Kenya: Highly Spirited Battle to Control Lucrative Toilets Business in Nairobi

29 October 2020

On a chilly Wednesday morning, operations were in their normal at the Bus Station, within the Nairobi Central Business District (CBD), and so were they at the public toilet on the matatu terminus entrance.

A continuous stream of people -- men, women and children -- flowed in and out. Each one of them rushing in to relieve themselves or getting out relieved.

It was a quick process where people entered, paid Sh10 at the counter, were issued with a rolled piece of tissue paper, and disappeared inside. They would shortly later re-emerge and melt into the chilly Nairobi weather.

Within 20 minutes, we had counted about 200 people who accessed the facility.

"During cold seasons, people get the urge to relieve themselves a lot and so we have a lot of clients. Also, in the mornings and evenings when it's rush hour, many people come," said the attendant at the public toilet.

And, although she could not disclose the amount the toilet makes in a day, our 20-minute sample showed she had made Sh2,000.

The high number of users was a result of the cold weather, the time of the day and the toilet's location, at the bus terminus.

The situation was similar at several other City County toilets, ideally located at matatu stations which are usually flooded with a flurry of foot traffic from thousands of passengers moving to different parts of the country.

At the public toilet beside the River Road and Accra Road junction -- the epicentre of matatus filling passengers to different parts of the country -- the high number of users from the matatu terminus and the many business establishments in the location, made the facility even busier.

To any other eye, this would be the common and expected thing of such a public toilet, especially located at a high human traffic position of the country's most populous city. But to some people, this is an investment opportunity that must be grabbed, by all means, hook or crook.

The operations paint a picture of the lucrativeness behind the public toilets industry within Nairobi and other major towns in the country, which has led to a never-ending string of battles for their control.

Running battles

For some days last week, police engaged protesters in running battles in the CBD as fights over control of the facilities took an ugly turn. The operators' cry was that some cartels were attempting to push them out of the industry, and they would not bow to pressure.

"These are public utilities. We will go back to our toilets and no one will take them from us," said one of the toilet managers only identified as Ms Wangeci.

They accused groups from Eastleigh and Dandora, whom they said wanted to take over running of the toilets, of using force and police to fake charges against them. They also claimed to have documents allowing them to run the facilities.

If the Nation's 20-minute surveys at some three public toilets are anything to go by, the toilets in high traffic locations could be making as much as Sh50,000 per day. This translates to about Sh1.5 million in a month.

And, with this in perspective, the battle to control the gold in the toilets among some city businesspeople has not been a secret. The sub-sector is estimated to be raking in over half a billion shillings yearly.

Data from City Hall shows that there are 68 public toilets in Nairobi, 17 of them are located within the CBD and operated through Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs).

There are a further 517 private toilets spread across the expansive county, including at the city centre, estates and markets. They charge Sh5 or Sh10 for a visit, depending on the location of the facility.

According to Public Toilet Operators Association of Kenya chairman Tom Makale, toilets in high human traffic areas make about Sh30,000 per day, while those in estates rake in between Sh1,000 and Sh3,000.

There is no data to show how much money the 63 public toilets and the 517 private toilets make.

Officials from the City County Government have been accused of interfering in the management of the toilets to get kickbacks from operators and different groups have been fighting to run the facilities.

Absolved his boss

Governor Mike Sonko's spokesperson Ben Mulwa, however, absolved his boss from blame over management of the sector, saying leasing out of the facilities is a function delegated to the environment department.

He said operators of the public toilets have Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) sort of an arrangement with the county government, where they charge a small fee to users, then use the money to maintain cleanliness and hygiene.

"Any person or group that are interested (in running the facilities) normally applies, then they are vetted and those who qualify are allocated the space. It's the business of the county government to provide sanitation. The government gets nothing in return," Mr Mulwa told the Nation, but indicating that operators must be businesses licensed by the county.

"Those who acquire the lease are supposed to use resources that they generate to maintain hygiene within those facilities. But they pay for the licence to the county," he said.

In perhaps one of the most notorious cases that portrayed how deep the issue of control of the toilets has gone, a man who managed several public toilets in May 2018 had to pull out his gun and fire at least two times to disperse a group of youths that had gone to take over.

Running the toilets

The man was protesting against the county government's decision to evict him from running the toilets as the county shifted the facilities' management to youth groups

The matter would later escalate when it expanded to affect more operators and headed to court, after which the court blocked the county government from taking over or authorising the takeover of the toilets at the Khoja roundabout, National Archives on Moi Avenue, the Aga Khan Walk and Uhuru Park.

It is former Nairobi Governor Evans Kidero who transferred the management of the toilets to private players, after the county government failed to maintain their hygiene, subjecting the public to dirty and unhealthy facilities.

Even though Mr Mulwa claimed the county government does not gain any financial benefits from the running of the toilets, other than licensing operators, the private operators pay City Hall Sh6.2 million per month or Sh74.4 million annually, through the Directorate of Environment.

Some city politicians have also been using the facilities to protect their interests. They have been doing this through groups of youths, businesspeople or operators.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) shows that in Nairobi, 54.3 per cent of toilet users dispose of human waste through the main sewer, 18.1 per cent through septic tanks and 16.8 through pit latrines. In Starehe Sub-County where most of the toilets are located, 63.3 per cent of toilets are connected to the main sewer.

A report by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) last year showed that more than five million Kenyans lack access to toilets, with many of them disposing of their waste in the open, particularly in rural areas. Unicef said the reality had created a need to build more toilets, especially in densely populated areas.

KNBS data shows that in Nairobi, some 52,000 people continue to relieve themselves either in uncovered pit latrines, buckets, open areas or in the bush.

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