Latrines relieve slum dwellers of the shame of flying toilets

The Fresh Life toilets project is restoring dignity among residents who for years have endured the hazards and eye sore of open defecation

In Summary

• Many residents of these unplanned settlements lack proper sanitation facilities

• Using a polythene bag and throwing it was the norm until latrines were installed

Some of the Fresh Life toilets installed in Mukuru slums
Some of the Fresh Life toilets installed in Mukuru slums

When Hanna Mwangi was a young girl, she hated herself because of slum life in Mukuru kwa Reuben, Nairobi. Relieving herself was so difficult as residents had to wait for the cover of darkness at night.

Mwangi, now in her mid 60s, says in her youthful days, her family would relieve themselves in buckets or polythene bags and later dispose of them in the night.

“I have grown up in this slum and now I am an old woman. The memories are so alive with me that it looks like if it was just the other day,” she said.


Mwangi is among the beneficiaries of Fresh Life toilets, a project run by social enterprise Sanargy.

In an interview with the Star, Mwangi said nowadays, she does not need to worry about where and when she will dispose of her stool because she has a toilet in her shanty house.

“Being a landlord of these small houses you see here means you need to ensure your tenants have access to sanitation. This toilet has really helped us because it is located within our plot, thus even in the middle of the night, one can relieve themselves,” she said.

A photo of open defecation in Mukuru slums
A photo of open defecation in Mukuru slums

She said slum life has since changed because even though many houses are just shanty structures, tenants are looking for those with access to sanitation — water and toilets.

“This is a good project because once the toilet is fitted, you do not require water to flush, all you need to do is keep it clean,” she said.

Jackson Jandi, a youth and an operator of the toilet, said the facilities have not only transformed the environment but also become a source of livelihood.

“We had a lot of flying toilets but when we got this fresh toilet, many people have accessed it. It has helped many youth in terms of employment, and thus reducing crime,” he said.


Jandi said with a group of other operators, the toilets are opened at 5am every day and closed at 10pm.


Abner Anyona, coordinator of the teams that collect the waste, said when the project started, it was very traumatising because many youth shied away from associating themselves with human waste.

“Imagine telling people your work is to transport human waste for recycling? No one would want such a job. We are lucky that of late, many have come to appreciate the work that has been done and are coming on board to be part of it,” Anyona said.

One of the operators disinfects some of the buckets used to collect the waste
One of the operators disinfects some of the buckets used to collect the waste

He said in the entire Mukuru slums, there are over 300 youth whose work is to transport the waste from sites to the consolidation point before it is loaded for recycling.

“As long as at the end of the day these youth will put a meal on the table, that is what makes us happy,” he said.

It is estimated that every human generates about 300g of human waste per day, and this waste can become an eye sore when not properly disposed of.

In Nairobi, the odour of this human waste is unbearable, with mountains of garbage illegally dumped everywhere.

In the slums, both the human waste in open areas and mountains of trash produce a pungent smell, and when it rains, it floods in several houses.

Slums the world over are hidden from public view, with many being located far from highways, on slopes, dumps, wetlands and in the shadow of the sun.

A photo of an open sewer in Mathare slum
A photo of an open sewer in Mathare slum

Nairobi has a population of about 5 million people as per the 2019 census, and it is estimated that slum dwellers make up 60 per cent in about 300 settlements.

Despite bold efforts by a range of actors from the government, private sector and NGOs to improve sanitation, most households in these slums are yet to gain access to decent, dignified, healthy and affordable sanitation choices.

According to the UN, out of the total population of these slum dwellers, only 30 per cent have access to safe sanitation, leaving the rest with no option but to defecate in the open.


In an online article published in 2016 by humanitarian.org, the growing urban populations and lack of proper planning by the government are largely to blame.

“People are migrating to urban centres in search of jobs. This consequently piles pressure on already strained infrastructure, including residential areas, and the government is caught flat-footed and appears helpless,” Collins Asweto, a public health expert from Great Lakes University, told the publication.

Many of the slums are illegal, which experts say the government uses as an excuse to ignore the problem.

“Slums spring up without any approval from the government, and they will tell you they can’t provide services in a place that doesn’t exist. That is the paradox,” Aggrey Nyange, an urban planning lecturer at the University of Nairobi said.

Yet efforts to provide basic amenities to slum residents could result in demolitions or evictions. 

“Even in the current set-up of informal settlements, demolitions will have to occur for services to be rendered, because how do you build sewer lines in Kibera, for instance? There is just no space to do it,” Nyange said.

Overcrowding in these slums has made them inaccessible. The landlords have constructed their houses on top of sewer lines, making it practically impossible to do anything about it when they get blocked.

In 2018, the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company reported it could not account for the disposal of over 66 per cent of human waste.

Through the Shit Flow Diagram, the company reported that 66 per cent of fecal waste generated is left untreated, posing serious risks to the environment and public health.

The Shit Flow Diagram
The Shit Flow Diagram


Then acting Technical director Lucy Njambi said there was little documentation on sanitation and acknowledged a major challenge in human waste disposal.

She said only 100,000 cubic litres of human waste gets to the Ruai treatment plant daily and that the county cannot account for over 400,000 cubic litres.

"The plant receives a very small percentage of waste, despite the pumping of more than 500,000 litres of water daily," she said.

“We do not know how much goes to septic tanks, conservatories and pit latrines, and we do not know where it is getting lost, whether through overflowing and use of pit latrines.”

It was also reported that only 40 per cent of residents are connected to the sewer system. Fifty-four percent of these residents make use of different forms of non-sewered sanitation options, with 30 per cent of waste emanating from these offerings being poorly handled.

“The remaining six per cent still practise open defecation,” the report stated.

Njambi said due to encroachment, manholes pass through people`s houses, leading to the inability to flush and unblock the systems.

A section of Nairobi River with sewer pipes draining human waste
A section of Nairobi River with sewer pipes draining human waste

As a result, many households are forced to defecate into polythene bags, commonly known as ‘the flying toilets’, then dispose of them haphazardly.

In some slums, the government in partnership with nine other stakeholders, has come up with projects to establish more pit latrines to cater for the increasing demand.

However, despite the fact that these facilities charge Sh10, many dwellers still opt to relieve themselves in open fields.

Edited by T Jalio