Towards a better future for the rapidly growing city of Kisumu in East Africa

Quercus Group together with partners, visited Kisumu to bring together creativity and resources of the vast array of stakeholders involved in the ‘Kisumu Initiative for Sustainable Livable Settlements’ towards lasting solutions

Half of the population in Kisumu, Kenya live in informal settlements without access to a well-functioning sanitation system and a possibility to dispose of their waste safely.

Arriving to Kisumu the difference to the capital city of Nairobi is apparent. The country’s third largest city greets Quercus Group's team, represented by our CEO Nicolai Sederberg Rottbøll, Country Manager of Kenya Mariam Njoroge and me, Wadim Baslow, Project Manager for Sustainable Cities, as less hectic and chaotic, laid back and strikingly cleaner along its streets and public spaces.

Located by Lake Victoria, in the western part of Kenya, Kisumu emerged as a port town by the turn of 19th century and was crucial to the railway line connecting trade towards Uganda and other central African regions.

“Sumo” translates into trade and thus one might say it does not come by surprise that Kisumu revives its trade spirit today as one of the economically fastest growing cities in East Africa. It serves as the main commercial, industrial, transportation and communication hub in the greater Lake Victoria Basin with an annual growth rate of 2.8%.

Kisumu is home to about half a million residents of which, some estimate, more than half live in the unplanned belt of informal settlements, around the colonial city core and the peri-urban fringes, rapidly growing as the city expands. The eight primary settlements, despite the economic growth, mirror to a great extent the estimated absolute poverty rate of 48%, as the national average lies around 29%.

We followed an invitation by community leaders to visit their neighbourhoods and talk in fact “business”; to talk business of handling waste and managing sanitation in informal communities. It was a great leap for us towards a deeper comprehension of the context wherein our strategic intent of strengthening everyday entrepreneurism will unfold.

What was known to us as numbers in a preparatory synthesis —

67% of faecal sludge in Kisumu and up to 80% of waste is unsafely managed,

became personal stories of waste pickers, recyclers, pit latrine cleaners and emptiers, entrepreneurs, who lead change for themselves and their communities. Despite the strong stigma faced by those who deal with waste and faecal sludge, we experienced dedicated people driven to respond to the intricate waste and sanitation challenges posing a variety of risk to people and the environment as well as fuel persistent exclusion and disempowerment of societal segments.

There is certainly not one single root cause and it is impossible to pinpoint with certainty the wide array of root causes emerging into landscapes of waste and sanitation challenges in Kisumu. Single-handed responses by one actor alone such as the local government or the local community are not very likely to provide complete and inclusive solutions. Systemic in nature, it appears the opportunities for long-term sustainability most likely lie in the ability to intentionally and constructively work with the everyday frictions, tensions, dilemmas and tensions between the formal and the informal, strategy and action, knowing and doing, between the elements of the value chains and each and every actor involved along it.

The ‘Kisumu Initiative for Sustainable Livable Settlements’ is an attempt to leverage those opportunities by:

  • developing and strengthening entrepreneurial activities from and with the residents of the informal settlements in Kisumu,
  • establishing a support system in form of a multi-stakeholder platform shaped around the stakeholder’s energies, resources and talents knitted together and thus enabling transformative and innovative solutions in solid waste management and sanitation to succeed.

The multi-stakeholder platform provides a dynamic ground to collaborate with each other and other local, national and international organizations, combining energies to achieve long-term sustainability.

It has been a chicken and the egg discussion for us before our second trip to Kisumu — the project finds itself at the beginning of an initial two-year journey. Should we first focus on the development of innovative business models or putting the support system ready in place first? Finally, we designed and facilitated an innovation process that primarily aimed to plant idea seeds for solutions with an entrepreneurial mindset, but designed in a manner indirectly triggering the discussion what kind of platform activities are needed and how these activities act to support the developed business models.

Later on, during our visit, we invited in return to a creative workspace. Some of the people that we have met the previous day in the community came along with city officials, representatives from key regulatory institutions, the local utility company, businesses from Kisumu and Kenya, who followed our invitation.

Representatives from the local communities along with partners.

The workspace, simply put, was a series of closely linked activities inspired by principles of well-known innovation and design-thinking processes departing from a deep exploration of the challenge space, the rapid generation, selection and refinement of business ideas and finally coming to an end by providing answers to questions of paving the way to successful implementation and value generation.

Over the course of two days, three groups of six people — two for waste and one for sanitation — ambitiously partook in this exercise concluding with three concrete business models.

One team for example, who named their business “KIRECO Ltd.” (abbreviation for ‘Kisumu Integrated Recycling Company’), developed a solution, emerging from a problem framing around a lack of storage capacity at household level as well as at waste collection level, of a business reliably delivering bulk plastic waste at quality towards further producers and manufacturers. It is the ambition, however, to scale into production as a company in the long-term which manufactures children's toys.

The key mechanism of this business — the integration of different actors along the waste value chain — stems from the creation of one entity, which combines yet scattered micro-entrepreneurs in the waste collection and processing space in Kisumu’s various informal settlements into a model of shared ownership. The shared ownership pools and distributes revenues and risks, and ultimately creates leverage towards key, often more formalised, institutions, whose partnership in this endeavour is crucial.

Two customer segments benefit. The community as a customer of the waste collection and treatment service and the producers as a customer of the bulk plastic, thus ensuring two revenue streams exceeding costs according to the rough calculations of the group.

The second waste group developed a similar model and achieved to concretize a list of potential clients who might be interested in their product in Kisumu. The third team developed a business model for sanitation inspired by the ‘distributed operation and maintenance’ model, which celebrated significant success in the delivery of clean water to the communities.

The approach to the ‘Kisumu Initiative for Sustainable and Livable Settlements’ is at the very core of Quercus Group’s framework of transformation leadership for sustainable development. The project aims:

1. to pursue a systems approach and taps into different ways of learning and into different types of knowledge to understand the complex reality of waste and sanitation management in Kisumu,

2. to positively shift the current state by collaboration and working together as we believe that we can achieve more together than one can by acting alone, and

3. lead the change process pulling together individuals and organizations towards one vision, bringing together resources, applying entrepreneurial expertise and forging future opportunities, choices and solutions.

We never work alone. Together with our project partners PlanBornefonden, Plan International, Practical Action and Slum Dwellers International, we act as way-finders and stewards addressing the complex challenges in Kisumu and aiming for mutual benefits and multiple gains for sustainable and livable settlements.

We understand that there are good ideas all over that strive to survive today. The collaborative work in Kisumu was a showcase of great visions, ambitions, energy and talent and resulted in excellent ideas. Good ideas are not good enough though. Thus, we are already working on the successful implementation by focusing on the establishment of the supporting partnership platform in the upcoming weeks and months.

— Wadim Baslow, Project Manager, Sustainable Cities

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