Garbage Composition, Path and Process Mapping

This post is cross-posted from Spatial Collective’s blog.

Spatial Collective recently undertook a campaign of tackling solid waste management in Mathare. Solid waste (waste) comes in various shapes and sizes and materials and has various life-cycles. In order to understand what some of the processes undertaken while handling waste are we looked closely at the composition and the life-cycle of waste.

First, we looked at the composition of waste in Mathare. Solid waste, which is deposited in Mathare’s communities (excluding raw sewerage), usually consists of biological, recyclable, electrical and electronic, and hazardous material, and other waste such as sanitary towels, medical waste and human excrement.

Community designated dump site

Secondly, we looked at the life-cycle of waste by looking at the locations, paths and the processes through which it travels on its way to the final drop-off point. Looking at Mathare, waste is usually generated at a household or a local business level, where it is also stored, accumulated, thrown away, burned, buried, and sometimes separated into different recyclable or reusable materials. Waste then travels from the household to the drop-off site which can be either some predetermined collection point or a community designated dump site (some people call these illegal dump sites). Waste is either collected by the youth groups at a household level or it is disposed off by the residents themselves. Youths, individuals dealing with waste management or the residents dispose of waste by burning it; they throw it into the river or just anywhere; sometimes they sell valuable pieces of waste to the middleman for some cash; or they prepare it for the proper collection by the city council at the predesignated collection points. Last part in the life-cycle of solid waste in Mathare is its transport to the “official” dump site, Dandora (obviously waste which is thrown into the river or burned etc. doesn’t end there), where waste is once more sorted and recycled by the numerous “garbage-pickers.” Nairobi City Council has plans for the future to turn waste into energy at the recycling plants.

Path, Location and Process

Knowing the composition of waste and understanding its life-cycles can make us more informed regarding the processes, the people involved, their organization and behaviors around solid waste management. These informed decisions will hopefully guide us towards more sustainable solutions regarding solid waste management in Mathare.


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Spatial Collective tackles waste management in Mathare

This blog post is cross-posted from Spatial Collective’s blog.

Mathare river

Garbage collection is a major problem in Mathare, a conclusion easily confirmed by even the most casual observation (Mathare river pictured above). The problem of inadequate waste management in Mathare is no less than an environmental and humanitarian disaster. Waste is everywhere. Food waste, paper, broken bottles, batteries, metal, plastic, electrical material, building material, raw sewerage, paint and other chemicals, even human feces litter walking paths, open spaces, roads, and even people’s houses.  These are the things one can see.  Then there are the unseen — though usually smelled — toxins created by open-pit burning and the overflowing waste from the open-drainage.  A waste management system appears to be non-existent. There seems to be little question that the health implications for the people living in these conditions are disastrous.

The team at Spatial Collective is trying to get a better understanding of waste management challenges in Mathare so that we can work with residents to find appropriate solutions. We are determined to implement a campaign to clean Mathare and improve the existing waste management systems found in the community. The inspiration largely comes from Isaac Mutisya, also known as Kaka, and his youth group Mathare Environmental. Kaka was recently featured in a story on NPR about his role as an “activist cartographer” at Spatial Collective. His group managed to take over an open space in the middle of Mlango Kubwa, which was being used before as an uncontrolled dump site. He and his team transformed it into a community center equipped with a small football pitch (picture below).

Community center in Mlango Kubwa

Improving waste management is not just about cleaning dumps sites. Apart from being a health hazard, waste represents an important source of income for many groups and individuals. According to Kaka, due to lack of employment, many youths took on waste management as an opportunity to earn much needed cash.  Recycling plastics, for example, earns a bit of money for cash-strapped youth.

Waste management tends to be political as well. Tatiana Thieme, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge, states that when the state fails to deliver basic services, such as garbage collection, grassroots waste management initiatives take over. Groups dealing with garbage collection and waste management become productive entry points of youth ‘mobilization,’ ‘livelihood creation’ and a ‘mode of resistance’ and “hence a political platform for low-income urban youth to reclaim their rights to the city.”1

The waste management system in Mathare might be broken but it does exist. One might not agree with the way things are done but it has to be taken into account that some sort of a system exists. That is why, in order to avoid the potential conflicts and to propose the best solutions possible, we need to first understand the problem.

Why waste management? Out of all the problems that the people of Mathare face day to day, solving a problem of accumulating waste seems the least complicated to solve. The problem is right there, in-your-face, visible, out in the open. At the same time the effects of the intervention should be quickly visible making them easier (but by no means easy) to measure – there are either less, more or the same number of uncontrolled dump sites in the community.

The campaign has three parts: problem definition, designing of proposed solutions (offline and technological), and campaign implementation.

