31 May 2017 Story Ecosystems

Boat toilets and plastic pillows: A Kenyan town tackles its environmental challenges

A non-governmental organization is helping educate people to build a brighter future on the shores of Lake Victoria.

Mbita town lies on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria in Homa Bay County. Once a vibrant fishing village, it has lost its shine in recent years as a result of deforestation, habitat degradation due to sand mining, overfishing, and poor waste management.

Suba Environmental Education of Kenya (SEEK), a grassroots organization in Homa Bay County, is working with farmers, pastors, teachers, widows, youth and children to try to turn things around.

The group conducts weekly environmental education lessons through clubs in 12 local primary schools. Pupils, teachers and community members are taught about the complex lake ecosystem and how the health of the air, water, soil, vegetation and wildlife are related, and how they affect human lives, health and livelihoods.


Club members also take part in rubbish collection, recycling and tree planting. The clubs are given tree seedlings that pupils nurture, with prizes for the best results.

SEEK aims to change mindsets and improve livelihoods in line with Sustainable Development Goal 4.7: “Ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles.”

“Much better environmental awareness, especially among younger people, is urgently needed,” says Kenyan eco-journalist and former UN Environment education and training specialist Brian Waswala.

UN Environment supports other groups’ efforts to raise awareness on environmental issues.

Defecation challenge

Most of the rural population still do not have latrines within their homesteads, which means that bushes along the lakeshore have become filthy with human excrement. Fishermen working at night and far from the shore are also known to answer nature’s call from the side of their boats.

To address these human waste challenges, SEEK has introduced the arborloo and the portable boat toilet.

''An arborloo is a temporary, shallow, dry composting pit latrine constructed of locally available, cheap materials. Once the arborloo is full, the temporary structure is easily moved to another location and a tree planted in the well-manured hole. This treats faeces as a resource rather than a waste product. The latrine has led to reduced open defecation, fewer water-borne diseases, and encouraged people to plant trees in their homes. Thirty arborloos have been installed within the fishing village and are in good working condition.

Portable boat toilets are another innovation. The human waste collected is emptied into a bio-gas digester, energy from which is being used to provide lighting. “The toilets, though costly, are slowly being embraced by more fishermen,” says Waswala.

It is hoped that over time, more bio-gas digesters will be installed to collect the excreta from portable fishing boat toilets. These will enhance the use of the otherwise harmful human waste to generate biogas for energy needs, thus reducing tree-felling for fuel wood.

Algal blooms

SEEK is also addressing widespread deforestation in the area, which is causing sediment to fill the lake, leading to algal blooms that suffocate fish.

On its Mbita Tree Nursery campus SEEK nurtures indigenous species, marketable timber species, and improved fruit trees seedlings and then sells them to locals cheaply. Production costs are kept low by sourcing seeds and soil locally, and by recycling bags and containers. Through community engagement and empowerment, SEEK has demystified the notion that trees can only be planted by males.


Local widows are being trained in sustainable agriculture and agroforestry: Small home gardens now produce papaya and mango, kale and cow peas. Some women have also been trained to recycle waste plastic bags into pillow stuffing, thereby turning rubbish into a smart, marketable product.

SEEK is not the only organization raising awareness on the need to conserve the environment.

For example, the Integrated Climate Protection and Resource Conservation Project, funded by the German government, World Vision and Homa Bay County, has similar objectives. Learn more about their work in this 5-minute video.

For further information Jaime Webbe: Jaime.Webbe[at]unep.org
Media enquiries: unepnewsdesk[at]unep.org