Kenya: Women save capital city from getting buried under garbage

Gloriah Amondi

March 14, 2024

The streets of Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, are littered with garbage—plastic bags, sugarcane remains, and pieces of fabric are randomly scattered on pathways. In the grey of early morning, just before daybreak, an old lorry, black from dirt and bursting with garbage, crawls through the city. Every so often, it slows down, and a figure disembarks to pick up the heaps of waste, throws them in the back of the open lorry, and hops back on.

In 2022, Nairobi was estimated to have about 10.8 million residents. According to the World Bank, 2000 to 4000 tonnes of solid waste are generated daily in the Nairobi metropolitan area, disposed of by residents, industry, and commerce. Each person generates 0.62 kg of garbage per day. According to a 2022 economic survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, this totaled around 2.30 million tonnes in 2021 alone.

Paper and plastics

Over fifty percent of Nairobi’s solid waste is organic, mostly from food waste. The rest is paper and plastics. Most of this waste ends up in the Dandora dumpsite, located east of the city and famously one of Africa’s largest dumpsites. Here, about 3,000 to 5,000 informal waste pickers and collectors spread across the dumpsite (approximated to be the size of 22 football pitches) daily to sort, clean, and sell recyclable waste products.

Nairobi Garbage Article
[Ake Mamo/AfS]

Nairobi County Government is legally responsible for managing waste. The Sustainable Waste Management Bill 2020 provides a legal framework for managing solid waste in Kenya, including the collection, transport, treatment, and disposal. However, the city’s management has been continually overwhelmed by responsibility, ending up only managing waste in the Central Business District. Therefore, waste management in residential areas is left to informal waste pickers and garbage collectors, who rely heavily on clearing and sorting domestic and sometimes industrial garbage.

It is estimated that there are about 100,000 formal waste pickers (either employed by county governments or waste management companies) in Kenya and thousands of other informal ones.

Changes marine life

At the heart of these activities are women, who make up a large percentage of these often-uncelebrated heroes. They save us from the hustle of dealing with our trash and ensure our environment and cities are clean and accessible.

This writer spoke to three of these women.

Stacy Malaika Mulei: I transitioned from an employee of a recycling company in the coastal town of Malindi to a waste collector. I had been working for a firm that recycled plastics collected from the ocean into useful items. This involved extruding filament from PET plastics such as water bottles, which were then used in 3D printing to produce things like beads, buttons, vases, and kitchenware.

First, what inspired the transition was that I saw what harm plastic does to the environment and how it changes marine life. But I was also inspired by seeing how you could turn a bottle into anything. Since then, I have been involved in waste collection in Dandora, where we sell the recovered waste to manufacturing and recycling companies.

I have learned a lot from waste collection, especially that waste can be used for good purposes. Once I understood that waste can be made into something useful, there was no turning back. I wanted to share that with other people.

Endanger the lives of waste pickers

I also learned not to expect anything from anyone’s garbage bag. It is a garbage bag, after all. At any one point, you can find all sorts of things stuffed there—disgusting or amusing. In my opinion, the most awful things to find are needles and syringes because they endanger the lives of waste pickers.

Waste collection is a tough job, but it is a job like any other. It has its joys and its downs. The biggest challenge remains payment for waste pickers, who earn so little, yet they are the ones who do most of the work. Presently, a kilo of PET goes for only ten shillings (0.074 dollars), and the heavy plastic goes for twenty-five (0.19 dollars). That is too low, considering all the effort that goes into that work.

The future of our planet does not look good. For instance, dumpsites like Dandora are overwhelmed, yet waste continues to come in every day. I think sensitizing people on waste management can go a long way to help curb this problem.

Ann Gomongo: I first started as a waste picker, sometimes moving from house to house in the estate and other times working at the Dandora dumpsite. I am a waste collector, meaning I buy recovered waste from the pickers and sell it to agents and companies, although I still work a lot around the dumpsite.

As a waste picker, I would wake up at 5 am to go to the dumpsite first. By that time, people were already at the site because it was better to start early before the sun rose and the heat became unbearable. On some days, I would leave the dumpsite to do my rounds in the estate.

There’s money in waste management, but it requires putting in a lot of effort. I can’t complain about that because everything requires hard work anyway, and there’s nothing that comes easily. However, the women who work as waste pickers have much more challenges than the males.

Dumpsites are near informal settlements

For example, since we all grew up in a society that views garbage negatively, waste pickers are considered lesser human beings. Some people think we are homeless street families whenever they see us collecting waste. There is also the security issue since most waste pickers leave their houses very early before daybreak, and the dumpsites are near informal settlements, mostly unsafe areas. I believe that improving security for waste pickers and collectors can encourage more women to venture into waste management.

Margaret Thuita: I work specifically with scrap metal and metallic waste such as containers, kitchen wares, cans, and waste from car garages. At first, I tried to sell them to recycling companies directly, but they needed me to bring a pick-up full of the waste and above. I could not manage that because finding a yard to keep all the scrap metals as you waited to accumulate them to the right amount that is enough to sell to the companies was quite a challenge. The companies prefer to buy in bulk, so most waste pickers sell to agents who then sell to the companies.

Waste picking is not a bad job. Women do it better because they are more orderly and like cleanliness. If someone is dedicated enough, waste picking can sustain a family. Many women, including myself, have supported their families through waste picking.

Yes, we are stigmatized, especially as women waste pickers, but as long as it is an honest and legal way of earning income, there is no shame in what we do.


Main photo: WikimediaCommons


Gloriah Amondi is a Kenya-based multilingual human rights lawyer, Mandarin teacher, and writer contributing to The Nation’s weekend editions. Her works have been published in journals such as Kalahari Review, Ibua Literary Journal, Lolwe Literary Magazine, and Dooney’s Café.