Kibera Town Centre (KTC as it’s known) stands two storeys proud amongst the crowded dwellings and dusty railway track that runs through one of Nairobi’s largest and most vibrant townships. I visited it with Margaret Koli, a young community leader and award-winning visionary, who works with Human Needs Project (a long-time Leaders’ Quest host). At KTC, Human Needs Project is providing affordable showers, sanitation, and laundry facilities for up to 1,500 commuters and households every day. Many of these people are making their way in to Nairobi for work, and the project’s busiest times are 5 am (security guards, factory workers) and 8 pm, when tired workers return to their tiny dwellings.
Underneath the centre is a $2 million labyrinth of water pumps, purifiers and sediment makers designed by David Warner, an ingenious American engineer, with the help of companies such as Grundfos, Redhorse, Questa, Manz Engineering, and UC Davis (all US constructors), and East African company Davis and Shirtliff. The network of pipes feeds off a 1,000 foot-deep borehole, pulling from a seam of clean and warm water (30 degrees) deep within the volcanic Rift Valley.
Margaret shows me the clean, inviting shower facilities with individually notched flip flops for regular users, towels and soap. The ladies’ unit now offers hair and nail painting services too. “There’s no space for washing or laundry inside the houses here. Women sometimes wash at night, outside their houses (for privacy), but this can be dangerous,” she says, as we look out onto a maze of hot, rusted corrugated iron roofs, criss-crossed with tiny alleyways and non-stop, fast-moving traffic of pedestrians, people carrying furniture, dried fish, water containers, and children going to school.
Human Needs Project began setting up KTC four years ago, starting with the challenge of designing and building a massive pumping and washing facility. Despite this being a political rally hot-spot (and potential source of violence), there’s been no vandalism and no attacks. “The community trusts us and values the service we provide, so we’re safe here,” Margaret says, as a water-carrying truck stops to fill up from the big bowser hose (and pays for what it takes) before making its way into Nairobi to sell the water to households in the nearby richer suburbs.
But KTC doesn’t just provide clean water and washing. The centre also provides a cyber cafe, micro-credit, training courses, a library, and a shop selling fuel-efficient cookstoves. "Business involvement – and their patient support – has been key. For example, a fibre-optic firm (JTL Faiba) pulled the superfast cable into KTC in just four days so we could launch our computer room in time for our community open day, and our insurance company has been very patient with our premiums.” She gestures to the La Marzocca coffee machine in the café. “An Italian engineer from Florence came out and serviced this recently, and checked up on the quality of coffee. I think he was satisfied.” Whilst coffee is taking a while to catch on amongst Kibera residents, it’s certainly a hot favourite amongst the many local NGO staff who frequent the cafe. After all, hot volcanic water and great Kenyan coffee and you get a wonderful drink! [Kenyan Open Questors – you are in for a wonderful cuppa, courtesy of Morgan who runs the friendly cafe.]
Procter & Gamble have been partners of Human Needs Project since a Quest visit in 2012, and they’ve been trialling water-efficient washing powder and getting feedback from women on all manner of things – from 'sudsiness’ to how hand soap is used in combination with washing powder to create more foam. Human Needs Project and Margaret envision that the operating costs of KTC will soon be covered by user fees and the sale of water (at affordable prices). She thinks this will take a while yet – after all, KTC has only been operating all its services for a year, but signs are that demand is increasing. Judging by the packed classes, busy cafe and steaming showers, this wonderful organisation will need to expand – and take its offering to other parts of Nairobi.
I left Nairobi feeling incredibly inspired by the way Margaret and Human Needs Project rely on, involve and support business – international and local – in their service of the community. I can’t wait for my next visit – and my next cup of KTC coffee!