In late 2017, The Africa Development Bank’s (AfDB) Sustainable Energy Fund for Africa (SEFA) approved a $995,000 grant to Asticom Kenya Ltd. for construction of a 10 MW grid-connected waste-to-energy (WTE) plant in Kibera, a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya (1). The grant funded a full environmental and social impact assessment, detailed engineering designs, and project-related legal and financial advisory services. The project is presented as a beneficial development project, and according to the AfDB, “The planned diversion and use of municipal solid waste is set to have significant health, social and development outcomes, and will be of benefit to the inhabitants of Kibera, a community that receives 1,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste daily from Nairobi County (1).
The project aligns with AfDB’s High 5 development priorities, which include an agenda to “Light up and Power Africa”, a 10-Year Strategy, a Private Sector Development Strategy (2013-2017), an Energy Sector Policy (2012) and the New Deal on Energy for Africa. It is also being promoted as a means of implementing Kenya’s National Development Plan and the AfDB’s Country Strategy Paper (CSP) for Kenya, which prioritises the “enabling of physical infrastructure to unleash inclusive growth (1).” How will the project meet all of these goals? Through an advanced waste management facility that utilizes three technologies (anaerobic digestion, hydrolysis and combustion) to convert solid waste to energy (as biomethane, bioethanol and “clean” electricity) (2). The biofuel process converts municipal solid waste (MSW) into cellulosic sugar, which is fermented with bioethanol via anaerobic digestion to generate biomethane. Residual solids are used as fuel for electricity generation (2). Before discussing the implications of this project, let’s consider the social conditions in Kibera and the wastepickers at Dandora landfill who collect recyclable solids from the region’s waste stream as a form of livelihood.
Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi, and the largest urban slum in Africa, generating approximately 300 tons of solid waste per day (2). As Africa’s largest landfill, Dandora covers more than 15 hectares (3) and receives approximately 2000 tons of solid waste daily (2). Due to population growth and social inequality, the site has long been home to Nairobi’s urban poor. Most of the people who live near the dumpsite are wastepickers who scavenge through contaminated garbage looking for food, plastic and metal scraps to sell to recyclers. In this way, wastepickers are the informal recycling system of the city. However, this population makes very little from the labor they put into collecting recyclable materials, and are paid just enough to continue surviving (4). To make matters worse. the conditions at the landfill site are miserable: there are high levels of heavy metals and other environmental contaminants that are extremely hazardous to human health, in addition to high rates of infectious disease (for more information, see the EJAtlas entry "Dandora Landfill in Nairobi, Kenya") (2,4).
In promoting the project, AfDB has stated that “local dwellers” would be contracted to sort municipal waste as a means of employment and income generation (1). Asticom also claims that the project will directly create 300 jobs and have a significant trickle-down effect in the local economy. The company makes direct reference to wastepickers in their discussion of the project benefits.
"Almost 75% of the scavengers at the landfills are women and the youth. Establishment of this project will result in employment for some of them, empowering them financially. Waste-to-energy facilities generate significant amounts of baseload renewable energy which can be sold to the local power grid, reducing the cost of electricity (2)."
This seems like a direct benefit to a few wastepickers, but excludes a majority of Nairobi’s informal waste sector, who must sort through the mountains of hazardous waste in Dandora with little protective equipment. The project promises to significantly reduce methane gas emissions and address the health impacts of crowded landfills through landfill gas harvesting and obviation (waste load reduction and elimination at these sites). Asticom touts these economic and environmental benefits of WTE facilities primarily because they want to present their project as a modern and profitable investment opportunity. But how will these advances in technology benefit Kibera’s most poor (excluding those lucky enough to become financially empowered through formal employment)? Reducing waste volumes by 90 percent and lowering energy costs will likely further normalize the status quo of growing consumption in the region and help residents who struggle to pay energy bills, but for most wastepickers Asticom’s WTE facility is ambivalent at best. This is because landfill obviation could threaten to enact a form of waste access privatization through diversion of the waste stream into the new facility’s supply and distribution channels.
When the Kenyan government’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) released the impact assessment for public comment in October 2019, it found that the plant will use at least five to ten percent recycled, refurbished, or salvaged materials to “reduce the use of raw materials and divert material from landfills.” The remaining 85-90% of the plant’s energy will come from municipal solid waste, agricultural crop residues and livestock waste (6). This will surely take pressure off of the crowded landfill’s overall capacity, but doesn’t assure that the recyclable fraction of this diversion will go directly to wastepickers. Asticom’s new facility doesn’t ensure more secure livelihoods for the wastepickers who directly benefit from the collection and sale of recyclables. Instead it will divert some of the recyclable waste stream into its “clean” electricity scheme (powered by combustion) or into its own recycling distribution and processing channels.
Asticom has been granted approval to build its pilot plant and work was scheduled to begin in June 2019. A total investment of 20 billion Kenyan shillings, or nearly $197 million, will be required to carry out the project, and more than 60 investors expressed interest in doing so (5). According to David Makori, Director of Environment in Nairobi County, the list was narrowed down to 26 and asked to write proposals detailing their technology and implementation strategies. After evaluation of the various proposals, an investor will be selected for the implementation of the project. “We are looking for a company that will offer the best technology and that will have the financial means to do the job. In three months, we should be done with all the paperwork,” said Makori (5).
No matter what goes into the proposed project, the real issue lies in the fact that there is an overabundance of waste and a wastepicker population without the capital and support to earn an income from the recyclable portion of this waste. Joyce Kariuki, Communications Lead at Proctor and Gamble East Africa, stated that of the 2200 tons of solid waste generated in Nairobi County daily, about 30 to 40 per cent is not collected and that less than 50 per cent of the population is served (it is unclear which particular population is being referred to). Using waste as energy through processes that include combustion doesn’t help a majority of Kibera’s urban poor and wastepicker population, instead it promotes a sustainable development narrative that elevates technical solutions to environmental problems that would be better addressed through improved governance and an inclusive restructuring of the economy. Waste pickers do not work in hazardous landfills by choice, but as a result of failed waste management systems, rampant poverty and inequality. This project does little to address these social issues and instead only perpetuates social and environmental injustice.
Rather than understanding foreign investment and Global North to South technology and skills transfers as the best possible solutions to waste management problems in regions with larger economic and governance issues, we should be focusing on those who have the most to gain from a different societal configuration of labor and an inclusive transformation of how materials move through the economy. We shouldn’t uncritically hail the construction of a for-profit WTE facility that will benefit just a few wastepickers when so much work needs to be done to formally integrate wastepickers into the waste management system. The region would be better served by employing thousands of struggling wastepickers and having them be involved in a comprehensive effort to collect, sort, and recycle the region’s waste with the right occupational and safety equipment. While the proposed project has not led to any signs of open protest from wastepickers and other community members, only time will tell as to whether this might change once the project progresses.