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Poverty Times #4

Malindi leads the ways with community activism

Just mention the expression “shanty town” and the first thing that springs to mind is filth. While this may be true of slums around the globe, it is not the case in Kisumu Ndogo and Maweni in Malindi, Kenya. These two shanty towns, much as Malindi itself, are free from the litter and solid waste plaguing most unplanned settlements and towns in Kenya today.
By Cecilia Kinuthia-Njenga, Human Settlements Officer, UN-Habitat

Malindi is a popular tourist destination 125 kilometres north of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean. Over the years the urban environment deteriorated so much that residents became alarmed, prompting them to form the Malindi Green Town Movement (MGTM) to introduce sustainable, integrated urban environmental planning and management.

The project targeted an area of 670 sq km with a population of 140,000. One third of the area is part of the Indian Ocean coastal ecosystem. The intended beneficiaries of the project were the poor of Malindi - mainly women and young people. Community ownership of the project was a key success factor. Today a visitor walking through Kisumu Ndogo and Maweni will see garbage bags outside every door. Members of the community collect and bag garbage from their homes and the surrounding area. The bags are then collected by youth groups and stored at a temporary site in the community. The municipal council takes the garbage to designated dumps. The project has provided community members with income and boosted the capacity of the Malindi town council to involve key stakeholders.

Prior to this initiative the community had had no experience with solid waste management. Residents dumped their waste directly into the ocean, gradually turning Shella Beach, the oldest part of Malindi and the most attractive part of the bay, into a health hazard and an eyesore. Because it is located in a basin, with sand dunes on the beach side and hills to the west, south and north, the town flooded whenever it rained. To make matters worse, there was no conventional drainage or sewer system. Most residents depended on water from wells, some of which were dangerously close to pit latrines. Household wastewater often overflowed into the streets and the ocean. The constant flooding left the barren, dusty streets riddled with potholes. Litter such as plastic bags and coconut shells was scattered throughout the town, where cattle could also be seen grazing. There was a filthy produce market with makeshift stalls and even a dumpsite right in the middle of a housing estate.

Virtually no town planning had ever been carried out. The lack of a proper zoning plan led to the spread of slums. There were no playgrounds, public gardens or other amenities. Disease, especially malaria, was a particular threat to infants from low-income homes. The town council lacked the adequate resources and bylaws for effective planning, waste management and environmental protection, undermining its credibility. Moreover the community did not have the necessary negotiating and lobbying skills to compel the council to provide services. Ideally environmental conservation in Kenya is managed by the federal government in partnership with municipal councils and citizens. However citizens bear the brunt of mismanagement and lack of effective policies.

One of the reasons behind the problems plaguing Malindi and many other Kenyan towns is the absence of a sound legal framework for environmental issues. Often, there is little the community can do against individuals or institutions that contribute to the environmental degradation of public spaces.

Outraged by the situation, a group of residents formed the Malindi Green Town Movement (MGTM) in 1994. According to MGTM Chairman Godfrey Karume, “We were appalled by the plastic paper [sic] menace, garbage dumping along the beach and in residential areas, dirty streets, poverty in the communities and the allocation of public spaces to private developers.”

Garbage collection, a service lacking in many towns in Kenya, is now provided by local youths, most of whom were previously unemployed. Statistics from MGTM show that the youths collect an average of 50 tonnes of solid waste every week. They generate income by charging between 100 and 150 shillings ($1.30 to $2) a month, serving a population of 80,000. Maweni resident Esther Katunda states, “Since we discovered that garbage could be turned into income, we have not turned our backs on it; we collect it and transform it into a livelihood.”

Working with the council, the community has defined a set of environmental by-laws, which are in the process of being passed for use in Malindi. MGTM and the town council signed a memorandum of understanding setting forth the rights, responsibilities and obligations of each party regarding solid waste management. Women’s and youth groups, and other community-based organisations have obtained vehicles from the council and repaired them for refuse collection.

Village committees were set up to organise the new fee-based waste collection system, with 19 solid-waste storage points built at central locations. Youth groups now compost biodegradable material and operate a garden producing food and seedlings and selling surplus compost to local farmers. The movement has developed a two-wheeled bike to collect waste and is involved in activities such as cutting grass and clearing brush around homes, sealing open manholes, spraying insecticide to kill mosquitoes, and chlorinating public wells to improve water quality. The crows that once blighted the town have been trapped and their eggs destroyed. The Watamu dump, in the middle of a residential estate, has been relocated and the site rehabilitated and turned into a park.

Plastic bags – an environmental threat all over Kenya – are conspicuously absent in Malindi, thanks to the zeal of women’s and youth groups in Kisumu Ndogo and Maweni. They collect the bags as raw materials for a cottage industry producing baskets, hats, table mats, floor mats and other products. Local schools have been recruited to help, with the one that collects the most winning a trophy for environmental protection. Women’s groups involved in the cottage industry pay a shilling per kilo of plastic. They will soon be selling plastic to a firm that manufactures containers and other items.

Malindi has been transformed. The town has regained its former beauty and is once more attractive to tourists. Due to the high level of awareness and increased public involvement in environmental issues, residents are determined to maintain the improved conditions. Shella Beach is now home to beach-football pitches, boat-building yards, public gardens, and sunbathers.

Roads have been resealed and drainage systems built. Over 500 trees have been planted along the streets. Due to increased community awareness, incidents of environmental degradation such as the cutting of trees are now being reported. A new market has been built and there is better monitoring by the council of unauthorised dumping by merchants. Storm water drainage has improved and wells are prohibited in densely populated areas. These community projects have also contributed to the quality of life of local street children, who are frequent participants. However the town still does not have a conventional sewage system and depends on leach pits, which must be pumped frequently, particularly in public areas.

MGTM uses a variety of communitybased techniques to publicise its activities. The project has provided community members with economic opportunities; it has also contributed to community learning in the areas of group dynamics, mobilisation, lobbying and community rights advocacy, business, basic accounting and environmental management.

The communities have been empowered to work together through the village committees to solve environmental problems. For example, the government was recently forced to stop a hotel developer when Malindi residents voiced their concerns over the potential dumping of untreated wastewater directly into the ocean. Similarly the community blew the whistle on a foreigner who was illegally exporting live coral to Europe for use in aquariums. The project has boosted the level of community activism and residents now regularly speak out at town meetings.

The structures created through this project have given community members a forum where they may express their ideas and find solutions. Citizens have taken responsibility for local problems and a number of locally-funded initiatives have been implemented with the support of readily-available human resources in the community.

At a time when cities and towns all over Kenya are grappling with mismanagement, poor service delivery and environmental degradation, Malindi has invested in a grassroots solution based on good governance empowering women and encouraging community participation. The project’s community-based environmental conservation and recycling activities supplement efforts made by the local council.

Malindi has received national and international recognition for its efforts and has won a number of awards, including the UN-Habitat/Ford Foundation Mashariki Innovations in Local Governance Awards Programme (MILGAP) prize in 2004.