When Jim Archer, a Nairobi-born architect, designed the community cooker, which turns piles of rubbish into heat to help poor communities access clean, safe, and affordable energy, he didn't foresee all the wrangles that would ensue among community members managing this innovative project.
Baptized as Jiko la Jamii in Swahili, the Community cooker was conceptualized as a way to manage the solid waste that was being dumped into river valleys in Nairobi. The cooker was developed under the Nairobi River Basin Project (NRBP) led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in collaboration with other partners. Its main purpose was to help the community address the sanitation, health and environmental issues caused by the growing amount of rubbish in informal settlements and to provide their residents with an alternative energy source.
"What's unique about it is its utter simplicity and the fact that something so simple can generate immense heat," said Architect Archer. The cooker is made of simple bricks and cement covered by a metal plate, which serves as cooking surface. It can burn up to 2 tonnes of rubbish per day, regardless of the composition of the trash. Operating at temperatures of up to 900 degrees Celsius with an efficiency of 99 per cent, the cooker eliminates all the toxic fumes such as dioxins and furans, as certified by global quality standard agencies.
The Community cooker was deliberately designed as a simple, low-cost and socially inclusive technology. "It is incredibly easy to operate and to maintain. When it goes wrong any competent stone mason can fix it,'' remarked Mr. Archer.
The project provides a wealth of uses, including cooking, baking, boiling water, and sterilization, to a community that lacks access to basic services and lives in an environment characterized by poor hygienic conditions. It also has potential to mold plastic-based pavement stones.
UNEP's technical and financial support to the project is part of a broader effort to help developing countries in Africa sustainably manage their solid waste. "Over 60 per cent of solid waste in Nairobi is generated in informal settlements. The Community cooker was conceived as an ideal solution for residents of Kibera - Kenya's largest informal settlement with up to one million inhabitants - to manage solid waste while generating energy for their daily needs," said Henry Ndede, Coordinator of UNEP - Kenya Country Programme.
All the conditions were carefully examined to make the project technically and commercially viable. Its simplicity, affordability and scalability make it unique in Africa and probably in the world.
However, the project faces a critical challenge today: community-based sustainable management.
It was initially designed to be managed by volunteers from the community. However, lack of management capacity among the residents and the absence of a business model posed serious challenges to the sustainability and viability of the project.
With trash to run the cooker so easily available - the area was heavily littered with solid waste - a voluntary collection model seemed to be the best solution. Instead of dumping their trash in the river, the households were supposed to collect it and use as fuel whenever they wished to use the cooker.
However, this model did not stand the test of time and squabbles soon ensued over access to the cooker. Disputes were rife within the community causing the facility to shut down for prolonged periods. Disagreements amongst the members of Laini Saba community remained unresolved, making a new management system necessary.
This new model is currently being tested by the residents of Silanga and their newly unveiled community cooker. Their system is based on generating income, in other words, managing the cooker as a business for the benefit of the community.
For residents of Silanga, a smaller village within the Kibera slum, the Community Cooker is running under a different set-up, with the facility relying on a business model rather than communal volunteers for management. It is being operated by a non-governmental organization - The New Nairobi Dam Center - which collects the revenue from selling foodstuffs made at the facility.
"We don't dictate to the community the business model they should use. The New Nairobi Dam Center insisted to manage the Community cooker as a restaurant. They hire people from the community to collect rubbish. They cook themselves and charge the community a small fee to sustain the project," said Janice Muthui, manager of the Community cooker Foundation.
"We now work with the community from the design stage to understand their needs and how the project should work better. It is their baby, they should own it and understand how to manage and sustain it," she added.
The project is yet to reach its full potential but already serves over 50 customers a day, which currently provides enough income to sustain it.
"In the committee, we have the chairperson, the treasurer the secretary and staff. We also have a member who is in charge of collecting data daily to monitor the project," said Anne Kanini, a cook at the Silanga Community Cooker. "We will be able to save money, once we buy tables and other equipment we need for the project. When you start a business, you have to be prepared for challenges," she said with confidence.
Anne earns 5000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$ 50) per month and is able to use the community cooker to prepare meals for her family. In addition, she no longer relies on paraffin or biofuels such as firewood or charcoal for cooking.
Like many of her compatriots, Anne would have been exposed to heavy indoor pollution caused by inefficient use of solid fuels, if it wasn't for the community cooker. Now, she prepares meals in an open space with good air circulation where she also enjoys serving her community.
"We are advising those who throw trash in the river to bring it here. We can then burn it at high temperatures and make our environment healthy and clean. They feel good when they bring their trash here. They know that this helps cleaning our environment," said Anne.
Anne is one of a team of 4 full-time employees of the project. They work under the supervision of Constante Nyongesa, a 27-year old trained teacher who instead decided to dedicate his knowledge and skills to the management of the community cooker. "It was my first time to see that we can convert trash into energy and make money," said Mr Nyongesa enthusiastically. "We are planning to have other facilities like hot showers and toilets for the community. You pay 20 Shillings to take a shower. This can attract more clients," he added.
Constante's short-term plan is to double the number of clients who use the facility. "We receive between 40 and 50 customers but we have the capacity to double the number", said Constante.
The project has helped Constante and his team to find a decent job, build new management skills, and ensure a sustained income to escape the poverty trap. It also helped the community members to clean their environment and generate energy for cooking and boiling water. "The project is helping very much. It is easy to find ready food. It is cheap," said Tom Mboya, a plumber and resident of Silanga village.
"The community cooker has reduced a lot of trash in the immediate neighborhood of Silanga. This area used to be very dirty. The river was full of rubbish. The community is very happy with the project. Some of them have now a job and an income to support their families," added Tom.
"It is community-driven projects, such as this one, that are advancing the Sustainable Development Goals," said Henry Ndede. "When the world's environment ministers come to Nairobi for the Second UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) in May to deliberate on the environmental dimension of the SDGs, the Community cooker project shall be exhibited as a simple solution to a complex problem."
The Community cooker is one of many projects that were developed to help poor communities around the world to access basic needs such as a meal and hot water. Their designers and supporters have one dream: help others to live in dignity while contributing to make their environment clean, improve their health and empower them economically. As the cooker example shows, the way the community is supported to manage and sustain such projects is often crucial.