Water via vending machine in Kenyan slums – a good idea spreads

In a way, every news story is like an iceberg. There is usually much more under the surface than what is visible. That is the nature of news, I guess, in that each story needs a focus; it can’t be a mini-Wikipedia.

So when I read interesting stories, I like to know more. And that is what I found when I looked further into Thomson-Reuters’ story about how a community in Kibera, just outside Nairobi in Kenya, is dispensing clean water to residents via vending machines.

The essentials of the story:

For years, most of the 600,000 people living in Mukuru have never had a steady supply of clean water. They had to buy water at exorbitant costs from vendors or steal it from municipal pipes – often that water was not clean. 

Soon, however, they will be able to fill a jerry can with clean water for as little as 50 Kenyan cents, using token-operated vending machines that the city government is installing in an effort to ease the slum’s water stress. The tokens can be charged via the M-Pesa mobile money platform at one of 10 water stations and select how much water they want dispensed. 

The project, which began in April 2020, is almost complete – only awaiting the installation of the vending machines. Until the system is operational, residents can fetch clean water for free from boreholes dug for the project, each of which will feed up to four water dispensers.

Now to look below the iceberg, to explore what led to this great innovation, because it offers some great lessons in how community development can be done effectively even in the most resource-constrained environments (in drought-ridden Nairobi, water delivery has been under great stress since 2017). And that means looking at Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), a locally-developed and locally-controlled NGO, whose work inspired the Mukuru project.

From local knowledge come local solutions (“He who wears the shoes knows where it pinches”)

Kennedy Odede grew up in Kibera, where he experienced poverty, violence, lack of opportunity, and deep gender inequality, as well as “the palpable hope that persists in slums and recognized that people sought something different for themselves, their families and their communities.”

In 2004, as a teenager, he saved 20 cents from his  $1-a-day factory job, bought a soccer ball, and started SHOFCO. Inspired by his mother (it is her saying above), he had learned the importance of proximate leadership: the idea that people who live closest to a problem know best how to solve it. “Fed up with charity and handouts, members of my community dreamed of unlocking the potential from within ourselves, to set the agenda for real and lasting transformation.” And women like his mother inspired him to build the solutions to urban poverty by addressing a core obstacle—extreme gender inequality.

Three years after he created SHOFCO in 2004, he met Jessica Posner (now Jessica Posner Odede), an American college junior six days into her study-abroad term in Nairobi. Unlike other westerners he’d met, she moved into the slum, which no other visitor had ever done. Their partnership is a unique, pioneering collaboration in the field of international development (they married in 2012).

While Kennedy studied in the US, he and Jessica worked on planning a girls school. They won a $10,000 grant from Newman’s Own Foundation as seed money, and in 2009, founded the Kibera School for Girls, the first free primary school for girls in Kibera. The lack of steady funding motivated them to keep pushing, and more grants followed.

SHOFCO is building a pathway out of poverty for people living in Nairobi’s slums.

The inspiration was local

The idea for the Mukuru project came from SHOFCO, which has 24 machines dispensing water to Kibera residents, who pay two shillings to fill a jerry can. People learned how to use the system, and the solar-powered lights above each machine provide increased security at night – especially important for women.

In 2016, it launched an innovative aerial piping system which connects to water kiosks throughout Kibera, “allowing clean water to flow through pipes in the air – without fear of tampering and contamination”. The idea, says Kennedy, came from local people, who could see that the mafia-controlled pipes on the ground contaminated the water with sewage. Put the pipes up in the air, they said. 

SHOFCO found a partner in Pentair, which works on clean water around the world. In collaboration with SHOFCO, “Pentair engineers designed, built and installed a state-of the-art water filtration system to treat water on site, doubling the volume of water that the system delivered to the Kibera community.” The overhead pipes in the custom-designed aerial piping system, the first of its kind to be constructed in Kenya, connect to the 24 water distribution kiosks throughout Kibera.

But even with the pipes up in the air, the mafia tried attacking them. So Kennedy hired wives of some of the gang members to work at the kiosks, and that seems to keep them safe.

The project uses M-Pesa

M-Pesa was the world’s first mobile money system, developed in Kenya, and it has been crucial for a whole variety of activities. It makes it possible for people to pay small amounts on a daily basis, which matters greatly if you are a low-income worker who must find work daily. So now people are able to buy services and products in a way that they can manage, and this applies to solar power and solar-powered refrigerators, as well as water. And it works a lot like the British Underground’s Oyster card system – you use a token that lets you choose how much water you want, and that bills you through M-Pesa.

Distributing free clean water during the pandemic. (SHOFCO picture on Facebook)

That local project was part of a bigger approach

SHOFCO provides clean water as part of a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach to water, sanitation, and hygiene education (often called WASH in international development). It was not a stand-alone project. It provides sanitary pit latrines, and hygiene education. “From the 2016 launch to the end of 2019, our water tanks, water kiosks, and 47 community-managed pit latrines have provided clean water and basic sanitation to over 9,510 Kibera residents.”

It also was part of a comprehensive community development approach. SHOFCO works to address health care, affordable clean water, education and opportunities for children, and a platform for residents to voice their rights, “by providing critical services, operating community advocacy platforms, and building female leadership to create lasting change.”

One successful project inspired similar activities elsewhere

The project in Kibera inspired the project in Mukuru. It also inspired a project in another part of Kibera, Mathare, which Pentair also worked on with SHOFCO. In Mathare, SHOFCO intends to replicate the aerial piping system to connect five water kiosks that will deliver filtered water to a projected 21,000 individuals annually, Pentair announced on World Water Day 2019. In addition, it will provide filtered water to the Mathare health clinic – a key component of SHOFCO’s holistic approach to help build empowered, healthy generations.

Achievement attracts outside attention and funding

SHOFCO’s achievements have attracted widespread attention outside Kenya, and that has brought funding that allows them to build on and extend their achievements. In 2018, SHOFCO won the prestigious Hilton Humanitarian Prize, worth $2 million. “SHOFCO is a remarkable example of citizen-led change, created by people living in very challenging conditions,” it said. “As Africa and the world urbanize and more informal settlements are created, SHOFCO provides an inspiring example of local creativity and solutions.”

In June 2021, philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott and educator Dan Jewett announced their investment in SHOFCO’s 5-year-strategy for urban slum transformation. “This gift sets us on a path towards a new paradigm for partnership and impact, advancing our vision to create a self-sustaining model for community-led slum development,” Kennedy said.

 Sources:

Vending machines bring safe, cheap water to Nairobi slums. Thomson Reuters Foundation, Sep. 14, 2021

SHOFCO Launches Strategy to Create Self-Sustaining Model for Community-Led Slum Development. SHOFCO, June 15, 2021

Pentair Expands Efforts to Increase Access to Sustainable, Safe Water. Pentair, Mar. 22, 2019

An ingenious way to bring clean water to a slum. BBC, Oct.13, 2018

2018 Hilton Humanitarian Prize Awarded to SHOFCO. Philanthropy News Digest, Aug. 22,2018

In drought-hit Kenya, selling water keeps city youth in business, off drugs. Thomson Reuters Foundation, May 9, 2017