December 6, 2012 5:02 am

Trash to treasure

the communal cooker at the Karagita slum has helped ease ethnic tensions while providing a cleaner, safer space for food preparation©Mariella Furrer

Togetherness: the communal cooker at the Karagita slum has helped ease ethnic tensions while providing a cleaner, safer space for food preparation

Caroline Adhiambo rolls out dough for more of the thick chapatis that are sizzling on the huge stove beside her, marvelling at the new technology that is transforming her community in the Karagita slum.

“Strange,” she calls the six-ring, rubbish-burning stove that is helping clean the local environment and provide faster, cheaper and safer energy for local householders. “It is something that we have never seen.”

The “community cooker” she is using is the brainchild of Kenya-born architect Jim Archer, of Planning Systems Services. It not only won the energy category but was chosen as the overall winner of this year’s FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards.

The industrial-scale oven safely incinerates food and household waste while channelling the energy it produces to cooking, heating and boiling water, helping cut reliance on more traditional fuel sources such as wood and charcoal.

It also provides a communal meeting point in a country that has long been blighted by ethnic tensions, and this slum of 54,000 people, in the midst of Kenya’s most important flower-growing region, has not been immune to the violence such conflict can bring.

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If teething problems with a business model can be overcome, the community cooker will also be a self-sustaining source of income from a complementary Community Café.

“It is something good because we are not going to use things like firewood and charcoal, so it’s cheap,” says 29-year-old Adhiambo, one of several flower farm workers who are busy firing up the recently installed community cooker.

The cooker reaches temperatures above 800C, in line with World Health Organisation standards aimed at ensuring that noxious fumes, such as those produced by plastic bags and polythene packing, are eliminated during the incineration process.

The oil for Adhiambo’s chapatis is spitting at temperatures of about 880C, and the air around the stove shimmers with the heat it is creating.

The metal-and-brick stove can burn 12kg of rubbish an hour. Judy Wambui, a rose buncher at a local flower farm, says her rice cooks in half the time on the communal cooker than it does at home.

The Karagita area of Naivasha, two hours north-west of the capital Nairobi, is home to more than 50 flower farms that earn vital export income for Kenya. A group of workers here took it upon themselves to explore the possibility of installing the cooker after learning of the benefits it had brought to other communities where it was already in use.

The improvement in the quality of life in this small corner of the slum stands in stark contrast to the rest of Karagita, where children brew tea and cook tomatoes in metal mugs they sit on plastic waste that smoulders at temperatures too low to burn off the toxic fumes.

Rubbish – food refuse, plastic bags and bottles, wood shavings – piles up in breeze block enclosures that punctuate the tracks separating rows of concrete huts roofed with sheets of beaten zinc. Godwin Simiyu calls a one-room hut in the midst of this squalor home, and tries to brighten the gloom with huge posters of red and yellow roses.

He uses a charcoal-burning stove for heating and cooking, yet is unaware of the potential health risks. “We cook inside but we have ventilation,” says the 39-year-old flower grader, pointing to five narrow slits in the concrete walls. The economics of charcoal, however, do not escape him. “In the rainy season the roads are bad and the trucks can’t make it and so the price goes up too high,” he says.

A short walk to the fringes of the slum, and life could not be more different: men are stoking the community cooker with refuse collected locally and dried in a three-tier storage unit. Rice, beef stew and vegetables bubble away in pots on the stove top.

The Community Cooker Foundation, the charitable trust set up by Archer’s Planning Systems Services, installed the stove for 1.85m shillings ($22,600) after farm workers at Longonot Horticulture, which grows roses for, among others, the UK’s Tesco and Marks and Spencer chains, first looked into the idea in 2010.

“We built it about eight times before we actually got it right,” says the foundation’s Janice Muthui. The foundation – with the help of the rubbish collectors who sift the rubbish to remove recyclable and sellable items – are still working out what type of rubbish provides the highest energy output when it burns.

For now, farm workers are running the cooker, but plan to soon hand it over to the community as a going concern, earning its keep from selling food in a cafeteria that will be called the Community Café.

“Eighty to 90 per cent of our workers live in Karagita and it was very congested and dirty,” says Julius Njuguna, packhouse manager and Fairtrade officer for Longonot Horticulture. The company uses the 8 per cent premium charged on Fairtrade-labelled flowers sold in the UK and elsewhere to fund a number of projects, including workers’ transport to work and childcare facilities, and a tree nursery that grows seedlings to be planted throughout the slum.

The Longonot Fairtrade Association decided to go ahead with the cooker after seeing its potential in Nairobi’s sprawling Kibera slum, where the first one was set up in 2007. “We saw this cooker can clean the environment (and) generate income, so it could be a sustainable project,” says Njuguna.

Kibera is the largest slum in east Africa, consisting of 13 villages and home to hundreds of thousands of people who live in rented shacks that are literally held together with string. Thanks to Archer’s communal cooker, much of the ubiquitous garbage is now recycled into energy that has transformed the lives of many of the residents.

Aside from the Karagita and Kibera cookers, and a pilot cooker set up at Archer’s offices, a fourth is under construction at Kawangware Children’s Garden Home in Nairobi, and another four are expected to be built elsewhere in Kenya soon. Enquiries have come from the Indonesian island of Bali, Cornwall in the UK, and Nigeria.

Muthui says the cooker is helping to nurture peace in a community that five years ago was wracked by ethnic violence that followed the 2007 elections and left more than 1,100 people dead. Some of the worst of the violence took place in Naivasha.

“Flower farm workers come from all over Kenya and therefore Karagita is a real melting pot of different tribes and cultures,” says Muthui.

“There is a very deeply rooted need for the community to engage in common activities, and the community cooker and Community Café offer a recreational area where they can come, unwind and mix freely after a hard day’s work, or bring their families on the weekend.”

Adhiambo says her neighbours were among the victims of the 2007 violence, but she adds that few in the slum escaped. “Even me, I lost my property, they stole everything; I started afresh,” she says.

Today she is among flower farm workers from different parts of the country who mingle happily at the community cooker. Simiyu, who saw people killed on this very spot, hopes it will complement plans for a park. “People can interact as they cook food,” he says. “Before, they were avoiding each other.”

The lack of a business plan is a problem facing the community cooker, with concerns about a lack of clarity dating back to 2008, according to an early report from Arup consultants.

While the benefits of the cooker might be obvious to those who have funded, built and installed it, it cannot work without local involvement.

The Kibera cooker provides an object lesson – technically, it works well, but the group in charge of it has yet to devise a business plan that matches income with expenses.

Muthui is unfazed. “We are confident that this temporary impasse will sort itself out.

“We just want to build it and get the community to embrace it and run it without looking back to us. If they feel it’s part of them, they’ll use it.”

The foundation is now seeking assistance from Jhpiego, the Kenya affiliate of the Johns Hopkins University in the US.

“We know that we have to take it to the next level now. And the next level is for the community to come on board with us and really embrace this new technology,” she says.

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