13 September 2011

Kenya: Clean Water as a Life Force

Photo: Tami Hultman/allAfrica.com
Steve Mumbwani reads out this raffle's lucky winners. About 1,000 people have bought chlorine-treated water or washed jerry cans over the past two months. Life Force Kiosks aims to reach 3,000 people by the end of their four-month pilot project.

The streets of Gatwekera village in Nairobi's Kibera slum throng with people on a recent Sunday afternoon. Small shops and kiosks line the dirt paths separating brightly colored shacks with tin roofs that extend as far as the eye can see. Gaggles of children chatter among themselves as they gather outside a local water kiosk, distinguished from the other tin structures by a sign proclaiming: "Life Force Kiosks: Take Water with Confidence."

Under the local direction of Kenyan Steve Mumbwani, Life Force Kiosks (LFK) provides 10 local water vendors with chlorine tablets and soap. Jeremy Farkas, an American working in Kenya for a water filter factory and the international health organization PATH, launched Life Force Kiosks last June as a model for preventing waterborne diseases in Kenya's slums.

Kibera is reputed to be one of Africa's largest and most crowded slums. Most residents are not linked directly to Nairobi's 'mains' or piped water supply, but buy water - already treated by the city's principal supplier, the Nairobi Water Company - from local small shops or kiosks.

Usually, residents pay three Kenyan shillings to fill a 20-liter jerry can with water, about three U.S. cents. Water vendors working with LFK use tablets to purify the water first, adding an extra two shillings to the overall cost. They also offer to help clean the jerry cans customers bring to collect their water in for a charge of two to three shillings.

Farkas and Mumbwani met doing market research and developed this commercial model of providing drinking water to address the specific needs of slum dwellers who typically live on a day's earnings of about 100 Kenyan shillings - slightly more than one U.S. dollar - and cannot afford longer-term methods of treating water, such as with manufactured filters.

One of the most difficult parts of the project, according to Mumbwani, was convincing the water vendors to offer LFK's services. To help bring them on board, Mumbwani runs each vendor's kiosk for two days, observing them at work for a third.

Often kiosk owners leave friends or relatives in charge, meaning new people have to be trained at short notice. LFK follows up, sending someone to check on vendors and make sure supplies of chlorine tablets are sufficient. It also adds an incentive; customers' receipts are used as tickets in a Sunday raffle of prizes ranging from foodstuff and household wares to cell phone credit.

On Sundays, Mumbwani stands outside a water kiosk with a microphone calling out the numbers of 15 winners. Swahili music with a fast beat blares out from speakers to attract participants. A crowd of mostly young kids fills the street, forcing passersby to weave their way through. The children eagerly repeat the numbers.

That is exactly the attitude Farkas and his team hoped to see, especially the enthusiasm garnered by the raffle tickets that also serve as a sales-tracking mechanism. Water kiosks are located centrally in the neighborhood, encouraging passersby and people coming from church to stop and watch. LFK saw a huge uptake in sales tablets when the raffles began in late June, with 50 to 75 people a day since buying chlorine or cleaning jerry cans.

Pamela Aruwa moved from just outside Nairobi to Kibera after post-election violence in Kenya killed more than 1,000 people and uprooted hundreds of thousands more. "Even if you are safe [here], you're still scared because of that thing that happened in 2007. Yes, four years ago but you still have it in your mind. You cannot let it go," she says.

Aruwa, the winner of a plastic tray, smiles as she says that using LFK's water makes her feel better and costs less than taking her children to hospital when they get diarrhea. Typhoid is fairly common in Nairobi slums, which have also seen outbreaks of cholera.

Other winners include Felix Ochieng, a 13-year-old boy who won a packet of spaghetti. He says he paid two shillings to wash his jerry can in order to get the raffle ticket. "I'm going to bring it home and eat it," he says.

Farkas says he believes in this commercial model rather than supplying drinking water for free. By charging a small amount for purified water, his LFK group requires a dramatically lower subsidy than if they were giving clean water away. In two months, LFK says it treated more than 70,000 liters of water with chlorine (it has also been treated by the city water company), each customer buying 20-or 40-liter jerry cans of it. Sales revenue is split evenly between the water vendor and LFK, which uses its revenue for raffles, posters and health training.

Farkas thinks the early performance of the project lies in its grassroots model of using the existing water vendor network to distribute its services - LFK doesn't have to build its own clean water supply system - and in established consumer awareness as local people already trust the vendors LFK uses, like Washington Odhiambo.

Odhiambo says he is thrilled with the initiative because it brings his water kiosk more customers. "I talk to people, I advise them and convince them to put chlorine in the water - so it is good," he says.

Kenya's government encourages people to boil their drinking water, but boiling it costs about 30 shillings worth of charcoal a day. "It has become so expensive, even when you go out there and ask people what they do to make sure they have safe drinking water, a big number of people tell you they do nothing, they just take water the way it is and hope they don't fall sick," says Mumbwani.

Free health care in Kenya is limited, and the cost to the individual of treating waterborne illness is many times more than the cost of the chlorinated water LFK sells.

In a perfect world, Farkas admits, LFK would be put out of business by better urban infrastructure. Meanwhile, LFK aims to operate outside Kibera in other slums, providing a three-pronged service to address the risk of contamination at key stages of water provision: Chlorine tablets to purify water tainted by broken or rusty pipes, soap to clean the jerry cans, and closed storage containers with spigots once the Kiosk project figures out how to make them affordable to slum dwellers.

Farkas runs the organization from Seattle in the United States, but may return to Kenya as it develops. Mumbwani shares his optimism: "I'm seeing a time when we have a slum where people have changed their way of living to start using treated water for everything, including washing fruit and utensils."

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