Upscaling Sanitation for the Urban Poor in Kenya

By Jane Njagi

Providing access to urban sanitation is challenging because of space limitations, complex land tenure and higher public health concerns in crowded settlements. This is especially true for low-income urban areas. For URBANET, Jane Njagi describes how this challenge has been tackled in Tharaka Nithi County, Kenya.

Sanitation is infrastructure investment in its own right
Although often mentioned in one breath with water supply, sanitation has for a long time been treated as the stepchild of public infrastructure investments. Mandates for sanitation are often not clearly defined or fragmented between numerous institutions such as water, health, planning or environmental ministries or local government departments.

Globally, coverage figures for urban sanitation tend to be higher than for rural sanitation. Yet it can be argued that providing access to urban sanitation is often more challenging because of space limitations, more complex land tenure and higher public health concerns in crowded settlements.

In 2015, 30 percent of Kenya’s total population had at least basic access to sanitation and another 21 percent of the population had limited access (shared access), according to the JMP definition1. In urban areas the figures were 35 percent for basic and 42 percent for shared access in the same reporting period2.

Insufficient sanitation puts low-income and densely populated urban areas at risk
Currently around 25 percent of the 46 million Kenyans live in urban areas with an urban growth rate of approximately 4 percent per year. Around one third of the urban population lives below the poverty line. Due to the fast urbanisation and low investments in water and sanitation infrastructure, the number of underserved urban residents increases steadily3.

Sewer coverage in Kenya is very low. Only around 15 percent of the urban population are connected to sewer networks. The remaining 85 percent of the urban population resort to on-site sanitation technologies.

In the urban low-income areas, these on-site sanitation technologies are often of poor standard and are shared between many households. In addition, safe sludge management in terms of emptying, transport and disposal of the faecal sludge is frequently not practised and local governments fail to enforce environmental standards and regulations. All this leads to environmental pollution and public health problems, putting residents of densely populated areas at a particular risk.

Programme for up-scaling sanitation
As an attempt to tackle the challenge of urban sanitation and move towards the national and international sanitation access goals, a countrywide up-scaling programme called “Upscaling Basic Sanitation for the Urban Poor” (UBSUP) has been put in place. It aims at providing access to basic household sanitation across all Kenyan low-income urban areas. UBSUP is implemented by the Water Sector Trust Fund (WSTF) Kenya and jointly financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Technical assistance is being provided by GIZ.

Nithi Water and Sanitation Company Ltd (NIWASCO), a limited liability company owned by Tharaka Nithi County, is one of 22 water service providers implementing the UBSUP programme. The service area of NIWASCO covers urban and some peri-urban areas in Tharaka Nithi County, which is located around 175 km northeast of Nairobi in the eastern foothills of Mount Kenya. The population within the service area is around 82,000 people – about a quarter of the total population of the county. In compliance with the mandate of the water service providers defined in the Kenyan Water Act 2016, NIWASCO is responsible for providing water supply and centralised and decentralised sewerage service including transport, storage and treatment of wastewater to the people in the service area.

There is no legal obligation or mandate for the water service providers to improve household sanitation facilities. However, it is widely agreed amongst sector stakeholders in the county that there has been a long history of neglect with regards to the sanitation situation in the low-income urban areas in Tharaka Nithi. Both the quantity and quality of the toilet facilities have become a major concern in terms of public and environmental health.

Most people are using unimproved pit latrines which are not adequate and do not comply with the building standards for high-density urban settlements. Frequently the pit latrines are not lined and have porous walls that lead to seepage into the ground, thus putting groundwater resources at risk. The covers of the pits are often not sufficiently reinforced and therefore prone to collapse. In addition, the superstructures of such facilities are often made out of temporary materials such as nylon bags, and too many households are sharing one facility. These factors make the use of the toilets particularly difficult for women and girls, who often wait until nighttime to use the toilet to avoid being seen.

Providing sanitation facilities to low-income households
Against this background, NIWASCO in close cooperation with the County Public Health and Environmental Department decided to promote improved household sanitation facilities under the UBSUP programme. After successfully applying to the countrywide call for proposals of the Water Sector Trust Fund, NIAWSCO started the implementation of the first UBSUP phase in 2014.

The UBSUP concept is based on three pillars:

  • Technology: standardised technical designs for the household toilets and decentralised treatment facilities (including detailed technical drawings and standard Bill of Quantities)
  • Social Marketing: a sound social marketing concept for the promotion of the toilets (the toilets are branded under the name SafiSan)
  • Business models: sound business model for the operation of the decentralised treatment facility as well as for emptying and transport services

The implementation process for an UBSUP (SafiSan) toilet can be summarised as follows: The social animators market the toilets within the low-income area through effective social marketing techniques (door-to-door visits, public events and radio announcement). To do this, NIWASCO has employed and trained 3 social animators. If a household is interested in obtaining an improved SafiSan toilet, they submit an application that is recorded and verified by the social animators. Most of the low-income residents live as tenants on shared plots. Consequently, landlords rather than individual households are the main target group for the social marketing.