We will start with defining the problem and setting of our goals. Our work will commence by conducting a preliminary public opinion survey. Professor Steven Livingson of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University is advising us on the design of the survey questionnaire and in setting up the initial strategy. We will continue by categorizing waste management issues for the purpose of documenting and mapping them. In the end we will conduct the mapping of stakeholders and power relations between them which are currently present in waste management in Mathare.

We hope that these steps will give us better insights into waste management in Mathare. These insights will lead us in our next two steps: designing solutions (including introducing potential technological solutions) and actual campaign implementation.

This campaign will serve as a testing ground for all the future campaigns that Spatial Collective wants to undertake in informal settlements. As we learn what works, we will incorporate the lessons learned in our other project designs. We are hope to identify the most effective strategies for promoting development, in this case waste management.

This is the first post in a series of many in which we will document our progress. We ask anyone to provide us with feedback or to give us advice in order to ensure that we do this campaign responsibly and effectively.

1 Tatiana Thieme, Youth waste and work in Mathare: whose business and whose politics? Accessed: July 20, 2013,



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Two and a half years in Africa, Part 2

Children exploring new technologies

This is the second in a series of blog posts (here’s the first blog) describing my involvement and experiences working in the field of Information Communications Technology in Africa.

At the end of 2010, I became the programs director of Map Kibera, a pioneering collaborative mapping project that engaged local communities to map one of the largest and poorest slums in Africa. My main goal was to develop and implement programs that would serve communities, organizations and the government by addressing relevant issues and stories, providing more targeted data collection and narrowing the gap between service providers and citizens.

Through this work I had the privilege to work at the forefront of the ICT revolution in Africa by mapping urban vulnerability and industrial encroachment in Mukuru slums, setting up social accountability platforms in Kwale county, supporting various organizations in data collection and visualization in Mathare and Kibera slums, initiating a multi-media project focusing on video and storytelling in Mathare and consulting for the World Bank on water, development and ICT issues.

In the first couple of months I realized that ensuring that the programs would have the desired impact was going to be the toughest part of the job. The most important lesson I learned prior to my new position was that the vast amount of data available openly does not necessarily lead to any type of action. People are impressed and at the same time overwhelmed by the amount of data freely available. The platform which we used, OpenStreetMap, is not very intuitive when it comes to extracting data, and oftentimes community based organizations lack the skills and know-how to gain from the data which could be relevant for their work. As I wrote in this blog post apart from a small number of individuals, mostly foreign, that have used the data for their academic research, the data mostly stayed untouched. My colleague Jamie and I took over the responsibility to run the organization and we realized that we had to change the game plan if we were to make any sort of an impact within the communities in which we were working.

We made a plan to focus on community development, outreach and networking, identifying the main state and non-state actors in order to figure out how we could help their cause and at the same time make our cause relevant. We understood that different entities need different types of data. For example, an NGO dealing with water and sanitation needs different data than a City Council employee working on security, or a group of community members collecting trash. I wrote some of my thoughts down in a blog mentioned in the previous paragraph, where I brainstormed possible solutions to this problem.

Our first target was Mathare, the second largest slum in Kenya; I took a personal interest to set up operations there. Mathare is in many ways different from Kibera. It’s an urban jungle situated about 5 km east from the city center, and is notorious for drugs, gangs, lack of services and jobs; it also has much fewer NGOs working in the area.

With the help of my colleagues Jamie Lundine and Simon Kokoyo, I led the creation of a base map of Mathare, which consisted of all the major roads and pathways, and all the major landmarks, such as schools, hospitals, religious institutions, market places, restaurants and businesses, etc. (Here’s the list of relevant blog posts). In a nutshell, we trained the residents in GPS data collection and OpenStreetMap, and created social media and video programs. Our goal was to train Mathare residents in mapping and social media tools so they could relate their stories to an audience outside of the slum, and beyond the borders of the nation. The project succeeded largely due to our approach: we had an open door policy, meaning everybody who was interested in learning about mapping or social media (or anything else we were doing) could join. We kicked off the project with a huge open forum, which was in itself the climax of weeks – even months – of community engagement by Simon and myself. In the months prior to the start of the project we walked all across Mathare, met various youth groups, NGOs, community leaders and government representatives. As part of the open door policy, we decided to rotate the venues of meetings and trainings, so that residents from different parts of the community would feel welcome, be able to participate, ask questions, and give us feedback on a regular basis. This turned out to be a very important step, as we were able to recalibrate the project according to the communities’ needs and wishes. As a result, the community came to own the project more, and organizations, for example our local partner, Community Cleaning Services, immediately used the data for advocacy purposes. This was truly a community mapping initiative!

