Nairobi as a Smart City: Garbage management

Back in the early 2000s, an affluent White Kenyan was quoted in The National Geographic explaining why he lived in Karen. “From here,” he sniffed, “I can see Nairobi, but I can’t smell it.”



Last month, this column made the case for the new Nairobi County administration to move Nairobi towards Smart City status. As noted then, a smart city is one that integrates information technology into its service provision. But after the snazzy presentations and fast-talking are done, a city – smart or dumb – has to get back to providing basic services to its residents.

In the case of Nairobi, this begins with one of our most important service, one which just happens to be the most neglected, with the results of that neglect everywhere to be seen in Nairobi: garbage management. Nairobi stinks, and the garbage piled up everywhere you look and littered all over is an annoying and disgusting eyesore. Back in the early 2000s, an affluent White Kenyan was quoted in The National Geographic explaining why he lived in Karen. “From here,” he sniffed, “I can see Nairobi, but I can’t smell it.”

In Nairobi’s case, the starting point is quite far off the requirements of a smart city: we need to begin collecting garbage in the first place. It is astonishing that a city of Nairobi’s size and revenue levels does not really collect garbage regularly. Garbage cartels have taken over the function at City Hall, with tenders for garbage collection sold openly by Nairobi County officials. The buyers of those tenders bribe county staff heavily, and are then under no obligation to collect said garbage at all! County officials look the other way – they’ve been bribed, after all – as garbage piles and rots all around the city.

Once in a while, a “clean-up exercise” is organised after residents demonstrate – or when an important visitor is coming to town – and then it’s all a flurry of activity as the Governor and his executives run around with spades and bins, making a show of being involved in cleaning up Nairobi. These efforts do not last, however. And even though they are well-meaning, such sporadic exercises actually change nothing – Nairobi remains dirty, smelly and disgusting. For Nairobi to clean up, it needs planned, sustained garbage management solutions that last decades, not days. The first place to begin is the garbage collection department of Nairobi County.

Everyone in the garbage collection department of Nairobi County should be suspended without pay for a period of time, say a couple of months. The city makes do without garbage collection anyway, so no difference will be noticed in this period. The County government could liaise with the police to investigate the suspended employees, their lifestyles, and their incomes. Those found to be clean can then be reinstated, with the dirty ones fired and then charged in court for corruption. All garbage collection tenders should then be cancelled – because the tender winners do not collect any garbage anyway. They have had a good enough time getting free money for no services rendered. Those who previously won garbage collection tenders should be banned from ever doing business with Nairobi County again, and splashed all over the media for other counties to beware.

Next, with garbage collection department staff being hired, the Governor should embark on the planning bit. This is actually quite straightforward: divide Nairobi into geographical regions, such that every given region will have its own weekly garbage collection day. This implies that the maximum number of regions would be seven. However, it is also possible to further subdivide these regions into seven subregions each, ending up with 49 garbage collection sub-regions in Nairobi county. These are more than enough. The County can then invite private contractors to bid for tenders to collect garbage in these subregions, such that each of the seven regions has its own garbage collection day. If this becomes too unwieldy, the collection can be decentralised such that each sub-region has its own garbage collection day: there’s no good reason why both Komarock and Langata cannot have their garbage collected on, say, every Monday by different companies and reporting to different regions.

Garbage disposal is a problem in Kenya, as most landfills are full and are poorly managed eyesores. The County should look to purchase solar-powered incinerators, for example, that can be installed at the current landfills and manned by young people who are trained to do so. For the collection, the County can partner with garbage disposal bag manufacturers to develop and sell – via supermarkets – custom garbage bags coded by area and garbage type, so that garbage not placed in the correct bags in the correct sub-region is not collected. Inspectors can then be sent around city residential estates to ensure that residents do not simply throw garbage into the streets. The revenue obtained from the garbage bag sales, as well as from city residents’ rates, goes to help fund the purchase of garbage collection trucks, the training of drivers, public sensitisation drives, and the purchase of the solar incinerators. Many such incinerators today can be connected to a mobile network, allowing the County to know which ones are operating at lower than expected capacity and thus route the garbage disposal trucks accordingly.

A simple setup like that would quickly clean up Nairobi’s filthy streets, and allow the County government to focus on other smart city initiatives, which will be addressed in upcoming columns including traffic flow.

The author is an information systems professional.