Nairobi — MARY NABWIRE (NOT her real name) could not hide her joy as she welcomed us to her one-room shanty in the sprawling Kibera slums. Pointing at a biogas burner at the far corner of the house, she said: "I had never dreamt that one day I would have this kind of appliance in my house, for it is known to be the preserve of the rich."
Mary is a beneficiary of a new technology referred to as bio-latrine technology, which uses human waste and water to produce gas for lighting and domestic cooking - just like the biogas system.
The gas is harvested from modern latrines that have been constructed in the slums with funding from the French government.
Beneficiaries get the gas for free, which she uses for cooking and lighting the house. Life, she says, is now better for her as the money she used to spend on fuel is now spent on food.
"I could only afford a meal of plain sukuma wiki (kales) or cabbages, but today, I can think of balancing my diet. It is a great improvement that my children appreciate," says the single mother of two.
The technology is a joint initiative of the Kenyaand French governments and other organisations. The initiative aims at ending the problem of poor sanitation and water shortage in the slums by putting human waste to better use. The technology helps preserve water since the latrines - ablution blocks - are made in such a way that no water is needed to flush out the human waste.
DURING A RECENT OFFI-cial opening of one of the ablution blocks in Soweto-Kianda village in Kibera, Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga hailed the project, saying it would bring to an end the shame of using "flying toilets" - disposing of human waste by wrapping it in polythene paper bags and throwing it away.
Mr Odinga, who is also the area Member of Parliament, said that through the project, the residents will begin to live a more dignified life and that human waste would no longer be a source of ridicule.
He said the sanitation project augurs well for the slum dwellers who are also set to benefit from new houses under the slum upgrading project jointly being undertaken by the government and the UN-Habitat.
"When the housing project is completed and you have water and a clean environment, you will live with honour and dignity," he said.
Providing clean water for domestic use in the slum has been a problem as the adjacent Nairobi dam has been blocked by heavy siltation and the water hyacinth.
David Stower, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Water and Sanitation, said the facility is part of the government's plan to provide water to slum residents. He added that his ministry will ensure that water is both available and affordable to Kibera residents and other slums in the country.
Alain Joyandet, French Assistant Minister in charge of co-operation and Francophony, said the project will improve sanitation, which is a key element in the fight against poverty.
In his official speech to mark the launch of the Kianda-Soweto ablution block project, Mr Joyandet hailed the Kenya government for passing the Water Act of 2002 that made water and sanitation a priority.
He said the French government is fully involved in the implementation of water reforms in partnership with other donors. Since 1997 when the French Development Agency (AFD) opened its regional offices in Nairobi, France has committed 72 million euros in the water and sanitation sector.
The Kianda-Soweto ablution block or bio-centre is a component of the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Emergency Physical Investment Project funded by AFD but implemented by the Nairobi Water Services Board for the rehabilitation of water and sanitation networks.
AFD, Mr Joyandet said, would support the construction of 20 ablution blocks in four informal settlements in Nairobi.
"The block is more than a toilet as it provides other facilities such as showers and bio-gas for cooking," he said.
According to Umande Trust, one of the non-governmental organisations that spearheaded the implementation of the project, the bio-latrine technology is viable as it has worked in China, India and Vietnam.
The facility consists of three principal components namely: a shallow pit latrine, a bio-digester which synthesises the products to produce gas and fertiliser and the expansion chambers that dispense the fertiliser.
The block is a circular tower comprising a ground floor with toilets and towers and an upper floor with a kitchen, meeting rooms and a community resource centre. That is why the facility is called a bio-centre.
PIT LATRINES IN A BIO-CENtre differ from the ordinary latrines as they feed directly into the digester. To ensure that it is safer and friendlier to the people, the latrine is fitted with ventilation pipes which remove odours and trap flies.
Since the facility has no moving parts, maintenance is easy. The principal maintenance requirement is cleaning the toilet cubicles and emptying the waste bins daily while ensuring that the only other material that goes into the latrine other than the waste products and water is toilet paper.
The gas produced from the system is methane, which is lighter than air. Because of its light nature, it is safer to use than bottled gases as any leakage dissipates upwards and does not collect at the bottom to cause damage to the digester.
From the digester, the gas is piped directly to appliances through a plug tightly fitted to the digester's neck.
The bio-digester - a large underground dome-shaped device - is usually filled to half its height with urine and faecal sludge. The breaking down of the products into gas and fertiliser begins when the bacteria in the sludge break down other pathogens in a process that produces methane gas. The waste is kept in the system for at least 100 days to make the sewerage harmless when it leaves the system.
The project is a vital aspect of development in informal settlements, said Mr Joyandet who urged the government to introduce it countrywide. The French government has pledged to support similar projects in the country up to the year 2010.