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Waste-burning community cooker solves many problems in Kenyan slum

Page history last edited by Rosemary 8 years, 2 months ago

The community cooker was awarded the 2012 World Design Impact Prize. Congratulations!


Self-taught Kenyan furnace-builder Francis Gwehonah, nicknamed “Firebox” for his skill in this area, has achieved something that baffled British engineering companies. He figured out how to efficiently burn garbage so Nairobi architect Jim Archer could build a community cooker that would simultaneously solve nine problems in one of Africa’s largest slums – getting rid of trash, feeding the poor, providing hot water, improving community health, creating jobs for youth, preserving the river system, destroying toxic waste, and curbing destruction of woodlands.

Archer’s community cooker idea began eight years ago, when he was wondering how to get rid of the rubbish in Kibera, the huge slum that houses 60% of all the residents living in Nairobi's informal settlements. In Kibera, there is no garbage collection and many inhabitants struggle to afford kerosene for their stoves. Archer began to think about converting garbage into something useful like heat for communal cooking and hot water for bathing, that would motivate people to pick up the waste that litters the area and endangers health and the ecosystem.

But industrial incinerators range in cost from $50 million to $280 million US, and “wouldn’t give anything back [to the community].” So Archer set out to design and find financing for a simple, labor intensive device with few moving parts that would be easy to repair and require no imported technology. British engineering companies he consulted could mechanically handle the rubbish, and computer control the process. “But we want this to be labor intensive because there are so many people with no jobs." Making it labour-intensive meant making it simple.

That was where Francis came in. A brass foundry worker by trade, “Firebox” took on Archer’s challenge. His first attempts produced so much smoke and soot that Kibera residents said 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. By vaporizing droplets of water to split off the oxygen and mixing it with the burning oil, he has pushed up the temperature to more than 600 degrees centigrade and is working to get it even higher to destroy all the toxins in the smoke.


The prototype worked

While the prototype cooker, in Kibera's Laini Saba village, has been dogged by local squabbles, drought and design problems, it proved the idea worked. A tall chimney carries the fumes away and initial emissions tests have been favourable, Archer's firm says. The design was highly commended at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona last year and, while the Kibera prototype cost about $18,000 to build, the cost should drop to between $5,000 and $6,000 once more are being built. When fully operational, the cooker will consume half a ton of waste every day, and will be able to burn more than half of Kibera's trash. Recyclable waste such as hard plastics, metals and glass are sold; biodegradable items and some plastics such as soft drink bottles are incinerated after a two-day drying period. Archer believes the cookers can eventually be adapted to distil dirty water, fire pottery kilns and operate scrap metal foundries.

The project partners - Kibera-based Umande Trust, a Kenyan NGO which works in slums to improve sanitation and which runs the project; the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); and Archer’s architectural firm - hope the Kibera community cooker can be a prototype for cookers all over Africa.

"It is only a pilot and we need many more cookers to clean up Kibera, but we have already seen a difference in the area we are targeting," says Pauline Nyota of Umande. "The drainage ditches are much cleaner – just wastewater when before they were clogged with rubbish." Umande, which was registered in 2004 and which is the Kiswahili term for dew, signifying a new, unbiased beginning rather than recycling yesterday’s ideas, believes modest resources can significantly achieve water and sanitation goals if financial resources are strategically invested to support community-managed programs.


Relieving pressure on the river system

UNEP, which provided the funds to build the Kibera cooker, says more work is needed to raise the temperature still higher in order to destroy the carcinogens in plastic. However, Henry Ndede, of UNEP’s Kenya regional office, is happy that the prototype has proven rubbish can be turned into energy. "It is an ideal item for densely populated areas like slums and refugee camps," he said, and would relieve pressure on forested areas. "Every city in this country has a slum area with highly combustible material with high calorific value."

The project is part of UNEP's Nairobi River Basin Project, launched in 1999 to improve the capital's badly polluted river system, which has been overwhelmed by the 3,000 tonnes of waste generated daily by the city’s three million residents. "Most people dump in rivers and roadsides, on top of roofs, or on railway sidings. Finally there is somewhere we can take our waste, " said Celine Achieng of Umande Trust. "This will solve a lot of problems. We are trying to change perceptions to persuade people not to take their waste to the river."

"What the stove has done is basically make rubbish into something you can use," UNEP chief Achim Steiner told Kibera residents on a recent visit.

The Kenyan Red Cross is preparing to install similar cookers in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps near the Somali border, which have had cholera outbreaks, and is looking at taking the cookers country-wide very soon. Juma Ochieng of the Red Cross told Reuters the Community Cooker had benefits for health, sanitation and conservation, would create employment for young people working to build and maintain the stoves, and will reduce the risk of deadly slum fires from kerosene stoves in densely populated slums. He thinks 8-10 will be built by the end of this year and at least 100 over the next five years, depending on donor funding: Kenya’s largest supermarket chain, Nakumatt, has already pledged to pay for 20 more slum cookers.

