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Kenyan Sharon Atieno, 23, considers herself a busy woman. She believes in the saying ‘the early bird catches the worm’, and every day she leaves her Nairobi home at the crack of dawn to go to work. She is one of the waste collectors at the expansive Dandora dumping site in Nairobi’s Embakasi North constituency.
She leaves her house neatly dressed like any other office working girl, bag in hand and lipstick to boot. But, her workplace defies the conventional.
Dandora, about 14 kilometres east of the city, is home to all the waste that is generated in hundreds of thousands of homes in Kenya’s capital.
Upon arrival at the site, she changes her clothes, dons a dust coat, covers her nicely kept weave and plunges into her work – sifting through mountains of waste to collect woven paper bags that came into vogue when the government banned plastic bags in 2017.
Braving the stench
Sharon is one of the 3,000 men, women and youth who brave the smoke, dust and the stench of rotting garbage at the 30 acres waste site in an attempt to make ends meet. To the waste collectors, the adage that ‘one man’s poison is another man’s meat’ can never ring truer.
The waste site is full of buzz and activity with trucks swarming the area like flies to deliver part of the 2,400 tonnes domestic, industrial, hospital and agricultural waste that is generated in Nairobi daily.
Crawler tractors try to spread the waste so that it can degenerate faster while collectors seek to quickly collect something that can be turned into cash.
They collect plastics, glass bottles, waste papers, and even the new type woven paper bag. And they are not the only ones in business on the site. Smart businessmen and women tap into the market selling all manner of products from food, water, groundnuts and even clothing.
“This place has been good to me,” Sharon tells RFI’s Africa Calling podcast, explaining how it has helped her make the ends meet for her and her child.
#Kenya correspondent @Amwangi72 speaks to #Dandora #Nairobi waste picker Sharon Otieno, who says people think she’s crazy for working at the dump. “We are human beings too and we go through a lot. We’re here to make a decent living.”🎤: https://t.co/cCbCDxJj1c #recycling #respect pic.twitter.com/EGa9ocUWjx
— Africa Calling (@Africa__Calling) April 15, 2022
The mother of one and former student, who wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, said that she came to the waste site after her parents were unable to raise her college fees.
“Since then, I have never looked back,” the hearty sharply dressed girl says noting that the earns enough to take care of her needs.
For Benjamin Muema, who collects glass bottles, the global coronavirus pandemic is what sent him to the site. With a wife and two children to take care of, Muema who lost his job in one of the nearby factories said that he had to find something to do in order to feed the family.
“Working at the site has not treated me badly as I can collect as much as 8,000 tonnes of waste glass bottles in a month,” he says as he continues with his evidently dangerous task of breaking bottles action which he notes reduces their volume and increases the capacity of what he can collect.
He reveals that he can make up to 36,000 Kenyan shillings (USD 311) in a month. In an economy where unemployment is high and college graduates do no find work, the earnings are more than a diploma graduate can earn.
“I come here as early as 6am as the waste is still fresh, look for the bottles then sit down to break them,” the soft spoken Muema says adding that he also buys waste bottles from other waste collectors.
On the other hand, a plastic waste collector Kennedy Shiraku Wambui 25 said that he collects between 100-200 kilogrammes of waste and the money he makes is enough to enable him take care of his family. He says that he can sell a kilo of plastic waste for 17 Kenya shillings per kilogramme (0.15USD)
“The cost of living has really risen and instead of resorting into a life of crime, this place keeps us busy enough in such a way that when you leave here, you have nothing else to do other than mind your business,” Wambui reveals.
However, even as the business turns the waste into millions of earnings annually, the collectors feel that their role has been relegated to the lower end of the waste management and social ladder with political leaders largely forgetting them.
“Politicians do not step into the site and the only time they surface is during the election campaign time where they urge us to register as voters. Even then, they do not come here but wait for us at the estates,” says Muema.
According to Tobias Ochieng, a member of the Dandora Nyumba Kumi Initiative that is tasked with community policing within the estate, the authorities have abandoned the site and do not want to interact with the visibly filthy environment.
For Sharon, this is a missed opportunity because the leaders can help mobilise and organise waste collectors for medical and wellness camps where they can be addressed and counseled.
“Many people think that we are out of our minds to work in the waste site because of our soiled and oily looks, but we wouldn’t mind if medical and counseling sessions were held to sensitise people on hygiene, good health and eating habits.”
As the site continues to churn millions of earnings, there are fears that the main beneficiaries are the cartels who control and determine who can bring or sort out garbage from the government owned site.
“These are the real winners. They charge levies to the waste dumping trucks and also determine who enters the site,” says Chrispine Bolo a local community elder who adds that the powerful cartels are opposed to any idea of improvement that would affect their rent seeking services.
Bolo also says that any talk about the relocation of the site is vehemently opposed by this group that is capable of deploying violence to guard its interests.
The relocation of the dumping site has been a messy and protracted issue just like its presence in Dandora.
In 2013, the County Government of Nairobi through the then Governor Dr. Evans Kidero indicated that it wanted to transfer the site to Ruai some 25 kilometres east of Nairobi.
The plans were however opposed by the Kenya Airports Authority which said that Ruai is on the flight path from the Jomo Kenyatta International airport. The Authority maintained that having the site there would compromise air traffic safety.
In July 2021, the high court in Nairobi directed the Nairobi County Government to transfer the site by February this year. The site is still there and plans to relocate it seem to be nowhere in sight.
Local development actors feel that at least the government should work to have the waste managed in a cleaner and sustainable manner.
According to Passion Food Safety, a local non-governmental organisation that promotes healthy eating and food safety among community members in the informal settlements that are near the waste site, the creation of a recycling plant would be more economically beneficial to the community.
“If a waste recycling plant is constructed there, the first beneficiaries should be the collectors who have experience in sorting out the waste,” said Kenneth Lukati programmes officer at Passion for Food.
This article was originally heard on RFI’s Africa Calling podcast.