Uncollected solid waste is one of Nairobi’s most visible environmental problems. Many parts of the city, especially the low and middle-income areas, don’t even have waste collection systems in place. In high income areas, private waste collection companies are booming. Residents pay handsomely without really knowing where the waste will end up.
The Nairobi county government has acknowledged that with 2,475 tons of waste being produced each day, it can’t manage. Addis Ababa Ethiopia has a similar size population but only generates 1,680 tons per day.
Nairobi’s current waste disposal system is fraught with major problems. These range from the city’s failure to prioritise solid waste management to inadequate infrastructure and the fact that multiple actors are involved whose activities aren’t controlled. There are over 150 private sector waste operators independently involved in various aspects of waste management. To top it all there’s no enforcement of laws and regulations.
Nairobi’s waste disposal problems go back a long way and there have been previous efforts to sort them out. For example in the early 1990s, private and civil society actors got involved, signing contractual arrangements with waste generators. They often did this without informing or partnering with the city authorities.
More recently other strategies were put in place, some of which left parts of the city clean. They worked for a period, but unfortunately they weren’t sustainable because no institutional changes were made.
But there’s hope on the horizon with a new Nairobi Governor – Mike Sonko Mbuvi. He should learn from the mistakes of the past and put a new regime in place that addresses the structural problems that have plagued the city. This would include an improved improved collection and transportation plan that incorporates the private sector.
Learning from the past
In 2005 John Gakuo took over the management of city affairs as the Town Clerk. During his tenure (2005-2009) he made a deliberate effort to introduce new approaches.
When he took over the city only had 13 refuse trucks. They were able to collect a paltry 20% of the waste produced by the city. To overcome this, the authorities contracted private waste collection firms to collect, transport and dispose waste at Dandora dump site which is the biggest and the only designated site. This quickly boosted the total waste collected with levels oscillating between 45%-60%.
Other changes included:
The development of a proper waste collection and transportation schedule with market operators. This meant waste from open-air markets was brought to identified collection points on specific days.
A weighbridge to measure amounts of waste disposed at Dandora was introduced. An important way to know disposal levels vis-a-vis collection and generation.
Enforcement officers were deployed to prevent dumping in parts of the city that were notorious for waste accumulation.
Over 2,000 arrests were made, making residents aware that indiscriminate dumping was illegal and punishable under the city authority laws.
All these efforts paid off – for parts of the city. For example, the heart of the city, the Central Business District, was cleaned up and waste was brought under control.
But crucial elements that would have ensured that the changes were sustainable were left out. For example, no new physical infrastructure, like the construction of waste transfer centres and proper landfills, were built, nor was new equipment bought.
After Gakuo’s regime, the next one worth a mention is Evans Kidero’s regime (2013 - 2017). It can be credited for trying to fast-track the implementation of the Solid Waste Management Master Plan which assessed the waste management problem of Nairobi and developed projects that could be implemented to ensure a sustainable system was in place.
This ensured that while the private sector needed to help with waste collection and transportation, the government was key to institutionalising waste management services.
Thirty waste collection trucks were bought and serious investment was made into heavy equipment. And in an effort to streamline waste collection a franchise system of waste collection was rolled out. This involved dividing the city into nine zones to make it easier to manage waste.
The franchise arrangement gave private operators a monopoly over both waste and fee collections, but relied heavily on the public body for enforcement of the system.
The franchising system failed due to a lack of enforcement by the city. In addition, in-fighting broke out between the private waste collection firms that had individual contracts with waste generators and the appointed contractor.
But other changes introduced during this period were more successful and had longer lasting effect. For example new laws were introduced designed to create order in the sector. These included the solid waste management act in 2015. This classified waste and also created a collection scheme based on the sub-county system. It also put penalties in place.
In addition, in 2016, 17 environment officers were appointed and posted to the sub-counties to plan and supervise waste management operations alongside other environmental issues.
These changes planted the seeds of an efficient and working waste management system. But the regime fell down when it come to enforcement. This meant that the gains that had been made were soon lost.
What needs to be done
Expectations are high for the new regime that has taken over. It should look to fast-track the following programmes:
Implement an improved collection and transportation plan that incorporates private sector and civil society groups;
Establish a disposal facility to reduce secondary pollution from the city’s dumps;
Decommission the Dandora dump site;
Implement the re-use, reduction, and recycling of waste;
Establish intermediate treatment facilities to reduce waste and its hazards;
Create an autonomous public corporation;
Put in place legal and institutional reforms to create accountability;
Implement a financial management plan, and
Implement private sector involvement.
Nairobi can fix it’s waste disposal problems. All it needs is focused attention, good governance and the implementation of systems that ensure changes outlive just one administration.