire-damaged Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. In the next two years, Kuria says, Ecotact will have rolled out 45 such toilets.

“I think that is the direction we must go. It’s a bit expensive [but] we cannot afford the luxury of flushing water in this continent, especially in mainland cities like Nairobi, where already water for drinking is scarce.”

The company is also looking to diversify by combining waste it collects with that generated in informal settlements and converting it into electricity. In the last six years, Ecotact has operated small digesters which generated small quantities of biogas.

“What we now want to do is go full scale by putting up a small power plant that may produce 1.5 MW of energy,” he says. “Our target is to put up a 5,000m³ digester where we can process 20,000 litres of waste per day.”

Social entrepreneurship

According to Kuria, social enterprises play a critical role in Africa but face major challenges that threaten their existence. One challenge for Ecotact is the taxation regime.

“There is no [tax] relief at all… yet we are sacrificing and committing to addressing an issue that the government should have done. It is purely in the interest of the state that this country reaches more than 50% of sanitation coverage. It would reduce funding to illnesses caused by poor hygiene.”

He notes that while there are numerous opportunities for social entrepreneurship in Africa given the many challenges the continent faces, social entrepreneurs lack support and struggle to access finances.

“You always feel like you are sorting out the world’s problems on your own. The next thing? You are looking for formal employment and killing a great idea that would have solved major challenges in society.”

According to Kuria, a big opportunity lies in Africa fully embracing public private partnerships.

“Whereas government has been unable to deliver some services because of financial constraints, the private sector is holding a lot of money. There is need, even at a lower scale, to synchronise government priorities and funds available in the private sector.”

He advocates the same strategy of involving local people as African governments try to solve infrastructure challenges and boost economic growth.

“China is not our solution. It could be part of it but it is not really our solution. Our solution lies in our people owning the investments. Before borrowing money from China for infrastructure, have we borrowed locally? We need to think about how the local private sector and diaspora Africans can start owning government infrastructure projects.”