Mathare Community Forum

From the community feedback we received from Mathare residents, we learned that the community wanted to focus especially on water and sanitation issues. The Map Mathare participants and the community members came up with the plan to tackle these issues. They created a detailed Water and Sanitation map of Mathare, especially four villages in Mathare: Mabatini, Mashimoni, Thayu and No10 (relevant blog posts are here, here, here and here). Since then, the maps have been used repeatedly by different NGO’s and local authorities such as ward managers; one visit to a ward manager or D.O.’s office confirms the map’s significance, as these respected community leaders all have the maps hanging on their walls.

We didn’t just stop at mapping. With the help of Nathaniel Canuel, a freelance Canadian videographer working with the Environmental Youth Alliance and Up With Hope, we formed a video program called Mathare In Motion, where residents could unleash their creativity. Freedom of expression was the major goal of the initiative; as long as the videos were somehow connected to Mathare, they were good enough! The highlight of this initiative was an amazing educational movie: Poa Rowe (see Nathaniel’s blog and the movie below). Written and directed by Jeff Mohammed, the film addressed environmental issues faced by people living in Mathare.

POA ROWE from Nat Can on Vimeo.

During this period I got really attached to Mathare. When the funding for the program ended I still went there mostly in my free time to experiment on different initiatives. I grew close with most of the participants and some community members, which was expected after an intense, almost a year-long personal engagement. We held numerous discussions on life in the slum, brainstormed different ideas of how to highlight community members’ work, and promote themselves better. We realized that if they were to become true advocates of Mathare they had to turn the attention to themselves, and use the technology and time to learn about how they lived their lives. One such initiative was what we called “mobility mapping” described here. We initiated this method of mapping to answer the following questions: how do people negotiate the spaces in which they live? Does poverty influences mobility, and if so, in what ways? While we were in the process of developing this idea, we came across a group of architects and reporters – called Live in Slums – who were at the time working in Mathare. They were building a kitchen and a garden at the Why Not Primary School, and were interested to learn about what we were doing; they decided to help out by tracking some of the local garbage collection and water delivery groups. This project is ongoing and could be expanded to other areas in the future.

Mobility mapping

During this period of time, another architect friend of mine visited Kenya. Thomas Chapman, who was at the time running Backdoors to the City, came to Kenya to do some work and research in Taita Hills. He had an idea to create a 3D map of Mathare. As I wrote in this blog post 3D city models have many purposes ranging from urban planning, simulation, navigation systems, modeling, change detection, etc. They are in general used to visualize reality. The slums especially lie in geographically (and otherwise) challenging areas and a 3D model could help to understand some of the challenges people there face. So one weekend in September some of the Mathare residents and I collected field measurements, such as the heights of structures (shacks, brick buildings, etc.) and the topography of the terrain. The topography of Mathare is unique in a way that the most of the slum actually lies inside a deserted quarry. Mathare itself has two levels, one above the quarry near Juja road (Kosovo village also falls into this category because of the proximity to Thika road) and one inside the quarry. One interesting observation was that this topography influences – amongst other things – the rent that people pay for housing. Inside the quarry – in the valley – the rent ranges from Ksh 500 – 1000 ($6 – $12), along Juja road it’s Ksh 2500 – 5000 ($30 – $60), and in Kosovo Ksh 1500 – 3000 ($18 – $35). April Hiebert, another architect friend of mine from Canada, created a 3D map using this data. This project showed that a collaboration between people working oceans apart is possible, and also that high quality products that combine field measurements taken by community members, GPS data, and photography can be realized with minimum cost. This project is also ongoing.

3D of Mathare and different rent 'zones'

In the midst of all of these activities, I was hired as a consultant for the World Bank to organize a series of community meetings in Kibera and Mathare on water related issues. The World Bank was interested in community driven technological solutions to water related problems. They were interested in organizing community forums to better understand how ICT can provide solutions to water problems in informal settlements. Their initiative fit well with what we did in Mathare, which was water and sanitation mapping, and the things we were doing at that time in Kibera, which was re-mapping of the water and sanitation issues (read here), through supporting Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) and Kenya Water for Health Organization (KWAHO) to do data collection and map creation. This helped them to identify and monitor the state and locations of their facilities. There are many water-related problems in the informal settlements; some of them are described in these two blog posts [1], [2], as are some possible solutions (follow the progress here).

During this time, my colleague Jamie Lundine and I co-led a variety of mapping trainings, like the training of the entire ICT staff of Plan Kenya. For this occasion, we created a series of training manuals. I focused on technical mapping and map creation (some of the manual can be found here), while Jamie focused on participatory community approaches.

