How Nairobi Can Fix Its Serious Waste Problem

Nairobi’s current waste disposal system is fraught with major problems. EPA/Dai Kurokawa

Nairobi’s current waste disposal system is fraught with major problems. EPA/Dai Kurokawa

Uncollected solid waste is one of Nairobi’s most visible environmental problems. Many parts of the city, especially the low and middle-income areas, don’t even have waste collection systems in place. In high income areas, private waste collection companies are booming. Residents pay handsomely without really knowing where the waste will end up.

The Nairobi county government has acknowledged that with 2,475 tons of waste being produced each day, it can’t manage. Addis Ababa Ethiopia has a similar size population but only generates 1,680 tons per day.

Nairobi’s current waste disposal system is fraught with major problems. These range from the city’s failure to prioritise solid waste management to inadequate infrastructure and the fact that multiple actors are involved whose activities aren’t controlled. There are over 150 private sector waste operators independently involved in various aspects of waste management. To top it all there’s no enforcement of laws and regulations.

Nairobi’s waste disposal problems go back a long way and there have been previous efforts to sort them out. For example in the early 1990s, private and civil society actors got involved, signing contractual arrangements with waste generators. They often did this without informing or partnering with the city authorities.

More recently other strategies were put in place, some of which left parts of the city clean. They worked for a period, but unfortunately they weren’t sustainable because no institutional changes were made.

But there’s hope on the horizon with a new Nairobi Governor – Mike Sonko Mbuvi. He should learn from the mistakes of the past and put a new regime in place that addresses the structural problems that have plagued the city. This would include an improved improved collection and transportation plan that incorporates the private sector.

Learning from the past

In 2005 John Gakuo took over the management of city affairs as the Town Clerk. During his tenure (2005-2009) he made a deliberate effort to introduce new approaches.

When he took over the city only had 13 refuse trucks. They were able to collect a paltry 20% of the waste produced by the city. To overcome this, the authorities contracted private waste collection firms to collect, transport and dispose waste at Dandora dump site which is the biggest and the only designated site. This quickly boosted the total waste collected with levels oscillating between 45%-60%.

Other changes included:

  • The development of a proper waste collection and transportation schedule with market operators. This meant waste from open-air markets was brought to identified collection points on specific days.

  • A weighbridge to measure amounts of waste disposed at Dandora was introduced. An important way to know disposal levels vis-a-vis collection and generation.

  • Enforcement officers were deployed to prevent dumping in parts of the city that were notorious for waste accumulation.

  • Over 2,000 arrests were made, making residents aware that indiscriminate dumping was illegal and punishable under the city authority laws.

All these efforts paid off – for parts of the city. For example, the heart of the city, the Central Business District, was cleaned up and waste was brought under control.

But crucial elements that would have ensured that the changes were sustainable were left out. For example, no new physical infrastructure, like the construction of waste transfer centres and proper landfills, were built, nor was new equipment bought.

After Gakuo’s regime, the next one worth a mention is Evans Kidero’s regime (2013 - 2017). It can be credited for trying to fast-track the implementation of the Solid Waste Management Master Plan which assessed the waste management problem of Nairobi and developed projects that could be implemented to ensure a sustainable system was in place.

This ensured that while the private sector needed to help with waste collection and transportation, the government was key to institutionalising waste management services.

Thirty waste collection trucks were bought and serious investment was made into heavy equipment. And in an effort to streamline waste collection a franchise system of waste collection was rolled out. This involved dividing the city into nine zones to make it easier to manage waste.

The franchise arrangement gave private operators a monopoly over both waste and fee collections, but relied heavily on the public body for enforcement of the system.

The franchising system failed due to a lack of enforcement by the city. In addition, in-fighting broke out between the private waste collection firms that had individual contracts with waste generators and the appointed contractor.

But other changes introduced during this period were more successful and had longer lasting effect. For example new laws were introduced designed to create order in the sector. These included the solid waste management act in 2015. This classified waste and also created a collection scheme based on the sub-county system. It also put penalties in place.

In addition, in 2016, 17 environment officers were appointed and posted to the sub-counties to plan and supervise waste management operations alongside other environmental issues.

These changes planted the seeds of an efficient and working waste management system. But the regime fell down when it come to enforcement. This meant that the gains that had been made were soon lost.

