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Kenyan Slum Seeks to Turn Sewage into Gold with Recycling Plant

Source: Reuters 1/31/2017, Location: Africa

Abdullahi Ibrahim’s dream to set up a fruit-juice business has so far been thwarted by water scarcity in Kenya’s biggest slum, Kibera. But the 19-year-old is confident a reliable water supply - which he sees as a basic need - will be available one day, enabling him to open up shop. His ambition could get a boost as soon as March, when a sewage treatment plant under construction in the east of the slum, home to around a quarter of a million people in southwest Nairobi, is due to start operating.

The plant is being built by ASTICOM K Ltd, a Kenyan company that specializes in waste recycling, with $12.7 million in funding from the multi-donor Climate Technology Initiative. ASTICOM CEO Leah Tsuma said the plant will be the first in Africa to both purify sewage into clean water and convert solid waste into power.

“Accessing water and electricity is a big problem for us slum dwellers,” said Ibrahim. “I am looking to this recycling plant for things to change.” In the absence of a water treatment system, groups of traders have taken over Kibera’s water supply.

Even for those still connected to the city council water network like Robert Akim, a clerk at the Kibera Constituency Office, unexpected rationing leaves them at the mercy of the private suppliers. “The whole slum is messy because the cartels do not do their job as expected,” said Akim. “They control the supply of water, energy and waste management.”

The new plant, whose construction began in November on a 5-acre (2-hectare) plot of land donated by a local housing co-operative, could help bust their monopoly. Two drainage canals running through the slum will channel waste water to the plant, while young people will be awarded contracts to supply solid waste, said project leader Tsuma.

The plant's planned power capacity is 8 megawatts of electricity, which will be generated using biogas from solid waste. It also aims to produce 6,000 tonnes of methane per year that will be sold for cooking. Treated water will be provided free to Kibera residents, Tsuma added. The plant’s purification technology uses anaerobic digestion where raw sewage is collected in a big tank, and then filtered and taken through a chemical process to remove harmful bacteria.

The solid waste in the sewage water will be used to make biogas, while the liquid part is purified, Tsuma said. “Even the bad smell is removed, and so clean drinking water is generated,” she explained.

Boost for Youth

Stephen Ogolla, laundry manager at the Human Needs Project, a community enterprise in Kibera town center, said the plant would help create work for thousands of youth. The biggest opportunity will be for them to invest in their own businesses since water will be provided free to Kibera’s inhabitants, while those living within a 1 km radius of the plant will also benefit from free electricity.

A laundry, for example, consumes lots of water and electricity, Ogolla said. His own, serving local people, uses up to 10,000 liters of water per day. “The plant can help close the water shortage gap in Kibera,” he added.

A self-help group working in Kenya’s slums, Ray of Hope for Waste Management within Communities (ROMCO), said some 75,000 tonnes of waste are generated in Kibera slum every year, the equivalent of around 205 tonnes per day. ROMCO treasurer Steve Ochieng’ said access to energy would enable young people to start businesses like beauty salons, welding shops and even cyber cafes. “Kibera is a big area, with many different kinds of opportunities,” he said.

Environmental Fears

But the project has sparked some health concerns. Pastor Mathew Kalulu, chairman of the Kibera Udongo Housing Cooperative Society, said his organization had heard fears that transportation of waste to the plant could lead to littering of nearby roads. And convincing people that water purified from the sewage canals is safe to drink could prove difficult since “it is really filthy at the source”, he said. “People are also concerned about emissions that may be produced by the chemical processes in the factory,” Kalulu added.

John Paul Malawi, Nairobi County environmental officer, said the waste recycling project would be guided by law, including regulations covering any by-products that may be toxic. “I want Kibera people to know that, as the protector of the environment, we are keenly following the project so that it does not have any adverse effects,” said Malawi.

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