In late 2017, The Africa Development Bank’s (AfDB) Sustainable Energy Fund for Africa (SEFA) approved a $995,000 grant to Asticom Kenya Ltd. for construction of a 10 to 40MW grid-connected waste-to-energy (WTE) incineration plant at the Dandora Landfill site in Kibera, a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya [1,2]. The grant funds a full environmental and social impact assessment, detailed engineering designs, and project-related legal and financial advisory services. The incinerator would generate electricity by converting municipal solid waste from the Dandora landfill into biogas and ethanol . The project is being presented as a beneficial development project, and according to the AfDB, “The planned diversion and use of municipal solid waste is set to have significant health, social and development outcomes, and will be of benefit to the inhabitants of Kibera, a community that receives 1,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste daily from Nairobi County”. The project aligns with AfDB’s High 5 development priorities, which include an agenda to “Light up and Power Africa”, a 10-Year Strategy, a Private Sector Development Strategy (2013-2017), an Energy Sector Policy (2012) and the New Deal on Energy for Africa. It is also being promoted as a means of implementing Kenya’s National Development Plan and the AfDB’s Country Strategy Paper (CSP) for Kenya, which prioritises the “enabling of physical infrastructure to unleash inclusive growth”.
Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi, and the largest urban slum in Africa. As Africa’s largest landfill, Dandora covers more than 15 hectares . Due to population growth and social inequality, the site has long been home to Nairobi’s urban poor. Most of the people who live near the dumpsite are wastepickers who scavenge through contaminated garbage looking for food, plastic and metal scraps to sell to recyclers. In this way, waste pickers are the informal recycling system of the city. However, this population makes very little from the labor they put into collecting recyclable materials, and are paid just enough to continue surviving . To make matters worse, the conditions at the landfill site are miserable: there are high levels of heavy metals and other environmental contaminants that are extremely hazardous to human health, in addition to high rates of infectious disease (for more information, see the EJAtlas entry "Dandora Landfill in Nairobi, Kenya") . In promoting the project, the AfDB has stated that “local dwellers” would be contracted to sort municipal waste as a means of employment and income generation . While this seems promising, this statement doesn’t assure a more safe and secure future for Nairobi’s wastepickers.
While the construction of an incinerator at Dandora sounds like a win-win for both energy generation and economic development, it is important to understand that waste sorting for incineration would provide far fewer jobs when compared to instituting a more expansive and inclusive recycling system. With this being the case, the construction of an incinerator in Nairobi actually threatens to further marginalize and displaces wastepickers. A new incinerator would likely deprive wastepickers of a source of income by burning the same materials that are usually recycled, like paper and plastics. Waste pickers do not work in landfills by choice but rather as a result of failed waste management systems, rampant poverty, and inequality. This incinerator does little to address these social issues and instead only perpetuates social and environmental injustice.
Work was scheduled to begin in June 2019, though construction has most likely been delayed. A total investment of 20 billion Kenyan shillings, or nearly $197 million, will be required to carry out the project, and more than 60 investors expressed interest in doing so . According to David Makori, Director of Environment in Nairobi County, the list was narrowed down to 26 and asked to write proposals detailing their technology and implementation strategies. After the evaluation of the various proposals, an investor will be selected for the implementation of the project. “We are looking for a company that will offer the best technology and that will have the financial means to do the job. In three months, we should be done with all the paperwork,” said Makori . In October of 2019, the Kenyan government’s National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) released an impact assessment of the WTE plant for 30 days of public comment . NEMA's assessment reports that the plant will use at least five to ten percent recycled, refurbished, or salvaged materials to “reduce the use of raw materials and divert material from landfills (5).” This makes little sense given the fact that recyclable waste would be better utilized in the production of new materials. The remaining 85-90% of the energy produced by the plant would presumably come from municipal solid waste, agricultural crop residues and livestock waste . How will an incinerator meet energy and development goals when there is no serious consideration of waste reduction, social equity and sustainability?
No matter what goes into the proposed incinerator, the real issue lies in the fact that there is an overabundance of waste and a wastepicker population without the capital and support to earn an income from the recyclable portion of this waste. Joyce Kariuki, Communications Lead at Proctor and Gamble East Africa, stated that of the 2200 tons of solid waste generated in Nairobi County daily, about 30 to 40 per cent is not collected and that less than 50 per cent of the population is served (it is unclear which particular population is being referred to). Burning more waste doesn’t challenge a status quo that promotes consumptive growth, it reinforces it while perpetuating a form of greenwashing. Instead of claiming to address energy security, development goals, and landfill safety through the construction of an incinerator, work should be done to formally integrate wastepickers into the waste management system. The region would be better served by employing thousands of struggling wastepickers and having them be involved in a comprehensive effort to collect, sort, and recycle the region’s waste with the proper technology and safety equipment. While the proposed incinerator has not yet led to any signs of open protest from wastepickers and other community members, this may change as the project progresses.