What needs to be done

Expectations are high for the new regime that has taken over. It should look to fast-track the following programmes:

  • Implement an improved collection and transportation plan that incorporates private sector and civil society groups;

  • Establish a disposal facility to reduce secondary pollution from the city’s dumps;

  • Decommission the Dandora dump site;

  • Implement the re-use, reduction, and recycling of waste;

  • Establish intermediate treatment facilities to reduce waste and its hazards;

  • Create an autonomous public corporation;

  • Put in place legal and institutional reforms to create accountability;

  • Implement a financial management plan, and

  • Implement private sector involvement.

Nairobi can fix it’s waste disposal problems. All it needs is focused attention, good governance and the implementation of systems that ensure changes outlive just one administration.


This article was originally published on The Conversation.




Part-time lecturer and Director of the Africa Livelihood Innovations for Sustainable Environment Consulting Group, University of Nairobi

TRIP REVIEW: Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and Build a Farm Along the Way

We read the news and we learn what’s wrong with the world. I honestly couldn’t care less. Yes, there is war, there is starvation and death. People cheat, organizations lie and the international economy is in need of a stimulus package from God. Now you know everything you need to know about our global shortcomings. Let’s do something to help. There is an ancient Greek proverb that says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” With the amazing amount of interconnectivity and social complexity these days, it’s easy to view Earth as one, big society and I think it’s time we began planting a couple more trees. It’s organizations like Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy that are making it easier for us do so.

It started with a passionate New York Times correspondent with an extremely manly name, Paul von Zielbauer. After making a career out of reporting on topics such as the Iraq war, the privatization of prison medical care, state government and more, Paul founded Roadmonkey. Driven by a desire to “give motivated people the chance to dive deep into a foreign culture and work hard for people in need,” Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy was born in 2008. The term “adventure philanthropy” now stands as the keystone to Roadmonkey’s philosophy. What is so unique about this organization is that the volunteers are given a chance to help those in need, but they are also getting to explore and get off of the beaten path at the same time.

Roadmonkey’s take on philanthropy is evident in their upcoming Tanzania trip. First off, let’s point out that only 6% of Tanzanians living in rural areas have access to modern electricity services. These people live off of the land and any help offered would probably be appreciated. Participants will fly out to Tanzania and lend a hand in building an organic farm for one of the local communities. A pretty standard, run-of-the-mill volunteer trip, right? Oh, I forgot to mention that the volunteers will also be climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. The trip starts off with a seven-day trek up and down the mountain, don’t forget to bring your tent. The Participants will literally learn about the country from the ground up, so when it comes time to contribute to the community they will actually have a stake in what is being built. They will have experienced the culture, experienced the people and they will know that they are actually making a change.

There is only one roadblock for this Roadmonkey trip and it’s a particularly common one as well. Money. The best deal is to sign up for the trip with 8-10 other people, which cuts the price down to $5499 per person, not including airfare. No small chunk of change. This limits the trip to the privileged or to those with rigorous budget control. For those of you who are looking to volunteer international without planting your wallet in the community garden, this trip might not be for you. However, if you have the time and the money and are looking to add some spice to your life while bringing change to those less fortunate than you, look no further.

Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy is breaking down the border between volunteer work and adventure. If you can afford it, this company will send you all over the world and you can be sure of a good time. For those of you who are enticed by the opportunity, but can’t afford it, check back with for more trip reviews.


Kino Crooke spent the last three years juggling school and travel. He most recently spent the last two months traveling across Spain before moving to New York to work with CATALYST.

What's Wrong with a Box of Toys?

It’s December 10th and Tom, Saskia and I have come to the half-completed Karin Children’s Clinic to watch a local women’s group hold a weekly meeting to discuss administrative matters. They manage projects from beadmaking to raising livestock on a pay-it-forward scheme amongst various families in the group. A man from the Heifer Foundation is busy reporting on the status of the cow breeding program. Nobody seems particularly impressed. I feel hot, having decided to stand outside to take pictures of the proceedings. We have arrived in time for what appears to be the last item on the day’s agenda. The opening of a large cardboard box with a Samaritan’s Purse logo on the side. I sigh.

