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November 21, 2018

G-Spot: How flying toilets can change to become a source of light for all

Flying toilets light
Flying toilets light


cannot believe it is 2017 and in southwest Nairobi there is an area of 2.5 square kilometres that reportedly houses 60 per cent of the city’s population but is known for having next to no sanitation.

There was recently a news item on the Al Jazeera network about the euphemistically named ‘Flying Toilets.’ It reminded me of being a producer on a similar story when I was at the BBC 15 years ago in 2002.

My boss, Andrew Harding, who was Nairobi Bureau Chief at the time, was doing a series on Kibera (it might as well be obligatory for most foreign correspondents in Nairobi to do a Kibera story of some sort) and I helped with some of what he needed.

However, it is shameful that in today’s Kenya, independent for 54 years, the pathways of Kibera are still littered with thousands upon thousands of tattered plastic bags full of fecal sludge because at night when it it is too dark and too dangerous to use the communal toilets, people are forced to do their business in bags, which they then fling out of the door and into the street.

Harding’s series on Kibera observed correctly about Kibera, “This place is like an island - it’s not really part of Kenya at all. The state does nothing here. It provides no water, no schools, no sanitation, no roads, no hospitals. Kibera’s water is piped in by private dealers, who lay their own hosepipes in the mud, and charge double what people pay for the same service outside the slum.”

Since it appears the state and local authorities are not interested in helping out the people of Kibera, perhaps the time has arrived for the people to follow the government and look East.

China just may have the solution. According to a report in February last year, in that country, city planners have become creative in dealing with toilet refuse. Maximising on the lack of taboo around reusing fecal matter in China, they are re-purposing faeces into energy resources or fertiliser and all they are doing is harnessing science for safe reuse.

Closer to home, in recent years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been exploring a project on biodiesel production from human waste in Ghana. The foundation is also investing in family-level biogas units or septic tanks that process human waste in Thailand and India.

These or something similar could be the spark of change for the flying toilets of Kibera and other slums.

So maybe instead of flinging poo, sorry, night soil, all over the streets, the people of Kibera can come up with a system to carefully and hygienically collect the stuff and have it fed back into the electrical grid, for instance to provide electricity for the entire slum, which would change the lives of millions.

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