In the fourth Guest Editor post from Wangūi Kamonji, she takes us to Naivasha Town in Kenya for an inspiring look at a local waste initiative.
James Kagwe, who runs a waste management collective called ‘Waste to Best’ in Naivasha Town in Kenya’s Rift Valley. His path has taken him from flower growing to street clean-ups, waste collection and waste management. He now has his eyes set on turning waste into a resource that benefits his community in multiple ways, all of this inspired by a pointed question years back. I joined him at a newly started community garden, and on the donkey cart he uses to collect waste, to find out more about his work and do some myself. From his journey, it was clear that small actions are how to begin and grow.
How did you come to be working in Naivasha?
I come from Central Kenya but I found myself in Naivasha, when I came to live with my sister and work in the flower farms [which supply a third of cut flowers to Europe]. I wasn’t content there and decided to start my own business trading in milk. This work took me round my neighbourhood and I observed that there was a lot of waste on the streets. The town’s population is growing because people are moving here for tourism and horticultural work leading to high waste generation.
With urban growth being so high, the town administration struggles to manage it. So people were throwing waste on the streets outside of their houses.
What made you decide to do something about the waste problem?
In 2007 on World Environment Day, we did a street cleaning campaign with Professor Wangari Maathai, who I consider my mentor. I remember when we finished the exercise she asked,
“OK, we have cleaned the street today, but tomorrow who will do it?”
She encouraged us to form a group and continue the work of collecting waste. So that’s where we started. We began to collect the waste that people would throw outside the plots. Soon we saw that this was not sustainable, because residents kept throwing waste out on the streets.
We decided therefore, to give residents bags to put their waste in, which we would collect weekly.
At the time, we were co-operating with the municipal council. We would give them the waste we collected and they would take it in their vehicles to the city dump. Later when we had a change in administration to the county government, they no longer took the waste we had collected. By this point, I had seen a problem in the way we were operating, however.
If you collect waste from one place, and take it to another, you are simply transferring a problem.
Taking waste to the dumpsite in Naivasha, which is located on a hill at the bottom of which is the lake, was creating more problems. All the waste on the hill goes down to the lake when it rains. Yet Lake Naivasha is the life of Naivasha. Everything surrounds that lake, so if the lake dies, the whole of Naivasha town will die.
I decided that I would take initiative in managing this waste. We rented land somewhere to be our waste management site. Then came the next challenge: since the county government had withdrawn their vehicles we needed some form of transport. I improvised by using a donkey. I get waste using a donkey cart, and take it to the place we have rented, where we do the waste segregation.
Who do you work with?
I approached different people who I thought were of like mind and shared my idea of collecting and managing waste, and I brought those who were interested on board. I also try to work with women in particular those who are having a hard time economically because we want to empower them through this work.
What are the core values with which you work?
Transparency is very important to us.
Every shilling we get from the project, we account for. And we plough this back into the project to grow it and support other projects we have. For example, for our new ‘Tree per Plot’ initiative we do not have funds from anywhere, but the money that we save from the payments for waste collection. Additionally, we have a chicken project, we have a cow and a community garden project, and all these are supported from the waste we collect, and the money we save from payments for waste collection.
Another thing is that everybody works. No-one comes to the project to supervise how others are working, no. You have to do it yourself, which is how everyone earns their keep since the project is small and has to keep running. We all work, including myself.
Finally, trust. When you give somebody work, you trust that they will do it with minimal supervision. I think you have seen as we have gone round, people working. I am not there but each person knows what to do, and from what time to what time. Yesterday they were planting in the community garden, and I was not there.
Today we have gone up again to the permaculture garden and we have found the gardener there, and he did not know I was coming. I have not gone to tell him what to do. So I have really tried to tell those who join, I want somebody who is mature, who knows what to do, when to do it, how to do it, with very little supervision, because that makes the work easy.
What are some challenges you’ve faced so far and what did you do about them?
What I say is that life without challenges is not worth living. Every time I find a challenge, I usually say, it’s an area that I need to grow.
For example, we used to have a lot of chickens and I used to have a worker who would collect one or two in a week for himself. So when I saw this, I did not see it as a problem. I saw it as an area that I needed to grow in. So what did I do? I put some more security measures. OK, I see maybe there is somebody who is not working to the deadlines. That used to be a very big challenge. We would have maybe 2 people doing waste segregation and in a day not finish 20 bags. Yet I would have to pay them a day’s payment. So what did I realise, let us do it by piece work whereby we pay by number of bags separated.
