Posted February 24th 2012 at 8:27 am by
in Stories from the Field

Solving a Charcoal Shortage in a Nairobi Shantytown

Charcoal is a major cooking fuel for the poor in Kenya, but the increasing scarcity of wood and stricter government regulations have caused the price of charcoal to soar. In Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, the price of charcoal nearly doubled in the past year, and now a typical family can spend a shocking 30-50% of its income on cooking fuel alone.

I’m an MIT student in Biological Engineering, working on a project to address this issue.  My group, Takachar, includes students from engineering, science, as well as management.  By making charcoal from organic waste instead of wood, we thought, we would not only save trees, but also help to create a more affordable cooking fuel in Kibera.  But we learned that Kibera, like many slums, has an inextricable rural counterpart that we couldn’t ignore.

In Kenya, there is a tension between the urban and rural parts of the country. While many poor rural people migrate to the urban areas in search of better prospects, they often become marginalized to live in the slums once they arrive. In Nairobi, for example, the biggest slum is Kibera.

Fuel Shortage in Nairobi Slum Highlights Complex Urban-Rural Connection

No one knows exactly how many people live in Kibera; estimates range from 170 thousand to 1.5 million, depending on whom you ask. What we do know is that these slum-dwellers come from different parts of rural Kenya – there are the Kikuyu from around Mount Kenya, the Maasai from the south, the Luo from near Lake Victoria, and the Nubi from the north.

In Kibera, in addition to extreme poverty ($2/day per capita) and lack of services such as water, sanitation, and electricity, there is the complication that not all tribes in Kenya have traditionally been friendly with one another. Being forced to live in close proximity with historical enemies means that slums such as Kibera can also be hotbeds for ethnic tension.

Because of these multifaceted problems, Kibera is also dense in resident NGOs, each serving a self-defined niche such as health, sanitation, community mapping, or mobile services. The motivation of many of such groups can be summed up as follows: With rapid urbanization, the urban slum is an expanding problem, and is not likely to go away within the next few decades. By focusing on the urban poor, these organizations are serving an immense number of people in a small area.

But there is another side to the NGO coin. Some people think that efforts should instead be focused on the well-being of the rural poor. The rural poor, they argue, migrate to urban slums because of bleak conditions in the rural parts. By improving well-being and income opportunities in the countryside, rural poor can gain the better quality of life they seek at home.

Such is the dilemma facing my team, Takachar, as we develop a method for turning household organic waste into charcoal as part of the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge.

Takachar has been approached by eager community partners from both camps – those who focus on slum upgrading and those who focus on rural areas. Originally, we were in the urban camp. After all, the urban slum is where a lot of waste is generated, and where demand for charcoal is high, so it made sense to concentrate our work on the urban poor.  Once we arrived in Kenya, however, we realized that we needed to understand the entire charcoal supply chain in Kenya. And by tracing this supply chain, we were inexorably led to the rural forest.

Fuel Shortage in Nairobi Slum Highlights Complex Urban-Rural Connection

Thus we spent a few days in the Rumuruti Forest, about five hours away from Nairobi. Here in the forest, we learned, over 100 illegal charcoal kilns are in production at any given moment.

Fuel Shortage in Nairobi Slum Highlights Complex Urban-Rural Connection

Each kiln produces about 5 bags of charcoal, some of which is sold to long-distance trucks at about 400 Ksh/bag ($5). After evading police and perhaps paying bribes, the trucks arrive in urban centers such as Nairobi, where the same bag of charcoal fetches up to 2000 Ksh/bag ($25).

Fuel Shortage in Nairobi Slum Highlights Complex Urban-Rural Connection

And at the current rate of charcoal production, the forest is in a big trouble: From 1973 to 2003, the total forest cover has decreased by 30%, and it is estimated that if this pace continues, the forest will be completely gone in 8 years:

Fuel Shortage in Nairobi Slum Highlights Complex Urban-Rural Connection
Source: Rumuruti Forest Association. “Participatory forest management in Rumuruti, Kenya. 2012-2016.”

We also learned that there is an emotional impact: many charcoal makers near the forest grieve the depleting forest.  If the forests disappear, they’ll be left with no source of income. However, given the poor job prospects in the area, they are often left with no other choice.

Then our gradual epiphany arrived: charcoal is not just an urban problem. It is, in fact, a problem that affects every part of the supply chain, and thus touches both on its urban end as well as its rural source. After all, suppose that we just focused on the urban area and solved the charcoal problem there (with the highly unrealistic assumption that organic waste supply can address the entire urban charcoal demand). What would happen to the rural area? People would still be cutting down trees to make their own charcoal. And while the urban slums might stop asking the rural forests for charcoal, this would put many rural charcoal makers and truck drivers out of business, and thus a new unemployment problem would emerge. Thus, in addition to working with urban youth groups to sort organic waste and make charcoal, we also need to work with rural communities to produce charcoal from alternative means, and indeed to develop other income-generating activities surrounding the forest.

Going back to the more fundamental debate about focusing on the urban versus the rural poor, we feel that the answer is now quite evident. We need a holistic, systems approach that can involve both the urban and rural poor. This, however, is easier said than done. Most organizations still only have the capacity to focus on a small sector in a small community.

We think that the solution lies in coordination. If a network can be achieved amongst organizations working both from the rural and urban ends, it becomes much easier to make a coordinated effort to serve both the urban and the rural people.

While many NGOs have, by default, been more competitive than collaborative, this trend may well be changing. In Kibera, Carolina for Kibera’s Taka ni Pato initiative essentially comprises of a network of youth groups engaged in different value-added processing of trash. In Nairobi, the government-sponsored One-Stop Youth Information and Resource Centre also has established a network of youth groups in the city and beyond, and frequently trains these youth groups in new skills and technologies. Takachar also humbly played its part by bringing together people who have never talked to each other.

Fuel Shortage in Nairobi Slum Highlights Complex Urban-Rural Connection

Shown in the picture from left to right are Jacob (MIT-Takachar), Jack (Green World Campaign), Norbert (Carolina for Kibera), and me, Kevin (MIT-Takachar), all of us wearing Green World Campaign (which works with the rural Rumuruti Forest) t-shirts and posing in front of the blue wall of Carolina for Kibera (which works with the Kibera slum). Jack, in addition to his work with Green World Campaign, also belongs to a waste management youth group in Mombasa and is excited to be learning more about Carolina for Kibera’s highly successful waste management efforts.

In continuing our work, we will endeavor to forge more collaborations like this, and we hope that our footprint will not just be restricted to the urban slum, but also reach the rural parts.

Read more about Takachar on their blog. Photos by Kevin Kung unless otherwise noted. The MIT Public Service Center sponsored Kevin’s trip to Kenya.


One Response to “Solving a Charcoal Shortage in a Nairobi Shantytown”

  1. Alison Hynd says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I was really interested to read your thoughts on these complex interactions between rural and urban issues.