Ndede notes that the woodland surrounding Dabaab camp, which houses 250,000 people but was built for only 80,000, has been cut down to provide cooking fuel. "In Dadaab you have to go more than 50 km (30 miles) to fetch firewood. It takes you two weeks on donkey-back," he said.


Creating youth employment

In Laini Saba, where 50,000 people live, 40 local youth workers go door to door collecting rubbish -- for which they are paid 10 Kenyan shillings (15 US cents) by slum dwellers – and exchange the garbage for cooking time or hot washing water for nearby public baths, luxuries rarely affordable for Kibera’s most destitute residents. In Kenya, two-thirds of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

"It employs the youth,” says James Mokaya, 56, of Umande. “They would be stealing if they were not here ...They would have been in trouble if we didn't have this cooker." The waste collectors are happy that their work benefits their community. "We want to have a clean environment and to stop the spreading of diseases such as typhoid, cholera and various forms of diarrhea," said 22-year-old Meshack Nganyi. "We have a lot of children dying of these diseases and it has become expensive to treat people." As well as being used eventually for baking bread and cakes to sell, the cooker will be used to boil water for drinking – safe water is scarce in Kibera.

The sea of waste in Kibera's narrow streets has started to ebb since a twice-weekly collection started in 2007, and already residents are noticing the health effects of the reduced garbage. "The trash has started to help us a bit after the cooker came. There are fewer diseases like diarrhea and the environment has improved. ... I think burning the rubbish will bring good health to this community," Patricia Ndunge said as she fried onions on the cooker.


This story was prepared from a variety of sources: Slum cooker protects environment, helps poor, by Barry Moody, Reuters, 3 April 2009; Innovative stoves to help the poor, posted on Now Public March 27, 2008; How to Clean Up The Slums -- Cook on Garbage, by Barry Moody, Reuters, Nairobi, 30 August 2007; Kenyan slum saves trees, cleans streets with big trash oven, by Rob Crilly, Christian Science Monitor, November 1, 2007; `Community cooker' cleaning up Kenya streets, AFP, Nairobi, Aug. 19, 2007; and the Umande website.The picture, by Reuters, shows the community cooker in Laini Saba.

For a new story on the cooker, see Garbage-fed community cooker cuts wood use, energy costs, by Isaiah Esipisu, AlertNet, 10 April 2012.




Above: Janice Muthui (left) and Debbie Donde, who received the Prize.

The World Design Impact Prize is a biennial designation created to recognise, empower and stimulate socially responsible design projects and initiatives around the world. Presented by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, the World Design Impact Prize will honour and reward exceptional industrial design driven projects that are making a positive impact on our social, economic, cultural and/or environmental quality of life. 

The first World Design Impact Prize was awarded to Kenyan-based Planning System Services Ltd. for their Community Cooker project. The presentation took place during the World Design Capital (WDC) Design Gala in Lahti (Finland) and was attended by 600 distinguished guests from the international design community.

The Community Cooker is a significant recycling initiative conceptualised by Nairobi-born architect Mr. Jim Archer, Chairman of Planning Systems Services Ltd., to address the reoccurring issue regarding massive accumulations of waste throughout Africa, while also mitigating deforestation and reducing ground water pollution. In essence, the cooker provides a public cooking facility to neighbourhoods with limited electricity and clean water.



For other stories about Kibera, see:

Young people create new life and lush urban garden in former Kibera waste dump

Solar water disinfection saves lives, money in largest Kenyan slum

Sack gardens bring nutrition, revenue to Kenyan slum


For other stories about alternative energy, see:

Body heat from railway station will help warm Swedish office workers

Brazil will produce biodegradable plastic from sugarcane

Grameen Shakti, empowerment through renewable energy

Coconut husks will bring light, power to remote Philippines farmers

Turning food waste into gas for cooking and electricity

Wind, sun and waves replace diesel as power source for remote Chinese island

South African dairy goes green with manure power

Clearing old rubber trees for power plant fuel brings new hope for Liberian farmers

More efficient stoves, biochar create sustainable development in Western Kenya

Biogas from waste water generates power for world’s second largest brewer


For other stories about efficient woodburning stoves, see:

Tanzanian blacksmiths pass on skills, creating jobs and saving forests

Fuel-efficient traditional stove saves wood in Eritrea

Award-winning business brings efficient stoves, kilns to small industries in South India

Kenyan stove manufacturer provides energy efficient cooking, encourages tree planting

More efficient stoves, biochar create sustainable development in Western Kenya

More efficient stoves protect women in Sudan, Uganda

Green stoves and clean lighting projects win 2010 environmental prize

2011 Ashden Awards profile practical energy solutions that save trees, create jobs

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