The work in Mathare and the reorganization of Kibera activities gave me experience in program management, design and implementation. The interest that some of the projects were generating made it almost necessary to expand to other geographic areas, as the demand for trainings and implementation of projects came pouring in from all over Kenya. As a result, our programming also changed to meet this demand. For example, we got involved in mapping an entire county (Kwale), which was organizationally and logistically very different from mapping an urban center. In retrospect, the most important lessons learned during this period were: to build sustainable and useful programs, you need the involvement and feedback from a broad base of community members and organizations in the area in which you’re working (this way a broad spectrum of ideas is generated and a greater understanding of issues is achieved); let the community and local organizations dictate the type of data to be collected (they know what they will use); encourage people to unleash their creativity (amazing things will happen!); seek support from a well-established organization, which will act as a backbone when dealing with the government (we had a great relationship with Plan Kenya); care about how your programs are perceived in the communities through constant public discussions and presence (there are too many organizations who come with money and big plans for short term projects – people just see them as money bags, meaning they are viewed as a way to get a quick buck, greeted with skepticism and in general not taken seriously – it takes time to build trust); and give the people you work with credit for the work they’re doing and for the work they did, and give them responsibilities to carry out tasks on their own (it will make them come back for more and they’ll feel more ownership, lowering the programs cost in the process). More coming up in blog 3.

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Two and a half years in Africa, Part 1

Conducting a training exercise

Africa is undergoing a technological revolution as the spread of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) increasingly impacts the world’s least developed continent. From the dramatic role of social media in the rebellions of North Africa, to the (so far) more subtle impact of cell-phones, mobile-money and cheap GPS south of the Sahara, fundamental changes are afoot. Over the past two years and a half years, I have worked on concrete, on-the-ground projects across East Africa, leveraging these new technologies to support the development of marginalized communities. This is the first in a series of blog posts describing that experience of working in the field of ICT in Africa and my two year involvement at Map Kibera Trust, which ended a month and a half ago.

I came to Africa in 2009 seeking new challenges and to gain an understanding of how ICT can contribute to economic and political development. In Kenya, I started as a freelance-mapper supporting local NGOs, drawing on my skills as a geodetic engineer and work experience at various private and public sector institutions in Europe. The story of my involvement in Wongonyi is well documented in this blog entry.

When I returned to Nairobi I started volunteering at Map Kibera, a project whose aim was to map Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa and to introduce OpenStreetMap, a collaborative mapping project that creates and provides free geographic data and mapping to anyone who wants it. In my two years with Map Kibera, and also under my supervision, the project expanded to many other areas of Kenya, and became an official organization – Map Kibera Trust. I was more or less unfamiliar with OpenStreetMap and was in the beginning learning as much as the participants who were all volunteers from different parts of Kibera and were selected for the purpose of data collection.

During the first couple of months, I was responsible for creating a variety of printed maps. Data for the maps was collected by the participants of the program and exported from OpenStreetMap. The maps focused on different themes, mainly Health, Education, Security, Water and Sanitation. These maps were very basic and often had to be produced over night to be further used the next day at community consultations or drawing/paper mapping exercises. The main idea behind paper mapping was to collect qualitative data, such as stories about particular issues, to enrich the maps with community residents’ narratives. I advised on the color scheme and the type of questions asked at the community consultations. The color scheme was important to differentiate between the types of questions asked, and consequently the types of data collected from these questions, such as the stories behind the issues, residents’ movement patterns, dangerous areas, etc. See this blog post for more on the significance of the color scheme. The main aim of these community meetings was to create a detailed security map, in particular focusing on girls security. For this map, I compiled, digitized and merged the quantitative (GPS) data with the qualitative (interviews) data to produce the most detailed security map of Kibera (see below).

Security map of Kibera

As the thematic mapping of Kibera’s amenities came to an end, I started another mapping venture. Kenya was holding a referendum on a proposed new constitution, and I traveled to Mount Elgon as a National Democratic Institute (NDI) consultant to map all the areas polling stations. The new constitution was overwhelming favored by Kenyans, and was enacted on 27 August 2010. This was a great historic moment for the country; it marked the end of a twenty-year struggle for reforms, and it initiated a new relationship between the Kenyan government and its citizens. In its election monitoring work, NDI needed information such as the geographic location of polling stations, their accessibility (e.g., could people reach them easily and quickly? how readily available was mobile phone service at each of the stations? what was their infrastructure?). In recent years, elections in Kenya have been cause for violence and fragmentation. The country has had serious institutional problems which makes it hard for the elections to be completed smoothly. The new constitution was expected to improve the election process, particular with regard to efficiency and transparency. It was hoped that mapping of polling stations in remote areas such as Mount Elgon (also a hot spot for violence during past years) would help the NDI – and as a result the Kenyan government – understand and address the problem of accessibility in rural areas. I had to design the entire mapping project, which covered a vast area, from scratch. This included coming up with a reasonable timeline, estimating (almost on a hunch) the amount of funds needed, planning day-to-day logistics, organizing operations, managing teams, and networking in the community. This experience, together with the Wongonyi experience I discuss elsewhere, was the inspiration for my first blog post: Steps into mapping the unmapped – Mapping on Mount Elgon.