In the early days, some residents complained of theft. That some of the collectors would collect things in the compound. So now, we ask everyone to bring waste to the gate, even though some residents don’t like that. It has also made our work a bit easier.
On the side of collection, it was a challenge to change people’s mindsets with regard to waste collection on two levels. First, people had been throwing waste out without any payment, so it was difficult to tell them ‘you should keep your waste in this bag, which we will collect every week, and you will pay us for this’.
Then many people believe that waste collection is the duty of the municipality and not of private entities. Many house owners would say that they had paid taxes to the council, which includes free waste collection.
But we persisted. And they saw we were coming, we have a donkey cart, the donkey cart needs maintenance, we have the young men collecting waste and the women doing waste segregation who need pay for their work as well. So eventually, about 90% of the neighbourhood started paying for waste collection, even if not much.
Every time we are faced with a challenge, we face it. You know, I read somewhere, that challenges are very good in life, meet them, greet them, and then beat them. I like that so much.
What are successes you have had so far?
First, that we are running this project and it generates us income. We feed our cows, our chickens, our ducks, our dog, our donkey and now worms using the food waste we collect and we get an income from these animals too. Since 2012, when we started the waste management phase, we have made over 20 lorries of compost. This we use in our recently established community garden and a permaculture garden farther away to produce healthy food, which we can supply to the clients from whom we collect waste and in this way the circle goes round. We have also managed to collaborate with different recycling industries who collect the waste we have segregated.
In the beginning, we were collecting about 6 bags of waste per week only, but now we collect more than 300 bags in a week. In part, the population has grown, but the residents are also co-operating with our waste collection project. Everybody was pouring waste on the streets before but we have been able to sensitise the community.
Another success is the women I have empowered. We have a team of about 15 women working here. Many of them were unemployed before and would have to beg to survive or go into the sex business. But today they can earn money and raise the standards of their families. Empowering a woman is empowering the society.
A very big success is that the streets in the neighbourhood are clean, some are even starting to turn green. It used to be awful. But now passing in the streets you do not experience bad odour or anything like that. The children play on the streets and they used to have many illnesses and so on because of the dirt that used to be there. Through auditing the waste we collect, we have noticed a decline in the number of medicine bottles collected, showing that health is improving.
You saw the children yesterday, most of them are the ones bringing the waste to the donkey cart. So they now know what they should do with their waste. They are healthy and can go to school without being sick during the week. This also means their parents don’t have to miss work to care for them.
Making the environment clean, green and healthy is one of my big goals. And with this we are making progress.
There are also many people who are visiting our project to learn about managing domestic waste, which means the knowledge, is spreading.
What are some areas you want to grow your project in?
When I see that I have made an impact, it gives me a lot of strength to go forward. My life is about making an impact. And I know when an impact is made, incomes come. So I try to think, OK what else can I do to make much more impact?
Our estates have hardly any trees. So we’re starting a tree per plot initiative which we’re calling ‘Mti Wetu’ meaning ‘this tree is ours’ and therefore we have to take care of it because it will nourish us. Each plot will have either an indigenous tree or a fruit tree because we want the children to know what are these trees, what is it called in scientific and local names, what are their uses, etc. We will use the organic manure we produce to support that.
Within our project, I would like to have waste segregated at the production level. This will make it easy for us to handle and to manage the waste. I think the population is ready to go there now.
Our intention is not just to manage that waste within our small neighbourhood. We want to be able to manage all the waste of Naivasha Town so that zero waste is taken to the dumpsite.
Finally, my big vision is this. We started from street cleaning, we came to garbage collection, now we are at the waste management level, and my intention is to go to waste industrialisation. Currently, glass bottles we collect are taken to Nairobi, the capital city, while clothes go somewhere else. Transportation to Nairobi takes a lot of energy. I would like to see the conversion of these wastes into useful products and even green energy here in Naivasha. So my idea is to move from waste management to waste industrialisation.
What is the environment to you?
Environment is everything being where it’s supposed to be. Like if we come to waste, there’s nothing that would be called waste, if only it was taken back to where it was supposed to belong. That is for me the environment, the work of the environment is that effort of taking everything back to where it is supposed to be. Once you put everything like that, everything is alright.