Nairobi's accelerating climate crisis through food waste

Dandora dumpsite

Trucks offloading garbage at Dandora dumpsite in Nairobi.

Photo credit: Charity Phoebe

What you need to know:

  • At Nairobi’s Wakulima Market, consumers’ insatiable appetite results in a limited portion of products being sold.
  • The Dandora dumpsite stands as a solemn testament to the waste management efforts of Nairobi County.

From a distance, it looks like a beautiful vegetable garden, but the reality is far from alluring. Wakulima Market in Nairobi, also known as Marikiti, is a place that never sleeps. 

Here farmers meet buyers, and money is exchanged for fruits and vegetables. But this exchange is not always smooth.

John Maina, a seasoned trader in the market, says the insatiable appetite for fresh produce among consumers results in a limited portion of their products being sold.

Shockingly, the remainder, despite its quality, goes to waste as customers hesitate to purchase, perceiving it as less than fresh.

“Amidst fierce market competition, my fellow farmers and I share a common aspiration: to sell every precious harvest we bring to the bustling marketplace. However, the emergence of numerous small scale traders throughout the county has intensified the challenge. Now, we find ourselves relentlessly vying for the attention of a select few customers whose craving for freshness knows no bounds,” Mr Maina told Nation.Africa.

“Picture this. I arrive at the market with a truckload of vibrant kale and spinach, envisioning a successful day of sales. Yet, much to my dismay, only half of it finds eager buyers. The very next day, my competitors roll in with an enticing array of freshly picked vegetables, attracting a swarm of eager customers. To keep pace in this cutthroat competition, I'm left with no choice but to bid farewell to yesterday's produce, marking it as a painful loss,” Mr Maina narrates.

On the other hand, Mercy Wairumi, a vegetable and fruit vendor in Wakulima Market, says the stiff competition in the market makes her make losses.

Food wastage

“During rainy season, an unwelcome stench fills the market air as discarded vegetable and fruit waste find temporary home. Until the diligent county government steps in to collect it, the foul smell lingers, reminding us of the cycle of nature's bounty and the care taken to maintain our bustling marketplace,” Wairimu says.

Sadly, the fate of discarded produce is a tragic one. Left to be trampled under the countless feet that traverse this vibrant market, it transforms into an eyesore and contributes to the rapid pollution that plagues our surroundings.

Only when the diligent county government intervenes does the garbage find its way to the Dandora dumpsite, a bittersweet ending to this unsightly chapter.

“With heartfelt desire, we yearn to preserve every precious product we painstakingly cultivate. Yet, the absence of adequate storage facilities presents an overwhelming hurdle. Regrettably, the majority of us cannot bear the burden of government-provided storage, leaving us grappling with the unfortunate necessity of discarding our cherished products,” Wairimu said.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ report, in Kenya, 40 per cent of the food is lost from the farm gate to the table, often as a result of human decisions and actions. Some of these actions include inefficient harvesting methods, transportation and storage.

Every day, an astonishing number of seven carts laden with bruised and battered vegetables and fruits are collected by Nairobi county waste collectors temporarily finding their place at the peculiarly coined ‘market landfill’ within the heart of Marikiti market, these remnants of abundance await their final journey to the vast expanse of the Dandora landfill.

Wakulima market

Garbage strewn near the entrance to Wakulima market in Nairobi. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

However, the question that still lingers in people’s minds is why food waste is a big issue?
As you venture closer to the famous Dandora dumpsite, an overwhelming and acrid stench engulfs the very air you breathe. Yet, to the resilient residents who call this place home, the odour has become an unwavering companion, immune to its bothersome presence.

“During rainy seasons, a lingering stickiness fills the air. Resilient as we are, we adapt and find solace in the familiar, navigating our way through this ‘fragrant’ realm with unwavering determination,” says Paul Omondi, an employee at Dandora dumpsite.

“I work with Taka Kenya Company. When the garbage is brought from various collection points, we sort out plastics, cottons, boxes, glasses and categorise them in different stations. They are later collected with different companies to be recycled,” he explains.

He says some area residents living close to the dumpsite have developed breathing problems.

All the trash collected in Nairobi County goes to the Dandora landfill including food waste from the markets, restaurants, and households.

Nestled within its sprawling expanse of over 30 acres, the Dandora dumpsite stands as a solemn testament to the waste management efforts of Nairobi County since its establishment in 1975.

Dandora dumpsite

A disheartening sight unfolds daily, with a relentless parade of over 200 trucks converging upon this location, each contributing to the ever-growing mountain of refuse that looms over the landscape, painting a vivid picture of the challenges we face in our quest for waste management.

Nairobi County does not have a waste sorting area, all the waste from vegetable, food, to plastics to cotton and every other waste are all disposed of in Dandora landfill.

Within the depths of the dumpsite, under the establishment of anaerobic conditions where oxygen is absent, a perilous greenhouse gas called methane is produced. This volatile gas arises as a result of a complex interplay between chemical and biological reactions, painting a stark reminder of the hazardous consequences that unfold within these waste-laden grounds.

Methane is a colorless but highly flammable greenhouse gas, more potent than carbon dioxide.

The gas has the capacity to trap more heat compared to carbon dioxide.  It is likely to increase global warming 80 times compared to carbon dioxide.

According to research conducted by the University of Nairobi a decade ago at Dandora dumpsite, methane produces a lot of heat per mass unit as compared to other complex hydrocarbons. Methane is generated within 14 days under anaerobic conditions.

According to a report by the United Nations Environmental Program, methane is responsible for more than 25 per cent of global warming we are experiencing today. The structure of methane traps more heat in the atmosphere making it more dangerous than carbon dioxide 20 years after its release.

Wakulima market

Decaying watermelons at the Wakulima Market in Nairobi. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

According to the Nairobi City Climate Action Plan, the city intends to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The city is committed to developing and implementing a climate action plan that aligns with the global goal of limiting the average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius.

Maureen Njeri, Nairobi County Executive Committee Member (CECM) in charge of Green Nairobi (Environment water food and Agriculture), who spoke at Green Park, Nairobi on May, 17, 2023 said the county is committed to waste management.

“The county is looking into resource recovery and has also identified a site to help with waste separation and sorting facilities to assist with waste management and recycling. We are also in the process of a waste management plant,” the CECM said.

According to Andrew Amadi, Chief Executive Officer at Kenya Renewable Energy Association (KEREA), food waste has a high amount of methane. Less than 15 per cent of waste is recycled. 

An estimate of 1800 tonnes of organic waste in Dandora, if tapped, can generate electric power enough to supply 750 homes.

On the other hand, Mr Amadi says methane in Dandora is wasted because it is not harnessed or converted to any useful product.

“If methane is properly harnessed it is able to sustain the county,” Mr Amadi said.