Shortly after I returned from Mount Elgon, I journeyed to Diani Beach in Kwale County, where – with my colleague, Jamie Lundine – I co-lead the training of Plan International‘s senior management and staff members and youths from Kwale. An important partnership between Plan International and Map Kibera Trust emerged from this training. Plan was interested in the potential utility of Information Communication Technologies in their work throughout Kenya. I will write more about the mapping in Kwale and the relationship with Plan International in future blog posts.

This was a period of traveling for me. A few weeks after the Kwale training, I traveled to Swaziland as an UNICEF consultant on the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey programme (MICS). The purpose of MICS was to collect data on the situation of women and children in the country. My task was to help with the design of a training manual and train MICS surveyors on GPS data collection to enhance the quality of data with geographic locations, for the purpose of spatial analysis. I traveled all over this small but beautiful country, accompanying the surveyors to the field in order to help them solve any immediate problems and offer on-the-ground support.

MICS Surveyors

The interest in OSM and the work we were doing grew throughout this time, and I both led and assisted with training exercises in Diani beach, Karura forest, Mukuru, Mathare, Kwale, International Livestock Research Institute. Approximately in August 2010 ended the first, eight-month long phase of my engagement with ICT in Africa and the start of more comprehensive involvement with Map Kibera, from mapping remote rural areas to mapping crowded and hectic urban centers, training people in participatory GIS, GPS data collection, OpenStreetMap, to speaking in front of hundreds of people, working with government representatives, NGO’s and communities, creating mapping outputs, and initiating new ideas. I learned a lot during the first months in Kenya but felt I could do even more, which is why I was thrilled to receive the opportunity to lead and design Map Kibera Trust’s programs. In this role, I could incorporate my own visions and ideas into different initiatives, and work with various stakeholders. My next blog post (Two and a Half Years in Africa, Part 2) will detail these experiences.


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Wongonyi and the first map from scratch

Two years ago I embarked on my first freelance mapping adventure in Africa. Prior to my arrival in Kenya in 2009, I connected with Ronald Mdawida, co-director of Kosmos Solutions International, a small NGO operating in both Taita Hills and the slums of Nairobi. Once in Kenya, I had time on my hands. I met with Ronnie, and, armed with little more than a GPS unit and a computer, traveled to his home village of Wongonyi, located near the Kenyan coast in Taita Hills.

Taita Hills, Wongonyi Village

The villages in the area didn’t, and still don’t, have electricity. After talking to the local chief in the area we (or rather he) made a plan to map the entirety of Wongonyi Sublocation, which consists of five villages. I decided to map all the individual houses, public buildings and other amenities in these villages (such as water points, etc.).  I had no idea what to expect, but I was eager to see what the data on the completed map would reveal.  Unfamiliar with the local landscape, I asked my guide Isaiah to draw me a sketch of the area.

Hand drawn by Isaiah vs. GPS tracks

In the beginning the task didn’t seem very large, but I was quickly overwhelmed. The area was vast (something the sketch didn’t reveal) and rough, and the sun was relentless. In the first couple of days, I got blisters on my ears because I didn’t wear a hat and on my feet from walking too much, and I was exhausted because of heat, the hight and the tough terrain. While the terrain slowed our progress immensely, there was another, more unexpected repeating occurrence that threw up a roadblock – the kindness of the Wongonyi people. Every time we stopped to map the location of a house, we had to stop for tea, or lunch or snacks, talk about our work, old times, weather, or life in general. This slowed us down significantly, sometimes for hours. Because of this, Isaiah and I developed a technique to minimize the time spent at each house: we would make sure no one saw us, sneak from the bush, take a GPS point, draw a quick sketch, and sneak back into the jungle. It was all out guerrilla mapping.

After a month, the map started coming together piece by piece. The terrain played an important role in the area, and throughout fieldwork, I considered how to represent it. I knew the map wouldn’t be complete without it.

I uploaded all of my data onto Open Street Map, switched on a layer option called Cycle Map, and took a series of screenshots of the area. Next, I opened the shape files of the same area in ArcGIS and used those shape files as the base layer. I imported the screenshots, glued them together and georeferenced them. Then, I digitized over the pictures; this produced contour lines, which I later used on the finished map (see below).

Digitizing contour lines

Since all the contour lines had height attributed to them, it was just a small step further to create a 3D presentation of the region; this was done by Thomas Chapman, a South African architect friend of mine, who was able to use this 3D map for planing purposes in the area.

3D presentation of Wongonyi area

This trip to Wongonyi was my first encounter with African rural life, and I spent a lot of time learning about the daily hardships residents face. The roads into and out of the area are at times impassable.  Public facilities, when they exist, are underfunded. There are few jobs, and alcoholism is a big problem. It saddened me to see the friends I had made encounter such obstacles on a regular basis.

