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CAN THERE BE EFFECTIVE WASTE MANAGEMENT IN AFRICA?



I live in Nairobi, one of the fastest growing cities in Africa. Nairobi has witnessed continual growth over the last 30 or so years. And it is still growing. One of its biggest concerns lies in waste management or more aptly put “how do we handle the garbage we churn?”

While the problem in Nairobi is not as dire as what you witness with Mexico City and its Poniente Landfill, or Lagos and it’s Lagos Dump, or the expanse of Delhi city,
I believe Nairobi would be in a similar dire strain if it had experienced the same explosive population growths that Lagos and the Indian cities have experienced due to rural-urban migration.
Lagos dump Courtesy George Esiri_Reuters

Bordo Poniente Landfill, Mexico Courtesy Yuri Cortez_Getty Images
There is a dividing line in the city, between the more affluent neighborhoods, which essentially pay private collection firms to take away their garbage to the only landfill in Nairobi, Dandora Dumping Site and poor neighborhoods that have not organized adequately to constantly collect their refuse and send it off. The common approach in these poor neighborhoods is for garbage to be dumped by the residents in unsavory highly pungent heaps beside roads and in open areas in close proximity to their houses.

Nairobi generates 15,000 tons of recoverable waste daily, of which only 850 tons ends at this landfill. With most of the waste unaccounted for, I perceive it ends up in the heaps I mentioned earlier or seeps into the soil and water systems. It is also imperative to note that this landfill was declared full more than a decade ago; despite this, it still continues to accept garbage unregulated.


The systemic lack of proper governance despite the presence of legal responsibility on the part of the Nairobi city county makes this situation even more appalling.


While the conventional definition of municipal solid waste does not include industrial, agricultural, medical and radioactive waste or sewage sludge, the average citizen in a poor neighborhood living near the landfill interacts with all these types of waste due to lack of regulation and adherence to legislation.

A century ago a “place of cool water”, Enkarre Nairobi, was settled. Nairobi River is now a dense-slow-moving sewage sludge traversing slums, medical institutions and factories that dump effluence into the river with general disregard.

There must be a solution to this problem, and I believe the citizenry in all other African countries desire the same.  I do appreciate that African cities are growing, and consumerism is rising exponentially, and while we have not reached the levels of waste experienced in North America and their Pacific trash vortex (estimated to be the size of Somalia/Texas).

Pacific Trash Vortex Courtesy of GreenPeace

There is a lot that can be learned from them in developing or innovating means of avoiding an environmental catastrophe. The Dandora Landfill generates thousands of health complications annually, including amputations, respiratory infections, cancer, and birth complications. The Landfill generates methane, which contributes to global warming, pollutes the soil and water systems.    

As we stand, the world is advancing in realizing that there has to be a cultural shift in how we perceive waste.  The waste hierarchy, a pyramid expressing the most favored to the least favored manner of handling waste is a European Union sponsored waste framework directive which has taken years to perfect.


Courtesy of North West Region Waste Management Group: -Waste Hierarchy - Based on current wastage percentage

There are countries like Sweden who recycle more than 99% of their waste and send only 1% of their waste to landfills. And they are doing it profitably to a point where Sweden is now importing waste from other countries and converting it into marketable products like energy.


Sourced from Usitall presentation

Sourced from Usitall Presentation Sweden is doing far much better than Europe in how much of its resource goes to landfills

I perceive that we are way behind in Africa in terms of our collective appreciation of the waste hierarchy, where currently we see waste as something that needs to be thrown away. How we need to change is by looking at it as a valuable resource that can bring financial benefit.  Lagos has seen this sense.

Our lack of working systems could potentially be our strongest standpoint. While the Western world has mulled over different solutions and invested billions in landfills over decades we don't have any preconceived inhibitions on embracing the latest technologies.  That may help us covert waste to energy and other marketable products that can be resold to the citizenry and industry.

By changing public perceptions, we can essentially turn the waste hierarchy on its head and so do more of what is preferred and dispose far much less in landfills in a more environmentally friendly manner.

Courtesy of North West Region Waste Management Group: - An inverted more effective waste hierarchy system with least waste disposed
To a large extent this will help us to save our environment for future generations.

Part of this mindset requires political willpower, where adequate legislation is enacted and enforced, similar to what has happened in Sweden, where counties/municipalities bear the responsibility of collecting waste and in choosing how to handle this responsibility either by outsourcing or performing it internally.

To empower this legislation a levy or tax should be implemented to model certain behavior from institutions that produce waste be it factories, health, agricultural estates or homesteads.  The system should work in such a manner that there is incentive to reduce, reuse and recycle waste by these institutions. A lot can be learnt from the European Union  and Sweden.

Sweden Waste Statistics


This public service activity of collecting waste from households and industry should be done in such a way that waste is separated and sorted, which essentially makes the next step far much easier and cheaper to accomplish. Households and industries should either get tax-breaks or be paid for this work, mainly because at the end of the day, the waste will produce a marketable product that is sold.  

There should also be widespread and consistent awareness on how to sort and separate waste so that it can be effectively collected.

The next step involves processing activities consists of disassembly and sorting waste into specific waste flows.

Swedish Approach
Swedish Approach
Kenyan Approach

Kenyan Approach

The current situation, at Dandora landfill, is such that waste is sorted and separated at the landfill in unsanitary conditions with little or no protection. Despite this risk, the people working there see this as a source of income, and see any excursion to change the situation as an attack on the poor. In the future adequate sensitization and economic empowerment of the populations that live around the landfill in the slums of  Dandora, Korogocho and Babadogo, needs to be conducted. 

There are technologies that can perform this processing far more effectively with limited human intervention, but then again the question that begs to be answered is more to do with political willpower and the public sentiments around labor and its utilization in a developing country.

The final marketing activities bring out the results of the processing activities to the market economy in terms of energy or recycled material. I foresee energy companies like Kenya Power, taking over the landfill and converting biogas into energy that can power homesteads and industries.  I also believe the next landfill that is erected in Nairobi should function in a manner comparable to the best in the world, which only hold 1% of the waste being churned in the city.

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