The last memory I have of Samaritan’s Purse was seeing a manicured lawn and suburban house with SP signage square in the middle of an Ethiopian village that appeared wholly undeveloped. I still use that sight as a metaphor for badly-intended aid. Aid spent on the expats, not the community. What little I know of them, they seem to be a faith-based organisation of some kind. With, I suspect, much of the naive worldview that it entails. They are also somehow responsible for the arrival of The Box. The lady leading the meeting reads out a letter that came with The Box. I roll my eyes. 

Everyone applauds. The Box is opened. Pens and pencils are first apportioned out to the various parents in the group, so that they can hand them on to their kids for their school work. Then the remaining toys are handed out to the parents and to some additional children who have taken to looking at the proceedings with wide eyes. There was a huge collection of toys, many of which I would have considered trading my brother for in my youth. 

There was a slinky, and a stuffed green amphibian of some sort, as well as plasticine, koki pens, stickers, bubbles and all manner of other fun things. The toys were warmly received by children and parents alike. The kids who were in attendance went outside immediately to play with their allocated toys. One who had received a toy parachutist would throw it up in the air and catch it again in delight as it floated back down with an open parachute. Then throw it again immediately, over and over. Another who had stickers (but nothing on which to immediately stick them) promptly covered himself and his nearest friend. The point here, is that everyone loved the toys.

I had stopped my ‘holier-than-thou eye rolling at this point, having replaced it with a sort of philosophical confusion that I have still not managed to reconcile. On the one hand, I think that glee boxes full of toys like this are little more than a guilty West trying to salve its conscience with a dollop of God-inspired charity. The structural features in the relationship between the US and places like Uganda that brought about this inequality and sustain it (in the larger sense) remain as strong as they ever were. So you have some toys. Whoop. It would be even nicer if the people in the world with the money and the guns had made sure you had a better life from the beginning. If they had used them more responsibly, more humanely.

And yet.

There is no denying that this lone box, for all my bitching and angst against international politics, really did bring a good deal of joy. That the community of the Fairview Baptist Church probably meant well when they sent it. This box of toys was never intended to make the US get firmer about catching LRA leaders, or stop its corporations buying the minerals from the neighbouring  DRC. The ones which pay for continued bloodletting. Nope. The single, carefully-packed purpose of this box was to reach some children who had no toys, and give them the joy of the parachuting man. The stickers you can stick on your friends. A green frog toy.

So can I judge them wrong for sending it? Would I prefer that the box had never been posted, and that the Fairview Baptist Church had instead gone to picket Congress?

In my heart, honestly, I would have to pick The Box.

And then there are the pictures. I deeply dislike the stereotype that the kids in raggedy-looking clothing looking at the box of toys represents. They are pictures that I would refuse to allow published because they say all the wrong things to people who weren’t there to see them as live, happy, rich individuals. But what other pictures do you take to tell the story of kids waiting on a box of brand new toys? And if those are the pictures you end up with, should you never show them at all?

The pictures lie. Partly because they aren’t everything, and partly because we are so conditioned to respond to photographs like these with pity. Which can be powerfully dehumanizing and completely the wrong response. But rather than nothing at all, take the images as a poor facsimile of reality.

They won’t tell the story, just as that box won’t fix poverty. But they are an innocent effort by people who mean well. And wish to do better.

Richard Stupart is a freelance photojournalist with an interest in postconfilct recovery and representations of Africa. He writes regularly at

"Poverty Porn" Parody

This parody video calls on Africans to save frostbitten Norwegians... by donating radiators. Made by The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund, it highlights how exploitative "poverty porn" can be. As the Africa for Norway website asks, "What if every person in Africa saw this video, and it was the only information they ever got about Norway, what would they think?" 


Invisible Children's "KONY 2012"

This short film created by the nonprofit Invisible Children was released on March 5, 2012 and became the most viral video of all time. It reached 1.2 million views in 2012 making it the #1 top nonprofit video of the year. The film's purpose was to promote a "STOP KONY" movement, making Ugandan cult and militia leader, indicted war criminal and International Criminal Court fugitive Joseph Kony, globally known so that he would be arrested. The campaign resulted in a resolution by the US Senate and contributed to the decision to send troops by the African Union. The film was highly controversial. What do you think?