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Here’s how Sonko can fix Nairobi’s garbage problem – expert

Uncollected solid waste is one of Nairobi’s most visible environmental problems. Many parts of the city, especially the low- and middle-income areas, don’t even have waste collection systems in place.

In high-income areas, private waste collection companies are in booming business. Residents pay handsomely without really knowing where the waste will end up.

The Nairobi county government has acknowledged that it can’t manage the waste, with 2,475 tons being produced each day. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has a similar population but only generates 1,680 tons per day.

Nairobi’s current waste disposal system is fraught with major problems. These range from the city’s failure to prioritise solid waste management to inadequate infrastructure and the fact that multiple actors are involved whose activities aren’t controlled.


There are over 150 private sector waste operators independently involved in various aspects of waste management. To top it all there are no enforcement of laws and regulations.

Nairobi’s waste disposal problems go back a long way and there have been previous efforts to sort them out. For example in the early 1990s, private and civil society actors got involved, signing contractual arrangements with waste generators. They often did this without informing or partnering with the city authorities.

More recently other strategies were put in place, some of which left parts of the city clean. They worked for a period, but unfortunately they weren’t sustainable because no institutional changes were made.

But there’s hope on the horizon with a new Nairobi governor — Mike Mbuvi Sonko. He should learn from the mistakes of the past and put a new regime in place that addresses the structural problems that have plagued the city. This would include an improved collection and transportation plan that incorporates the private sector.

In 2005, John Gakuo took over the management of city affairs as the town clerk. During his tenure (2005-2009) he made a deliberate effort to introduce new approaches. When he took office, the city only had 13 refuse trucks. They were able to collect a paltry 20 per cent of the waste produced by the city.

To overcome this, the authorities contracted private waste collection firms to collect, transport and dispose of waste at the Dandora dumpsite, the biggest and the only designated site. This quickly boosted the total waste collected with levels oscillating between 45 and 60 per cent.

Other changes were:
• The development of a proper waste collection and transportation schedule with market operators. This meant waste from open-air markets was brought to identified collection points on specific days.
• A weighbridge to measure amounts of waste disposed at Dandora was introduced; an important way to know disposal levels vis-a-vis collection and generation.
• Enforcement officers were also deployed to prevent dumping in parts of the city that were notorious for waste accumulation.
• Over 2,000 arrests were made, making residents aware that indiscriminate dumping was illegal and punishable under the city authority laws.

All these efforts paid off — for parts of the city. For example, the central business district was cleaned up and waste was brought under control.


But crucial elements that would have ensured that the changes were sustainable were left out. For example, no new physical infrastructure, like the construction of waste transfer centres and proper landfills, were built, nor was new equipment bought.

After the Gakuo administration, the next one worth a mention is Evans Kidero’s (2013 – 2017). It can be credited for trying to fast track the implementation of the Solid Waste Management Master Plan, which assessed Nairobi’s waste management problem and developed projects that could be implemented to ensure a sustainable system was in place.

The plan ensured that while the private sector needed to help with waste collection and transportation, the government was key to institutionalising waste management services.

Thirty waste collection trucks were bought and serious investment was made in heavy equipment. And in an effort to streamline waste collection a franchise system of waste collection was rolled out. This involved dividing the city into nine zones to make it easier to manage waste.

The franchise arrangement gave private operators a monopoly over both waste and fee collections, but relied heavily on the public body for enforcement of the system.

The franchising system failed due to a lack of enforcement by the city. In addition, infighting broke out between the private waste collection firms that had individual contracts with waste generators and the appointed contractor.


But other changes introduced during this period were more successful and had a longer lasting effect. For example, new laws were introduced designed to create order in the sector. These included the Solid Waste Management Act in 2015. This classified waste and also created a collection scheme based on the sub-county system. It also put penalties in place.

In addition, in 2016, 17 environment officers were appointed and posted to the sub-counties to plan and supervise waste management operations alongside other environmental issues.

These changes planted the seeds of an efficient and working waste management system. But the administration fell short when it came to enforcement. This meant that the gains that had been made were soon lost.

Expectations are high for the new readministration. It should fast track an improved collection and transportation plan that incorporates private sector and civil society groups.

It must also establish a disposal facility to reduce secondary pollution from the city’s dumps and most importantly decommission the Dandora dumpsite.

An effective plan must also implement the re-use, reduction, and recycling of waste, establish intermediate treatment facilities to reduce waste and its hazards and create an autonomous public corporation to deal with waste management.

The point is that Nairobi can fix its waste disposal problems. All it needs is focused attention, good governance and the implementation of systems that ensure changes outlive just one administration.

Oyake-Ombis is part-time lecturer and director of the Africa Livelihood Innovations for Sustainable Environment Consulting Group, University of Nairobi