Daily quantities are sold for daily needs in Nairobi's ever-growing slums.
Called the kidogo economy, Swahili for 'little', laundry detergent, margarine and anything else manufacturers haven't packaged in small boxes are divided and resold in tiny affordable sachets.
In this context of severe urban poverty, micro-enterprise isn't a buzz word. It's a lifestyle.
So it's appropriate that a solid waste management program here, coordinated by Worldbike, a non-profit that designs, distributes, and promotes load-carrying bicycles as a solution to development challenges worldwide, the local Soweto Youth Group and UN-HABITAT, the UN human settlements agency, runs on very small profits.
A door-to-door pick up service is only £0.17. If that's too pricey for their clients in the Soweto neighbourhood of Kibera, Nairobi's largest and most famous slum, you can drop off the rubbish yourself at the nearby collection centre for half the price.
Andrew Hall, Worldbike's project manager in Kenya, describes their goals as 'income generation, livelihood creation and essential service provision, but usually in the model they go hand in hand'.
Waste = livelihood
To accomplish this, they're developing sustainable solid waste management businesses for, and in partnership with, poor communities. 'People need solid waste management. That's an essential service,' Hall says. 'But we also want to do it in a way that creates livelihoods.'
In turn, the businesses act as incubators, live experiments in which Worldbike can use its expertise in non-motorized transport to customize everything from bicycles and handcarts to business models and community relationships. 'Solid waste' refers to packaging, containers and household waste (not sewage) but one of the problems Worldbike face is that people don't separate the two so they have to do some campaigning in order to make sure people do so.
The link between service provision and income generation is key. In Kibera, where Nairobi City Council has failed to provide rubbish removal and most other infrastructural services, the Soweto Youth Group started voluntary pick-ups to clean up the litter in 1999. 'When we were starting we were looking to the environmental part,' says Sammy Ataly, one of the group's founders. 'But if you want to work on the environment, you have to make an income to be sustainable.'
Hall is quick to point out that these are pilot projects. 'Worldbike wants to scale its impacts,' he says. 'If you want to have big impacts, then you need to come up with a model that is going to be reproducible to a level that impacts a lot of people's lives.' Piloting their work here at a small scale allows them to invest in a more holistic design phase, working closely with communities to assess their needs and develop solutions to problems as they arise.
Customising the technology and the model
The first priority in designing for the poor is reducing costs. In Kenya, where the most common bicycle is the Kenyan Black Mamba, a cheap knock-off of the 1930's Raleigh Roadster, Worldbike's efforts to customise and update the bicycles have suffered from a lack of available parts.
They've been resizing steel tubes when the right size can't be purchased on the market. But they've also been using non-hitch trailers, handcarts and wheelbarrows as cheap but convenient substitutes. In some conditions these can be necessary replacements where bicycles and large handcarts are not appropriate.
Kibera's Soweto neighbourhood hugs the railway line along a steep hill. Turning off the line to visit the Soweto Youth Group's office requires that we weave our way down steep corridors, the earth beneath us broken into large, makeshift steps that have us hopping down the hillside.
Wheels are a disadvantage on the slopes, so the youth carry the rubbish up to the tracks by hand, where they can load it into wheelbarrows and run it bumping over the railroad ties to their collection point.
While bikes are taking a back seat to even smaller-scale transportation in Kibera, they're taking off in Naivasha, where flower exporting industries have sprouted worker's villages. Worldbike's custom-made cycle, with wider tyres, better brakes and multiple speeds, is in regular use there. In nearby Kamera the hills have them customising push carts that can better handle the incline.
Learning from lifestyle
This kind of flexibility is a strength of Worldbike's piloting model, allowing them to mix the available and the attainable to craft hybrid, low-cost business strategies in unique terrain.
In a rapidly urbanizing world, much of the urban growth is taking place in dense, under-planned communities lacking proper infrastructure, communities like those Worldbike is working with in Kenya. If plans to scale up and replicate their projects are to be successful, they'll need to learn lessons from the intimate, low-scale lifestyle of the urban poor.
This can mean scaling down the transport used because a pushcart won't fit the alleyway or relying on existing transport where customisation isn't affordable. For any income generating strategy to succeed in communities where profit margins and expendable incomes are so small, it will need to be finely tuned to the specific environment.
As Hall is careful to note, there's more to it than designing bikes and technology - it's about making it accessible to people.
Past attempts to upgrade slums in Nairobi have been marked by failure. Residents targeted by upgrading schemes have been asked to pay as much as five times the rent they were previously paying. Electricity and running water come with price tags, too, so even minor infrastructural upgrades can often out-price the most needy.
In such a context, non-motorised transport can reduce the necessary investment for any waste management program, allowing service delivery to reach the poor at affordable prices. In a city like Nairobi, where more than 50 per cent of the population live in informal settlements and municipal waste removal reaches only 2.9 per cent of the population, income-generating and low-cost waste management is the only viable strategy for ecological management.
Such small-scale strategies are more important now than ever. The Kenyan government is contemplating a radical step to restore the river basin in Nairobi. It wants to demolish more than 4,000 slum structures within 30 meters of the river, displacing more than 120,000 people because waste from the slums is draining into the river and fouling the water. If the city walls the area off to prevent drainage, the open land is likely to become a dumping site for local residents.
In a city already infamous for its inability to maintain infrastructure and provide basic services, (only 2.9 per cent of the city's population is reached by municipal refuse collection, and the city council doesn't even integrate informal settlements into city plans) it's unlikely any river clean-up program will succeed without a change in the way that waste is handled by those living in the slums. And with the city government virtually absent from these areas, city-led management schemes are unlikely to penetrate the informal sprawl of the city.
Small-scale, low cost, eco-friendly enterprises that can twin income-generation and ecological management, like those Worldbike is piloting, offer some hope that rapid growth in unplanned urban populations doesn't have to overwhelm the ecological sustainability of the 21st century city.
For more information on the slums in Nairboi see Amnesty International's report, Kenya: The unseen majority: Nairobi’s two million slum-dwellers
Nate Wright is a freelance journalist
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