From dumpsites to gardens: Youth give Dandora facelift

Initiative started in 2013 by Charles Gachanga to reduce pollution, crime and unemployment has turned the eyesore into a model for other degraded areas to emulate

In Summary

• The slum is notorious for garbage, poverty, crime, rape, pollution and illiteracy

• Charles Gachanga struggled to create a social space and the idea grew wings

The garden at Mustard Seed Court that was rehabilitated from a dumpsite area.
EDEN: The garden at Mustard Seed Court that was rehabilitated from a dumpsite area.

A few minutes after driving past the famous Dandora dumpsite, one would hardly expect to come across a gateway leading to an estate that won a Global Smart City award. 

As you drive away from the dumpsite area approaching the gateway, you immediately notice the air quality is different.  

The gateway, designed with a floating zebra crossing, leads to a Cabro road lined with recycling bins and street lights on either side across the estate. 


Located in Embakasi subcounty, Dandora is famously known for being the main dumping ground for waste from the more than four million Nairobi residents.

The Dandora dumpsite receives more than 2,000 metric tonnes of waste on a daily basis.

It is one of Africa's well-known slums, characterised by poverty, crime, rape, pollution and illiteracy levels.

Ironically the estate was established by the World Bank to offer a higher standard of housing. 

Resident Charles Gachanga came to Dandora in 1979, when he was three years old. 

The Dandora he remembers had tarmacked roads, good schools, market places, hospitals and parking spaces. 

"Every social amenity you needed was here. The city council would come to sweep and clean and collect litter twice or thrice weekly," he said.


"In those early years, we felt the services of the county, but in 1994, it abruptly came to a stop," he said.


When the City Council moved its services to upmarket estates, the pollution of the estate quickly escalated. 

Pollution started when construction sites would dump their debris in any open spaces they found, eventually eating up playgrounds, parking spaces and backyards. 

"To build, you needed to have a letter from the county on where to throw the debris, but after the council disappeared, debris was thrown in open spaces," he said.

Soon after, council officials began selling open spaces as people streamed into Dandora in search of employment. 

"At the time, there were about 16 companies behind Dandora, and youth would go to Dandora in search of employment in those companies and live in Dandora," he said. 

As the number of people streaming in increased, houses that were planned to accommodate a single family would now accommodate up to six, a trend that is ongoing. 

"Our parents would rent out rooms in the family home. They would take two rooms and then rent out the rest. Dandora phase two was planned to have 12,000 families but now we are running to almost 100,000 families," he said. 

The rise in crime rates came about when the 16 companies started retrenching.

"The youths who had lost jobs had families and did not have any way to cater for them. To feed their families, they started by hitting people with metal bars and robbing them," he said.

With time, thieves switched from using metal bars to using knives, machetes then slowly graduated to guns. 

"You would find very young men in Dandora with guns, and we lost a lot of youth because of this. Police and the community would kill those found robbing or suspected to have guns," he said. 

Gachanja explains when youth were suspected of having a firearm, police would track their family and tell them to advise them to hand in the firearms or risk death. 

"If they did not hand them in, two days later they were killed and police would take a photo of the body with the gun they had," he said.

"People were happy because police were doing their jobs and courts were too lenient and would release boys arrested for gun possession."

While the boys were the ones majorly killed for gun possession, girls in the community would opt to drop out of school after completing primary school. 

"They would fall pregnant and sometimes engage in robbery or prostitution to survive. Most of the girls on Koinange Street or involving themselves in crime were from Dandora," he said. 


Gachanja got the opportunity to travel to Tanzania for a few years and when he came back in 2013, he was shocked at the state of Dandora. 

"Crime was still rampant and it did not look like the Dandora I knew. I was burdened to transform my community and, based on my Christian teachings, decided to start by cleaning up because cleanliness is next to godliness," he said. 

One Sunday in 2013, he approached 33 youth and told them about his vision to transform a dumpsite area outside his court into a garden. Despite agreeing, only two showed up the next day. 

"We did not relent. We did the work for about five or six months. After making some progress, someone told us to send some photos of the transformation for a competition," he said. 

