Mary Karigi, 23, a restaurant worker in the city, lived in Mukuru kwa Njenga slums.
Her parents used to work as casual labourers in the nearby Industrial Area.
One of her most memorable experiences was poor sanitation. If it rained, wastewater combined with raw sewage would flood the pathways because there was no proper drainage system.
“It was dangerous walking, as you couldn’t tell where a manhole was,” Ms Karigi, who started her early life as a fruit vendor, recalls.
Fed up by their common suffering, the residents would come together to unclog the trenches manually to allow effluent to drain off.
Mukuru Kwa Njenga is estimated to be sitting on 60 acres, accommodating about 100,000 families.
It is part of the vast Mukuru informal settlement, which is divided into three sections, namely Mukuru Kwa Reuben, Mukuru Kwa Njenga and Viwandani.
Mukuru Kwa Reuben and Mukuru Kwa Njenga are separated by the century-old Kenya-Uganda railway which runs through the informal settlement.
Mukuru Kwa Reuben and Viwandani on the other hand are separated by the Ngong River which is one of the rivers in the Nairobi drainage basin.
According to data from Muungano Wa Wanavijiji, the settlement has a population of 97,126 households living on 525 acres.
This translates to a population density of 185 households per acre, living in congested structures and lacking basic infrastructure and utilities.
Seeing no hope in place to solve their problems, the community started associations to tackle pressing issues such as sanitation and improve on the living conditions.
In a joint report, the Environment and Natural Resources Consortium comprising Nairobi County Government Environment department, SEI Africa Centre, Sanergy, Slum Dwellers International, Muungano wa Wanavijiji and the University of California Berkley, recommended an integrated development plan for Mukuru Settlement to solve the community’s problems.
Anami Daudi is the founder of Amusha Mukuru Youth Organisation, a social welfare group that brought the youth together to establish the Mukuru Integrated Waste Management Recycling Plant in 2019.
“Previously, garbage hawking was the order of the day, as people transferred waste from one point to another in the same locality as residents did not value it. But now we have the residents bringing their domestic and commercial waste to the centres for collection and sorting before being transported to the recycling plant within the Mukuru Settlement,” says Anami.
He estimates that Mukuru Kwa Njenga alone generates on average six tonnes of waste.
The first process is waste collection from households, businesses and institutions. This begins with waste segregation to different fractions and weighing it in kilogrammes for data collection.
The biodegradable materials are taken to the recycling centres and non-recyclable waste to a designated holding ground where the county government transports it to the dumping site.
The rest, mainly plastic, is taken to the recycling plant where it is sorted according to the different colours before being shredded into pellets and piled into various mounds for sale to companies and hardware operators nearby.
Income generated from the venture is ploughed back to the community organisations for their day-to-day operations and the rest is utilised for community service such as organising joint cleanups, hygiene promotion campaigns and climate change intervention activities.
The waste recycling project employs 60 youth.
Environmental researcher George Njoroge, says a risk study conducted jointly by the Stockholm Environment Institute – Africa Centre and The York University, UK, identified air pollution from accumulated waste as one of the problems.
Mr Njoroge, working at SEI’s Sustainable Urbanisation Programme, says that "ambient air quality analysis revealed high levels of concentration of nitrogen oxide and ammonia across the nine sites of our research, with concentrations above the recommended 30µg m-3 for nitrogen oxide recorded in some sites". This was attributed to the open drainages and decomposing waste.
Other challenges included indiscriminate solid waste deposal, squalid sanitation, soil contamination, encroachment and degradation of riparian zones as the problems which were affecting the low-income families living in the settlements.
“We wanted to assist the community come up with homegrown initiatives that together with other stakeholders, would alleviate their long-suffering,” says Njoroge, a specialist in sanitation, hygiene and waste management.
Besides income, and creating employment for young people thus reducing the high rate of crime, the recycling plant has reduced one of the residents’ greatest nightmares when it rains: communicable diseases due to flash floods.
“Whenever it rained, every household just hoped against hope that no life will be lost, particularly of little children, because of malaria and cholera outbreak. Through a refined waste management system, we have been able to control cholera and malaria outbreaks, as we have simultaneously scaled other challenges that are interlinked with hygiene,” says Anami.
Anami states that their mission is to see every community member become responsible for their waste management. “We have been training other youths and CBO within Eastlands about our success story. We admire the way other informal settlements are coming to learn from our success story,” he said.
The success of the project has attracted other communities within Nairobi to come and borrow the idea such as Kiamaiko Youth Network.
“We would like to start a similar project to create income and employment for idle youth, and mop up waste in our residential area,” says Mr John Kimani a member of Kiamakio Youth Network.
According to Anami, waste management and recycling should be priority interventions for the climate crisis being faced globally.
The group believes it is playing its part in reversing climate change.
“Young people should have patience since our government doesn't create policies on what is their priority and have to create the space in their community to work freely,” concludes Anami.
In 2018, the Nairobi City County declared Mukuru settlement a special planning area whereby it embarked on a comprehensive development strategy plan, intended to upgrade the settlement and give the residents a better, safer working and living environment.