In the slums of Nairobi you’ll find nightmarish conditions. A stench of waste and death hits your nose first, followed by “flying toilets” — excrement in plastic bags – and the sight of garbage dangling from trees and burning slowly in fires… an animal or two nibbling on the debris. It appears to be the aftermath of a deadly explosion, rather than a way of life. And then you’ll notice aborted fetuses piled high in a make-shift dump, or floating in the river. Suddenly a cramped office seems like a palace.
Believe it or not, 60% of the population lives here in these “informal settlements” their government refuses to neither recognize nor send aid. Here, disease is obviously rampant and conditions beyond unsanitary. The environment pays the toll.
Luckily, a project 8 years in the making, is offering an interesting solution.
Now a “community cooker” project in Africa’s biggest slum, Kibera, offers a way not only of getting rid of garbage, but of creating work for unemployed youths, and providing hot water and cooking facilities.
The people developing the project, a Nairobi architectural practice, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and a Kenyan non-governmental organization, hope it can be a prototype for cookers all over Africa.
The cooker, dreamed up by Kenyan architect Jim Archer, has taken eight years to develop and is still overcoming design problems.
Industrial incinerators from Europe would cost $50 million. “This was way out of the realms of reality … and it wouldn’t give anything back,” Archer said.
He set out to design and find financing for a simple, labor intensive device with a minimum of moving parts that would be easy to repair and require no imported technology.
Archer consulted engineering companies in Britain.
“They just couldn’t understand simplicity. They could computer control it. They could mechanically handle the rubbish. But we want this to be labor intensive because there are so many people with no jobs.”
Then Archer found brass foundry worker Francis Gwehonah, nicknamed “Firebox” because of his remarkable self-taught skill at furnace building.
“It is a talent in me. I haven’t gone through any kind of training,” says Gwehonah.
First attempts to burn the rubbish produced choking smoke and soot that brought complaints from Kibera residents that the cooker caused more pollution than it eliminated.
By trial and error Gwehonah found that if he superheated a steel plate in the cooker he could ignite discarded sump oil, another pollutant.