The Wongonyi experience was also very important for my personal development: I began to develop my own method of participatory mapping, I became inspired to create my first blog, and I learned lessons that would prepare me for the work I was about to embark on in the crowded informal settlements of Nairobi.

Below you can see the finished map and here are some of the pictures of Wongonyi from my Flickr photo stream.

Wongonyi final map
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I often wonder how places get their names. My interest was rekindled while I was working in Kwale, a rural area in the south-eastern most tip of Kenya, where I got familiar with the history of some of the places there. I was at the same time reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden where he, at the beginning of the book, talks about how it is a duty and a privilege of the first explorers to name new places.

Places get names through various processes and the place name evolves over time. The primary division is between the names of natural features and the names of human settlements. The first explorers had to name the places in order to identify and map them. The names ranged from the names of the saints (San Francisco, USA) or the religious holidays celebrated at particular stopping places (Soledad – Solitude, USA). Then they named the places according to how the expedition felt at the time (Cape of Good Hope, SA), descriptively after the natural features (Horrible Hollow Hill, Tasmania), after the animals seen (Los Gatos – the cats, USA) or after the nature of the place itself (Rainbow Mountains, USA). It goes without saying that they also named the places after people (Georgetown, USA). But to me the most interesting are the names of places which describe things which happened there or as Steinbeck puts it: “each name suggests a story which has been forgotten”. An example of the latter is the story of Mwananyamala, a small African village and it’s name, a story which hasn’t been forgotten to this day.

The story goes like this: Back in the old days, when there were less people and their houses more scattered, a big population of lions lived in the area around the village. The lions would sneak into the village under the cover of darkness to look for food, mostly pigs which people raised. The people knew they were coming. They heard the footsteps and recognized the heavy breathing of lions in the dark. People would sit in their houses, too scared to move, too scared to breathe. Quietly, with a whisper, the mothers sang to their children to comfort them: “Mwananyamala!”, “Baby be quiet!”

Mwananyamala village

So what’s the story of your current place of residence? I’m currently in Nairobi which name comes from Maasai phrase Enkare Nyirobi, which translates to “the place of cool waters”. (Today it could be called “the place of polluted waters”).


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ICT and the water sector: Water problems in Kibera and Mathare slums

This is the second blog posts I wrote for the World Bank’s Water Hackathon. Together with Simon Kokoyo, Kepha Ngito and Maximilian Hirn, I organized a series of community meetings to better understand how ICT can provide solutions to water problems in the informal settlements.

Here’s the video showcasing a forum in Kibera by Kibera News Network

The Kibera and Mathare Forums: Identifying water related problems in the informal settlements

Kibera and Mathare are two of the biggest slums in Kenya, and Africa. The population estimates vary and are highly debatable. For example, estimates of the population of Kibera vary between 170,000 and 1 million. What is certain is that the areas are big, hosting at least hundreds of thousands, but are informal and self-organized, are stricken by poverty, crime and disease, and lack basic services such as sufficient access to safe water and sanitation.

When organizing a community forum in complex places like Kibera and Mathare it is important to know who to talk to. Good local connections are key. Having had a presence in the slums for almost two years now, I got in touch with Simon Kokoyo from Mathare and Kepha Ngito from Kibera. Between them, these two community leaders have 30 years of experience working in Kibera and Mathare. With the help of their networks, we were able to mobilize the right type of people, ranging from water vendors, water buyers, opinion leaders, NGO representatives, provincial administration and researchers, all involved in water sector. Through the World Bank, we were able to invite the Nairobi City Water and Sewage Company, which is the main water supplier in Nairobi.

The main purpose of the forums was for the people to talk about the issues related to water. The forum was divided into introductions, a short presentation by Map Kibera Trust on mapping of water and sanitation in Kibera and Mathare (including short films created by Kibera News Network), a short presentation by Nairobi City Water and Sewage Company on their informal settlements program, discussions to determine which are the biggest issues regarding water in informal settlements, and working groups to dissect each issue into challenges, solutions and concrete action steps.

The main issues, challenges, solutions and action steps that came out of the forum are:

1. Cartels/Prices/Vandalism

According to the participants in the forums, the biggest barrier to accessing water in their communities is the cartels. Cartels consist of community members who own water points (often illegally connected to public pipes) and try to monopolize this supply with violence to keep prices high. Local politicians and even the water suppliers themselves often back these cartels. The cartels create artificial water shortages and, through vandalism and threats, hike up prices. The community feels powerless against these cartels and is very passive in tackling the problem, while the local administration and the government don’t solve the problem because some people gain from the status quo. The perverse outcome is that water prices are much higher in informal areas like Mathare and Kibera then they are in fancy Nairobi suburbs like Karen or Riverside.