As part of the verification, the social animators make sure that the number of future users is in line with the design parameters of the SafiSan toilet (maximum of 10 users per unit) and that the applicant is eligible to be part of the programme (resident in low-income urban area). The household or landlord contracts an artisan trained by NIWASCO to construct the toilet of the required standards. Financial arrangements between landlords and artisans, such as periodic instalments or provision of material and/or labour, are common practice. After the toilet is completed, NIWASCO inspects the work together with the public health officer. If the toilet complies with the UBSUP standards, the household receives a post-construction incentive of 20,000 KSh (approx. 200 USD) per new toilet unit and 15,000 KSh (approx. 150 USD) per rehabilitated toilet unit.

Financial incentive ensures affordability and increases ownership
The post-construction incentive has been a major success factor of the programme:

  1. On the one hand, the post-construction incentive enables the urban poor to afford a toilet. This is important, since community sensitisation and consultation activities clearly revealed that people are not ignorant about the benefits of improved toilets but see affordability as the main factor that hinders them to construct better toilets.
  2. On the other hand, the mode of payment of the financial incentive increases ownership and contributes to the sustainability of the facilities. Receiving the subsidy once the toilet has been constructed and approved requires the household or landlords to raise the initial capital to fund the facility, thus ensuring that the programme responds to an actual demand. The financial incentive however does not fully cover the total costs of the standard facility — to ensure ownership and sustainability, the landlords are expected to contribute something, e.g. in the form of unskilled labour or locally available materials. Initially, this slowed down the uptake of the toilets but has since then been successfully communicated with a marketing strategy.

The sustainability of the approach can be witnessed by the fact that even the first toilets that were completed more than two years ago are still functional and well maintained.

New treatment facility for sludge disposal
Another major milestone in the first implementation phase was the construction of a decentralised treatment facility (DTF). NIWASCO has hired and trained an operator for the DTF. With its construction, a long-time gap in the provision of sustainable sludge management has been closed. Before, there was no treatment facility at all in Tharaka Nithi and if households wanted to empty their septic tanks the exhauster truck had to dispose the sludge in treatment facilities in the neighbouring counties often as far as 50km away. The long transport distances made the service very expensive and thus affordable for few. With the construction of the DTF the sludge management service has become more accessible and costs for exhausting the toilets have halved.

Results of the programme so far
Not surprisingly, the start of the programme was not always smooth. At the beginning, uptake was slow and people complained about the costs of the toilet. Trust had to be built in the communities, who needed to be convinced that the post-construction incentive would actually be paid. However, through vigorous marketing and support of the local authorities, the word spread quickly and the uptake kicked off.

Until now, a total of 500 SafiSan toilets have been completed. The demand even exceeded the expectations as NIWASCO has another 100 toilets under construction, and is still receiving more applications. Until the end of 2018 (which is the current implementation period of the UBSUP programme), NIWASCO is planning to promote the construction of at least 1,000 toilets in total.

Thus, approximately 5,000 people in low-income urban areas have so far gained access to adequate household sanitation on their plot at comparatively low per-capita investment costs. These households experience an improved health situation, less diarrhoea amongst their children and therefore reduced health related expenditures. Moreover, women and girls now feel safe to use the toilets at any time.

As the word has spread, NIWASCO now sometimes even receives requests from households who do not live in the low-income areas – and are thus not eligible to receive the post-construction incentive – who want to improve their toilets. Although there is no financial support for them, the standard technical drawings and the contact of the trained artisans are shared with them.

The support of the county government, and of the public health and environmental departments in particular, has been crucial for the implementation and sustainability of the initiative. In addition, there is a well-established collaboration with the local administration on the community level (chiefs). This collaboration supports the health and hygiene sensitisation in the communities.

In conclusion, the UBSUP programme has shown that there is demand and willingness to pay for improved household toilets among residents of low-income areas. It is possible to sustainably impact on people’s livelihoods by establishing a strong stakeholder cooperation as well as by putting in place adequate supportive framework conditions for the urban poor.

Jane Njagi

Jane Njagi

Jane Njagi is the Technical Manager of Nithi Water and Sanitation Company Ltd (NIWASCO). She joined NIWASCO in 2011. She oversees and coordinates the implementation of the Upscaling Basic Sanitation for the Urban Poor (UBSUP) programme in Tharaka Nithi County, Kenya. She is currently pursuing her Masters degree in Water and Sanitation at Kenyatta University Nairobi.
Jane Njagi

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