Turning rubbish into fuel – Nairobi’s community cooker

The community cooker is powered by dried rubbish, collected by local residents in Nairobi's Kibera slum (Photo © Peter Greste)

Kenya – In 2008, the Jiko ya Jamii, or Community Cooker, won an award from the World Architecture Festival, because of its innovative use of waste products as a source of fuel.

The brainchild of Nairobi-born architect James Archer, the cooker is powered by dried rubbish, collected by local residents in Nairobi’s Kibera slum. In return for supplying rubbish, the residents can cook for free, or heat water for drinking and washing. As a result, the environment in the slum is becoming cleaner, protecting groundwater sources from pollution, and residents are reducing their expenditure on fuelwood. Drying and sorting rubbish to fuel the cooker is also creating an employment opportunity for local youth.

Geoffrey Onditi speaks to James Archer and to two project workers about this exciting new initiative which is having such wide-ranging benefits.

The transcript follows below:

Archer: My very first concern was the amount of rubbish that is around, not only in the slums but everywhere in Kenya. That rubbish lying on the ground, going into the stormwater drains, into the gutters, into the streams and into the rivers, was polluting the groundwater. And if there is one thing that human life has to have in order to survive, it is clean water. So I began to think about how, how does one encourage people to pick up rubbish? I was also concerned with the ever-increasing cost of fuelwood, and of charcoal, for cooking with. I thought, right, now can I invent a way of taking rubbish and turning it into a fuel for cooking with? The very first thoughts on this, I did, I think, in about 1989.

Onditi: Around 22 years ago?

Archer: Yes, that’s right, when you were a very young boy, and I was a lot younger then too. But it has taken me and my colleagues here until now, to turn this very simple machine into a fuel-efficient production.

Onditi: Why did you decide to build a community cooker rather than individual cookers for every family?

Archer: The answer is incredibly simple. When you burn this rubbish, because a lot of it has toxic fumes that come out of it – and bear in mind, these seemingly harmless little fires by the roadside that you see burning rubbish, because the heat of those fires is a very low temperature, the fumes coming off that are very, very dangerous indeed. Now we are burning – the flue temperature in this community cooker is over 800 degrees centigrade.

Now that is very, very, very hot. You don’t want children touching that. You don’t want anybody touching that kind of heat. The reason is very simple. If you burn the rubbish at over 800 degrees centigrade, the toxic fumes that are coming out of it are burned off by that intense heat, and the residual fumes that come out of the flue are almost harmless. But if you burn at below 800 degrees you are still allowing harmful fumes into the atmosphere. So you can imagine, if you had a small community cooker burning at over 800 degrees centigrade in every single house, it is going to be, firstly very expensive, and of course dangerous. I’m quite sure in time we will develop technology which will enable us to protect people from that intense heat, and eventually I imagine we will have individual community cookers, but in the meantime, we decided that at least let’s make this a community project, where the community participates.

Onditi: Thank you very much James, and I’m heading to Kibera to see the community cooker. I hope I will enjoy it… I’m now in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa, and I’m going to meet two people who are really appreciating the value of this new venture here in Kibera.

Otieno: I’m Immaculate Otieno.

Onditi: How has this project benefited you?

Otieno: It has benefited me a lot, because I reside in Kibera. And first and foremost it has created employment here, because there are some youths who help the people who we have appointed here to bring the garbage to this place. So when they assist him, they are paid a little.

Onditi: Now what are you preparing here?

Otieno: Right now there are no foods, we are just boiling water.

Onditi: How do you compare it with other means of energy?

Otieno: Well this is cheaper because it doesn’t need a lot of energy. It’s just garbage, and all the work is done.

Onditi: In the morning when you come here, how many women do you find here, cooking their various types of food?

Otieno: More than 20 women, because some come to prepare breakfast, others come to prepare lunch for their families, and others come to prepare foods whereby they go and sell them outside.

Onditi: Bernard Asanya is the project manager that is managing this community cooker here.

Asanya: The area around here is very clean, because we would normally encourage the residents around here to bring their rubbish to the community cooker in an exchange of cooking. They bring the rubbish and then we give them an opportunity to cook.

Onditi: How has it helped these people in Laini Saba in Kibera?

Asanya: One, it is offering employment opportunities to the youths to collect rubbish. Two, people around here are taking showers in hot water. Three, there are groups here, some women groups, that carry out bakery processes, so they come and bake their cakes from here. Four, there are these hawkers; they sell their boiled eggs and everything. They come with their rubbish, then they have an exchange of cooking for free.

Onditi: For example, how much garbage do I bring here to guarantee, maybe 20 minutes of cooking?

Asanya: What we normally encourage is if you come with a full sack of rubbish, we give you an opportunity to cook twice.

Onditi: And back in the office, James Archer says he sees this as a new alternative source of energy for millions of people here in Kenya, and especially in Kibera and in other slums in Kenya.

Archer: I think that charcoal is something that hopefully in a few years time will be obsolete. People will be looking at charcoal as something you look at in the museums of Kenya, that it is not in common use anymore. Electricity is a very nice source of power, but it is way beyond the financial reach of most Kenyans really.

So here, we have an alternative source – and bear in mind this community cooker, with some slightly more serious modifications, can be modified to actually generate electricity, and generate refrigeration. There are others. I mean there are plenty of others, and it’s very exciting to see them developing. There are solar cookers, solar heaters. The problem of course with them is they only work when the sun’s out. As soon as it’s night time, or when the weather’s bad, you can’t use it. Whereas this you can use all the time. So it does have advantages in that sense, and one has to constantly remind oneself, it is getting rid of rubbish.

Burning rubbish as a fuel needs to be done at an extremely high temperature, to avoid emission of dangerous, toxic fumes. But what other innovative uses are there for rubbish, which don’t require a specially designed cooker? Can you suggest some ideas?

By: Geoffrey Onditi

Provided courtesy: Agfax

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