Nairobi witnessed a rare spectacle in May, when about 300 youths invaded toilets at OTC, Bus Station, Muthurwa and KPCU. An agitated operator at OTC shot in the air to flush them out.
The youths had letters purportedly signed by former county secretary Leboo Morintant, showing that the licences of the initial operators had expired, and that the toilets had been handed over to them.
But Public Toilets Operators Association of Kenya chairman Tom Makale would not take it lying down. It took the intervention of officers from Kamukunji Police station to disarm him and whisk him way, after a surging crowd threatened to lynch him.
The fracas brought to the public’s attention tensions in public toilet management that have been simmering since 2006. They spilled from boardroom meetings and court battles to the open.
And on June 4, Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko intervened. He ordered that all public toilets in the city be used for free. Sonko also announced plans to put all the toilets under the county government for better management, following persistent wrangles and alleged corrupt dealings among the operators.
In so doing, the governor waded into a battle two previous administrations have unsuccessfully fought for over 12 years. The operators, who have been running the toilets since 1999, fiercely resisted his directive, arguing that the toilets were their personal investments.
“We built those toilets from scratch after they had been run down by the former city council,” Makale said.
However, investigations by the Star have established that there is more to the dispute than meets the eye. On one hand, there is the question of giving Nairobians a safe and decent environment to relieve themselves.
But while it costs only Sh10 per person, cumulatively there are millions of shillings in revenue involved, which makes it a big business — so much so that private investors have overstayed their welcome to manage them.
There are three categories of public toilets in Nairobi: those built by the former council (mostly in markets), those built by the Constituency Development Fund, and those built through a partnership between the council and the Nairobi Central Business District Association.
Of the three categories, only the ones constructed through the NCC-NCBDA partnership are being managed by individuals. This is the category the governor targeted in his directive.
Documents seen by the Star show the plan to privatise the toilets was mooted by the former council’s Water and Sewerage Committee on September 23, 1999, endorsed by the Planning Committee on September 28, 1999, and approved by the General Purpose Committee on November 3, 1999, which green-lighted the construction of 12 toilets.
Technical officers had at the time noted that there were inadequate public toilets in the CBD, and nearly 50 per cent of the existing facilities were dilapidated and non-functional due to poor management.
"There was urgent need to mobilise resources to improve the situation through construction of new facilities and rehabilitation of existing ones," the document reads.
Subsequently, the council, through NCBDA, advertised and invited interested investors to apply. Applicants were interviewed and successful ones awarded contracts. They were to build, operate and transfer back to the county government after they recovered their money and made some profits.
In 2006, problems started emerging after the council floated tenders inviting the public to bid for the running and management of the public lavatories in the CBD.
The operators went to court and obtained an order barring NCC from interfering with the toilets. The order was issued by current Attorney General Paul Kihara. The parties were asked to sit and resolve the dispute. They agreed that the operators would be remitting Sh10,000 to the council every month.
In December 2014, the then Environment chief officer Leah Oyake published in the dailies that all operators were required to apply afresh. She did so “without consultation”, forcing the operators to go back to court.
Makale says Sonko’s administration came with a new strategy to kick the operators out of the toilets — that of using ‘goons’. In June this year, he wrote to Interior CS Fred Matiang’i and county commissioner Kang'ethe Thuku to protect them from the ‘goons’.
They also went to court the same month over the invasion. Lady Justice Njuguna ordered the county officers and the Kamukunji and Central Police officers to flush out the invaders.
But the county government says the operators were to hand over the toilets back to the council after 10 years of operation.
“We had a valuer who, after valuations, told the parties that after 10 years, the investors shall have recouped their money and made some profit,” the county director of environment Lawrence Mwangi says.
However, he says, the investors did not hand over the facilities but instead engaged the county government for renewable three-year contracts. The last contract expired in December 2014.
“These are public facilities standing on public land. There is no way someone can say they entered a partnership that had no exit clause. They were not supposed to run those facilities for life. They are for the public, and they need to be given competitively to deserving people,” he says.
So why are the operators reluctant to hand over the facilities back to the county, despite recovering the money they spent and making profits?
MILLIONS AT STAKE
Investigations by the Star have revealed that this is a multimillion-shilling industry run by a few groups and individuals. The same individuals also run public toilets in major towns, including Nakuru, Eldoret Kisumu and Mombasa.
There are 63 public toilets in Nairobi — 17 in the CBD and 46 in estates and markets. There also about 517 private toilets in the capital. The operators charge Sh10 per visit.
Our investigations, figures released by City Hall, and admissions by youths employed in the toilets reveal that daily collections from toilets vary, depending on location.
A single toilet in the CBD collects up to Sh30,000 a day. This translates to Sh900,000 a month or Sh10.8 million a year per toilet. This means that some Sh184 million is generated from the 17 public toilets in the CBD annually.
“There is one toilet in the CBD that raises up to Sh60,000 a day. They are making a lot of money from this business,” Mwangi says.
Those in the estates and markets collect between Sh1,000 and Sh5,000 per toilet per day, or between Sh30,000 and Sh150,000 every month, or between Sh360,000 and Sh1.8 million per year per toilet.
The county government rakes in Sh20,000 per month in rent from each of the 63 toilets (Sh1.2 million per month or Sh15.1 million per year from all the 63 toilets). It also charges Sh10,000 per toilet for licence.
Each of the 517 private facilities raises an average of Sh2,000 per day or Sh60,000 or Sh720, 000 annually. In total, about Sh1 million is realised daily or Sh31 million per month or Sh372 million per year is collected from the 517 private toilets spread across the county.
But Makale downplayed the money issue, saying their intention in building the toilets was not to make money. Rather, it was to change the image of Nairobi and help Nairobians who were being raped and mugged in the toilets by criminal gangs and street families.
“We are not so wicked to say that you cannot enter a toilet if you do not have money. No, we don’t do that. We are humane. We have old people, we have children, we have other deserving cases that cannot afford to pay to enter the toilets. We allow them to go in for free. Some people come with Sh2 and I tell my staff not to chase them away,” he says.
Youths who run the facilities on behalf of the managers say about five bails of tissue papers are used per day. A bail costs Sh890. They also buy about 5,000 litres of water for Sh3,500 per day, as well as soap and other disinfectants at an average cost of Sh1,500. Each toilet has about three people working there. Each earns Sh1,000 a day. They also incur electricity expenses and in some instances, pay police officers to guard the facilities.
Environment executive Larry Wambua says the court order the operators are clinging on to expired.
“What they are showing is a 2015 court order, which is interim in nature. An interim order only lasts 14 days. They have never gone back to court again. So that court order expired and we cannot rely on it,” he said.
The executive says all public-private partnership arrangements have exit clauses, and the one they have with the operators was not an exception.