Slum cooker protects environment, helps poor

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya’s huge and squalid slums don’t have much of anything, except mountains of trash that fill rivers and muddy streets, breeding disease.

Kenyan slum dwellers use the community cooker in the Laini Saba village of Kibera slum, one of the largest in Africa, in Nairobi March 10, 2009. Kenya's huge and squalid slums don't have much of anything, except mountains of trash that fill rivers and muddy streets, breeding disease. Now Kenyan designers have built a cooker that uses the trash as fuel to feed the poor, provide hot water and destroy toxic waste, as well as curbing the destruction of woodlands. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna

Now Kenyan designers have built a cooker that uses the trash as fuel to feed the poor, provide hot water and destroy toxic waste, as well as curbing the destruction of woodlands.

After nine years of development, the prototype “Community Cooker” is close to being rolled out in overcrowded refugee camps as well as slums around the country where the filth encourages diseases including cholera.

Invented by Nairobi architect Jim Archer, the cooker combines simplicity with the capacity to confront several environmental challenges simultaneously. The design was highly commended at the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona last year.

The prototype is working in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, said to be the biggest in Africa, where around 800,000 people live.

Potatoes, rice and tea cook on some of the eight hotplates above a roaring, spitting furnace. A joint of meat roasts in an oven that can also be used for bread.

Behind the black-painted corrugated iron cooking area, rubbish collected by local youths dries on racks before being pushed into the furnace.

Technicians have spent three years modifying the firebox to produce enough heat to destroy toxins in the rubbish, particularly plastics, although they are striving to get the temperature higher still.

The stove is one of several projects giving hope amid endemic violence, crime and disease in the huge slums. In another part of Kibera, a group of 35 youths have developed a farm on a former rubbish dump, feeding themselves and selling cucumbers, pumpkins and tomatoes.


The health hazards posed by garbage assault the eye as soon as you enter Kibera.

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The slum looks as if it is literally built on trash, with waste including excrement filling the rough mud streets and streams, so only fetid pools remain.

Small rubbish fires stutter on the roadsides, spreading acrid smoke near kiosks selling food.

Pigs and goats forage in the waste and children play by filthy streams and drink from water pipes covered in garbage.

Slums like Kibera, home to 60 percent of Nairobi’s population, receive no garbage collection or other services from city authorities.

Many inhabitants struggle to afford the kerosene for their own stoves, so Archer’s idea was to clear at least some of the waste, while providing hot water for bathing and communal cooking facilities.

While the prototype cooker, in Kibera’s Laini Saba village, has been dogged by local squabbles, drought and design problems, it proved the idea worked. A tall chimney carries the once-choking fumes away and initial emissions tests have been favorable, Archer’s firm says.

Now the Kenyan Red Cross is preparing to install similar cookers in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps near the Somali border, where cholera has already broken out this year, and at least one European aid organization is looking at wide deployment.

Juma Ochieng of the Red Cross told Reuters the Community Cooker had benefits for health, sanitation and conservation, and would create employment for young people working to build and maintain the stoves.

Residents of Kibera, scene of bloodshed in last year’s Kenyan election crisis and home to many criminal gangs, agree.

“It employs the youth....They would be stealing if they were not here ...They would have been in trouble if we didn’t have this cooker,” said James Mokaya, 56, a member of the community that runs the prototype.

The Kibera stove cost more than $10,000 to build as a prototype but both Ndede and Mumo Musuva, an architect working for Archer’s practice, estimate each would cost $5-6,000 once produced in larger numbers. This compares with $50 million for industrial incinerators in Europe.


The Red Cross’s Ochieng says the cookers will also reduce the risk of deadly slum fires from kerosene stoves in densely populated slums.

“As the Red Cross we are looking at taking them countrywide very soon,” he said. He thinks 8-10 will be built by the end of this year and at least a 100 over the next five years, depending on donor funding.

Henry Ndede, of the Kenya regional office for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which provided funds to set up the Kibera cooker, says more work needs to be done to improve materials used in it and raise the temperature still higher to ensure the destruction of carcinogens in plastic.

The stove reaches around 650 Celsius (1,200 Fahrenheit) at present. Ndede says 1,000 degrees is needed but is happy that the prototype has proven rubbish can be turned into energy.

“It is an ideal item for densely populated areas like slums and refugee camps,” he said. “Every city in this country has a slum area with highly combustible material with high calorific value.”

He said the cooker would also relieve serious pressure on forest areas. The Dadaab camp houses 250,000 people although it was built for 80,000. Surrounding woodland has been cut down to provide cooking fuel.

“In Dadaab you have to go more than 50 km (30 miles) to fetch firewood. It takes you two weeks on donkey-back,” he said.

Additional reporting by Ruth Njeng’ere; Editing by Sara Ledwith