According to the participants, the concrete solutions and the action steps to tackle the problem would be empowerment of the community members to monitor the water supply; creation of mechanisms to respond to water shortages, such as SMS reporting systems; high penalties for offenders (people vandalizing); coordination and consultation between the different stakeholders like the government, Nairobi City Council, Nairobi City Water and Sewage Company, and the community members; regular operations to dismantle illegal connections and cartels; and electing, educating and appointing community monitors to monitor water distribution and water levels.

2. Billing

A key billing issue are wrongly estimated and accumulated bills (so called “burden bills”), which often occur because utility meter reading staff refuse to venture into the slums; the residents then reject the resulting bills, which are perecieved as unfair, which leads to disconnections, which then in turn lead residents to either use overpriced cartel owned waterpoints, or to break into public pipes themselves. Other billing issues include bills being sent to the wrong addresses because of lack of a proper housing address system, and a lack of a mechanisms for easy payment of bills, without going to central offices that are often far away and expensive to get to.

The participants saw the solutions in setting up payments mechanisms through mobile phones (an approach piloted but not yet implemented by NCWSC), an improved system of reading water meters (e.g. SMS based self-reading of meters for areas where NCWSC reader-staff do not go themselves), educating the community in how to read water meters so they don’t fall prey to fraud and scams, and a negotiated settlement between the communities and the water suppliers to forgive the (often wrongly estimated) debts which accumulated and start anew once the systems are up.

3. Quality of Water

Water is highly contaminated, smells, has a weird color and has particles inside. This is because old, rusty pipes often break and water is polluted by the open drainage lines and sewage lines which run parallel to the water network. This causes frequent disease outbreaks. Water is also not properly stored in the houses, and storage tanks are not regularly cleaned and often not closed (with animals falling in, drowning and polluting the supply). People at the forum explained that people don’t think much about the quality of water because the water itself is so hard to get in any form. They specifically mentioned the absence of any education or support for household level treatment, even though easy solutions exist (e.g. solar disinfection with simple transparent water bottles).

The solution lies in better planning of water, drainage and sewage networks, regular monitoring of quality of water, publishing of water quality data, educating the community on water quality issues; a key step would also be the publication of water quality testing data on the internet, with an easily understandable map-based interface. Strikingly, this type of data is regularly collected by Nairobi Water utility at over 300 sampling sites, but is currently not published i.e. not accessible for regular people.

Following the community water discussion, Nairobi Water has decided to make this data public (!) for the first time.  Hackers are invited to make use of it here.

4. Connectivity/Access/Availability

The major problem regarding availability of water is that there is simply not enough safe water to satisfy the demand of the population. Water suppliers seem to be struggling with too few water sources, inadequate infrastructure and the rising population. The new settlements, especially informal ones, cannot be connected to the existing water network because water suppliers lack the resources and residents are often unable to pay for the connections. The settlements that do get connected are often subjected to vandalism because of competing interests, complicated bureaucratic procedures, and inconsistent price ranges for connections, water rationing, and bad water quality.

Solutions lie in finding or constructing additional water sources thus improving the water harvesting (this will have to range from major new upstream dam construction to new sources such as rain-water harvesting); lowering, standardizing and publicizing the water connection prices; credit-schemes for connection-fee payments; and sensitizing the community members on better treatment of scarce water resources.

5. Community ownership of the projects

The main challenge is how to tailor projects to community needs and ensure that the community feels ownership of water related projects. The problems seem to be: taking the responsibility for the projects and their successes and failures; competing interests of different stakeholders; and, consequently, lack of information and coordination between the stakeholders. Nairobi water utility representatives have highlighted that even as a quasi-governmental institution they often run into problems because of lack of community ownership that causes them to deal with bad/false actors, have supplies and kiosks stolen or damaged and to encounter all forms of resistance that undermine a sustainable supply.

The solution is building platforms for better access to open information, building better communication channels between the involved parties, and the sensitizing and raising awareness within the communities that should be the driving force behind the projects that are being planned within their communities.

6. Coordination and partnerships

Coordination and partnerships between different stakeholders is suffering from lack of monitoring and transparency; competing interests, which often lead to duplication of projects and illegal connections; ignorance (neighbors don’t know what each other are doing); and corruption.

Solutions could be setting up systems to monitor the organizations dealing with water issues, forming water and sanitation committees that would oversee the projects in their communities, and building a communication platform for these organizations to share information.

7. Land tenure issues and the impact of environmental degradation on water

The biggest problems are population growth, the illegal construction of infrastructure, and the degradation of the environment in the process. Locally, the environmental problems range from lack of dumping sites, lack of drainage systems, deforestation, and the use of rivers as dumping sites and toilet outlets. Unclear land-tenure arrangements in informal settlements interfere with infrastructure building and repair, because pipes cannot be laid or repaired without first settling land disputes and possibly removing/destroying illegal constructions on public land or existing pipes.

