When Jim Archer, a Nairobi-born architect, designed the community cooker, which turns piles of rubbish into heat to help poor communities access clean, safe, and affordable energy, he didn’t foresee all the wrangles that would ensue among community members managing this innovative project.
Baptized as Jiko la Jamii in Swahili, the Community cooker was conceptualized as a way to manage the solid waste that was being dumped into river valleys in Nairobi. The cooker was developed under the Nairobi River Basin Project (NRBP) led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in collaboration with other partners. Its main purpose was to help the community address the sanitation, health and environmental issues caused by the growing amount of rubbish in informal settlements and to provide their residents with an alternative energy source.
The cooker is made of simple bricks and cement covered by a metal plate, which serves as cooking surface. It can burn up to 2 tonnes of rubbish per day, regardless of the composition of the trash. Operating at temperatures of up to 900 degrees Celsius with an efficiency of 99 per cent, the cooker eliminates all the toxic fumes such as dioxins and furans, as certified by global quality standard agencies.
The Community cooker was deliberately designed as a simple, low-cost and socially inclusive technology.
However, the project faces a critical challenge today: community-based sustainable management.
It was initially designed to be managed by volunteers from the community. Lack of management capacity among the residents and the absence of a business model posed serious challenges to the sustainability and viability of the project.
With trash to run the cooker so easily available – the area was heavily littered with solid waste – a voluntary collection model seemed to be the best solution. Instead of dumping their trash in the river, the households were supposed to collect it and use as fuel whenever they wished to use the cooker.
This model did not stand the test of time and squabbles soon ensued over access to the cooker. Disputes were rife within the community causing the facility to shut down for prolonged periods. Disagreements amongst the members of Laini Saba community remained unresolved, making a new management system necessary.
A new model is currently being tested by the residents of Silanga and their newly unveiled community cooker. Their system is based on generating income, in other words, managing the cooker as a business for the benefit of the community.
For residents of Silanga, a smaller village within the Kibera slum, the Community Cooker is running under a different set-up, with the facility relying on a business model rather than communal volunteers for management. It is being operated by a non-governmental organization – The New Nairobi Dam Center – which collects the revenue from selling foodstuffs made at the facility.
The Community cooker is one of many projects that were developed to help poor communities around the world to access basic needs such as a meal and hot water. Their designers and supporters have one dream: help others to live in dignity while contributing to make their environment clean, improve their health and empower them economically. As the cooker example shows, the way the community is supported to manage and sustain such projects is often crucial.