They had cleared the waste area outside the apartment and planted trees and grass. 

"The competition was put together by Awesome Foundation, a group of professionals who meet and contribute Sh100,000 monthly to reward groups with awesome ideas," he said.

"Out of 117 groups, we were shortlisted to five and when we went to compete, we won and were given the money."

When they were handed the money, his next challenge was convincing his teammates to invest the money in more clean-up initiatives instead of splitting it. 

When they accepted, they bought a gate, swing sets, slides, flowers and a back perimeter fence to add to the garden at their court.

However, the trio, operating under Mustard Seed, ran into trouble with the authorities, who wanted to sell the land, and the community, who thought they would sell the project. 

"The community had issues with us because projects like these are often sold to rich people," he said. 

"Some authorities actually sold the land for Sh700,000 and were offering me Sh50,000 to disappear, and when I declined, I was arrested."  

His luck changed when he was released, and the county government offered him a letter allowing him to beautify the place without any interference.

Children play at a rehabilitated playground in Mustard Court at Dandora estate
PLAYGROUND: Children play at a rehabilitated playground in Mustard Court at Dandora estate


The green gardens offer a serene environment for residents to relax and safe playgrounds for children. The initiative has adopted the use of recycled material and art to beautify the gardens. 

The seats are made from old drums or tires, while some plants are grown in gumboots, plastic and glass jars, old toilet seats, basins and crates. 

The playgrounds have swing sets, see-saws and slides. The residents in each court sustain their own gardens by paying Sh100 per month for street cleanup, security, and playground maintenance. 

From the money, Sh50 goes into paying for security, Sh30 for paying cleaners and Sh20 for maintaining the garden.

After registering as valid groups, the youth in each court are employed as security guards, cleaners and caretakers. 

It did not take long before the success of Gachanja's project started attracting the attention of his fellow community members.

Some community members who saw the progress began challenging him, claiming they would have done much better in their courts if offered the money.

Despite not having funds for a competition, together with other partners, they decided to hold another competition in 2015 with the aim of involving more people in the cleanup efforts. 

"I spent about one and a half months trying to convince people to sign up, but so many NGOs had come and conned them. For the first competition, only 12 groups signed up," he said.

The low turnout initially discouraged investors, but when the first group won, the initiative earned the trust of youth. 

In season two of the competition, 127 groups signed up to present their cleanup ideas. The groups need to have rehabilitated their areas before a winner is chosen. 

"In season three, an MP came in and promised to give us Sh500,000. The night before the competition, he did not show up and sent a cheque of Sh250,000 instead," he said. This compromised the trust and future plans in the competition. 

However, they launched season four last year for the entire Nairobi. 

"Remember we had grown from Mustard Seed to Dandora Transformation, and now we are a public space network going Nairobi-wide," he said.


In 2015, they participated in a lab at the UN to look at project sustainability, potential and manageability, and Mustard Seed project won.

 "Why we won is because looking at the scalability, the project can be done anywhere in the country. After the courts, we could move to the streets," he said.

They developed an idea to do the first plastic Cabro road in Africa. The UN agreed to support the project at the tune of Sh10 million to facilitate machinery, labour and equipment.

Authorities who had initially ignored their pleas to help in the project began expressing interest for political preservation, he says. 

Before deciding on the street design, children and young women were given a chance to use Minecraft to design how they would like the streets to look like. 

"We eventually worked with the area MP to do the road. Our work was to do the gateway and the beautification along the street," he said. 

The gateway, a first of its kind in Africa, employed about 30-40 Dandora youths every day for about two months. 

"We finished the model street but that brought about a lot of political resistance because they thought we were trying to tarnish their names," he said.

Despite the local resistance they were facing, the initiative won the Best Practice Transforming Spaces in the World, in Dubai, taking home Sh3 million.

Two months later, they won the Smart Cities award in Singapore.

"We have gone to all relevant offices in Kenya and they have not recognised us, but those abroad are recognising what we do," he said. 

Edited by T Jalio

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