The solutions are community empowerment regarding the environmental issues, monitoring systems and high penalties in the case of illegal constructions, demolition of dangerous and environmentally un-friendly infrastructure, and better waste management.

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Mobility mapping – Mathare

How do people negotiate the spaces in which they live? How are those spaces circumscribed differently according to social class? Which paths are the most traveled in our community and why? Does poverty influence mobility and in what ways? These are questions that I started thinking about during my work in Mathare and decided to do an experiment in mobility mapping.

Mobility of 6 Mathare participants

Mobility mapping is a visual representation of people’s movements inside and outside their community (Tool Name: Mobility mapping, World Bank).

Some also call it “resource or asset mapping”. It is a tool that can be used to identify issues and problems related to a population’s mobility or lack thereof.

The Mathare participants that I worked with on the experiment understand that they are experts within their communities. They wanted to see how GPS technology could make visible their everyday movements, and what the information generated could tell them about their lives.

Each of them agreed to map his/her life for a week. The GPS unit was turned on at all times whenever the participants left their homes; their movements were tracked throughout the day. All of their interactions inside and outside the community were also mapped.

This project is ongoing, but some preliminary results (such as movement patterns) are already visible. For instance, the majority of movement occurs inside the slum, and is localized in the area where the individual resident comes from (see the picture above). Movements gravitate towards Eastleigh, which is a known commerce area adjacent to Mathare, and the City Center, where residents go to attend to administrative matters and enjoy entertainment.

Area of Nairobi covered

The participants in this exercise even took the initiative to focus on specific professions: a garbage collection group, a water carrier, and even a Yoga teacher.

Movement of a group which is involved with garbage collection (red) and location of dumping sites (yellow)

The main purpose of this exercise is to increase the informal settlement’s visibility. The participants and I hope that through mobility mapping, both Kenyan citizens and outsiders come to understand Mathare a little better.

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ICT and the water sector: analysis of problems and community-driven solutions (Part 1)

This is the re-post of the first in a series of blog posts I wrote for the World Bank’s Water Hackathon. As a consultant to the World Bank, I organized a series of community meetings to better understand how ICT can provide solutions to water problems in the informal settlements.



The Need for Community Meetings & Our Approach

We all need water – water is life. As Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary General, once phrased it: “Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and therefore a basic human right. ”But how do these words echo in the informal settlements of Africa, if at all?

Cities in Africa are having a difficult time coping with the influx of people arriving every day. Informal settlements are growing, and governments are struggling to provide even the most fundamental services, like access to clean water, to their urban populations.

Poverty, population increase, environmental degradation, corruption, lack of security and information all lead to, as one resident of Nairobi’s Kibera (one of Africa’s biggest slums) put it, “survival tactics. ” These “survival tactics” engulf communities – water suppliers, buyers and sellers, cartels, the provincial administration and the government – leading them into a vicious cycle of under the table dealings, vandalism, lack of engagement by the water utility, threats, and price controls. These combine to cause a lack of safe water for the urban poor. For example, landlords hire youths to destroy public water connections to divert them to their plots, and cartels who control water-points block and destroy new pipes to maintain their monopoly in a specific area. Perverse outcomes are the result – the price for safe water is often 10 times higher for the poorest in the slums of Nairobi than it is in the wealthy sub-urban areas.

Is there a way out of these interlinked challenges? Is there a solution? We were particularly interested in how Information Communication Technology (ICT) can help solve water-related problems in informal settlements. The use of technology such as internet and mobile phones is on the rise in Africa, and especially in Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, has become a technology hot spot attracting researchers, developers and entrepreneurs from all over the world. At the same time, there is a big divide between different cross-sections of Kenyan society. The marginalized populations that live in informal settlements are not at the center of this technological boom, and some of the technological solutions which might make sense to the outsider do not make much sense in these communities.

Thus, to obtain a better understanding of possible ICT solutions in the water sector, we did an in-depth analysis of problems and community needs in two of the biggest slums in Nairobi. We organized two community forums, one in Kibera and one in Mathare, which are Kenya’s biggest and second biggest slum respectively. In each community members were given the opportunity to outline problems and potential solutions. The Mathare meeting had a stronger focus on the participation of local community members and leaders, while the Kibera forum focused on relevant NGOs (though a mix of both groups was present in each case). Representatives of Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Corporation, the main water utility, were present at both meetings. This has give us a nuanced understanding of the experiences of people on the ground as well as the issues faced by organizations attempting to bringwater and sanitation to the urban poor and the tools that may be useful to them. Between the two forums, our goal was to understand the complex set of water-related issues faced in each community and if and how the use of ICT could help solve some of the water-related problems.

More coming soon!

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