Kenya Dispatch: Toilet Tales

Apologies that I haven’t updated my blog more regularly.  After my weekend arrival in Nairobi – highlighted by my aha! moment with M-PESA – I jumped head-first into work.

Luckily for me, I didn’t literally jump head first on Monday – when I visited the newest Ikotoilet facility in Nairobi.  Ikotoilet is the brand name of a chain of pay-per-use public toilet and shower facilities in Nairobi.  Acumen Fund invested in the parent company, Ecotact, in 2008 with a loan to help the company build more facilities in and around the city.

The business model is relatively straightforward – Ecotact works with local authorities to secure land, on which it constructs modern, environmentally-friendly toilet and shower facilities.  It costs just KSH 5 (about US $0.075) to use the toilet (for the shower, it’s about KSH 20 or USD $0.30).  This is in a country where public facilities have been neglected and few new public toilets have been constructed since the 1970s.  Due to public sector neglect, Kenyans without regular access to the toilet turn to open defecation or use a plastic bag, which they then throw as far from their home as possible – hence the colloquial term, “flying toilets.”

There’s nothing less dignified than using a plastic bag, in my opinion…which is why I’m so excited about Ikotoilet.  The facilities are immaculate – thanks to user fees, the company employs a crew to constantly clean.  And they’re popular – more than 30,000 people a day use an Ikotoilet, meaning the company is approaching operational breakeven and has been paying Acumen Fund’s loan back on schedule.

(For those curious few out there – yes, I used the Ikotoilet – it’s on par with (or better than) public facilities in the US.)

When it’s published, I will link to a great blog post authored by my colleague and friend Benje Williams, with whom I visited the Ikotoilet.

Otherwise, last week was basically work – and a lot of it.  Thanks to the +8 hour time difference with the East Coast of the US, I’ve been on calls until 7:00 PM or later almost every night.  I have been to dinner with various friends and others in the “Acumen Family” here in East Africa.  Highlights include three home-cooked Indian meals since I arrived, all of which were amazing.

More to come…in the meantime, here are some photos from the Ikotoilet gallery.  The first is of an Ikotoilet in Nairobi’s City Park (NOT Karangware) and the second two are from the launch.  The guy on the left in Benje, who works here, and the guy on the right is David Kuria, the CEO of Ecotact.


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6 Responses to Kenya Dispatch: Toilet Tales

  1. Mom says:

    I guess it is appropriate for me to be the first to congratulate you on the effectiveness of your “toilet training…” The things we take for granted…

    How was your volunteer day with young people in Kibera?

    More news about our weekend and such in an e-mail. Love hearing from you…xxxooomom

  2. Judith Katz says:

    In Cairo, the men squat on the street, the details hidden from view by their galabiyas. Only when they walk away is the evidence uncovered! Not sure what the women do, though their gowns would serve a similar purpose. Ikotoilets would have a market to the north!!

  3. Steph says:

    You’re right — we do take so much for granted.

    But I wonder if Ikotoilet isn’t providing people with more than the dignity to do their business in a clean, private place. I wonder, when given the opportunity to use regular, clean facilities, how many infections are avoided? How many cases of typhoid or hepatitis or diarrheal diseases can be avoided when waste is appropriately managed and people have the chance to wash, so food and water are less likely to become contaminated? I would agree that there’s nothing dignified about having to “go” in a plastic bag, but there’s even less dignity in having to bury a child you couldn’t protect from fecal contaminants.

    Sounds like this company will do a great deal of good. Glad you got to see all of this in action!!

    So psyched for you…But still waiting for more pictures…;-)

  4. Ellen U says:

    So, there are people working there who hand out towels, etc…? How about the people who don’t have the $ to pay for the service? Is this something the gov’t could provide? Agree with Steph about the need for cleanliness in regard to general health.

    Looks like a wonderful experience for you and an incredible opp. for people in need of the basics of life. 🙂

  5. robertkatz says:

    Wow, thanks for all the comments!

    The public health aspects of sanitation are exactly why Acumen Fund (and the development community, including the Gates Foundation) is interested in a company like Ecotact. They have a sophisticated waste-management system that is up to standard for a “developed country” public toilet facility.

    As for the employees at an Ikotoilet, there is an attendant, who takes money and gives change and there is a crew that cleans the facility. Vendors also rent space from Ecotact to set up sundries stands, shoe shine services, etc. There are no towels in the average Kenyan toilet, so no towel-attendant needed.

    The government SHOULD be providing these services, but they have been building too few public toilets since the 1970s and have not been maintaining the facilities adequately. Ecotact is working with the government – they build on public land, then operate the facilities for 5 years. After 5 years, they transfer the facilities back to the government.

    Hope this clarifies!

  6. robertkatz says:

    Oh, and there was a great article in the NY Times yesterday on a company selling cheap, disposable “toilet bags” in the slums:

    We work closely with – but have not invested in – the PeePoo team, and think that there are many ways of attacking the problem of inadequate sanitation.

    And yes, Grandma Minna has clipped and sent the article already!

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