On the road: Urban slum sanitation in Nairobi

I've been on and off the road since the end of June, it's nearing the end of July, I'm not going to lie, the adventure has been unbelievably amazing, but I am excited for a hot water shower and the comfort of my own bed! The past two weeks have been a whirlwind. I've been in seven different airports, six different countries, and three different continents. I've miraculously avoided getting sick, and have even managed to keep tabs on all my belongings, an overall success I think! The purpose of all this travel, as I've mentioned in other posts, is to get a clear understanding of what our users need as we continue to develop version 3 of the Ushahidi core platform. 

Here's a brief glimpse into my experience in Nairobi, Kenya. Nairobi is a city that has seen drastic change in the last three years, both for the better and unfortunately, the worse. I was there in 2011 and walked freely, felt comfortable downtown, and had an overall sense of security. This has vanished in recent times. Militant and terrorist groups ravage the coast, my friends warn me to stay away from malls because you never know when one will be turned into a hostage situation, and petty thieves are baldly stealing laptops and cell phones in broad daylight by gunpoint. I'll be honest, I was on edge the whole time I was there.

That being said, Nairobi has seen unprecedented growth over the last couple years. From new housing developments to a thriving tech scene. The Bishop Magua building on Ngong Road, where Ushahidi is located, is a technology campus housing companies, co-working spaces, accelerators, tech education focused groups, and even VC funds. The Ushahidi office is tucked into a sunny corner of the building, and it was a short but incredible experience to be there for a week. Other than the Ushahidi office, which was obviously my favorite part of the building (and no one is paying, forcing, or coercing me in any way to say that!), I really loved the iHub, Nairobi's innovation hub for it's burgeoning tech community, its many subsidiaries (UX lab and research facilities), and its events (I was fortunate to attend a packed house for a "Fail Faire"). In addition to that, I was blown away by an awesome mobile QA (quality assurance) lab that the building boasts -- this is definitely missing in many Silicon Valley companies and startups!

During my time in Nairobi I visited on of our partners, Sanergy. They are building sustainable sanitation solutions for urban slums. I visited their waste disposal facility and the Mukuru slum where they have several toilets installed. They've built a franchise model for what we would call a "port-o-potty" in the US. The franchise owner decides the pricing and is responsible for the overall upkeep of the toilet. The slum dwellers now have clean, safe solutions for their toilet needs, something they desperately lacked before. Past toilet installations have lacked any investment from the residents. Now, since the toilet is owned and operated by a community member, they've seen better maintenance, and much higher standards for the overall quality of the toilet experience.

We certainly take for granted the convenience of having one, if not many, flushable, clean, sheltered toilets within the comfort of our homes. NPR recently did a piece on how a lack of easy access to a toilet (mostly in the home) puts women at risk for rape and assault. In the slums, many of the Sanergy toilets are for a community, as in several families will get together and purchase it. They'll place it in the center of a cluster of their homes so that it is equidistant and easily accessible to all. Solutions like this are a step closer to providing safety as well as sanitary waste solutions for slum communities. Feces and urine that once could easily find their way into food from people relieving themselves on the slum streets, are now being contained and even recycled.

Sanergy collects the waste everyday and does various things with it from manure sales to biogas generation, all backed by a strong R&D program. Ushahidi is helping them with their data management and visualization. The data could be anything from average liters of waste collected per location per day, or shortest route between two toilets for optimal waste collection.

We are also placing a strong focus on helping them come up with a ticketing or case management system. Oftentimes the users of the toilets or the toilet owners need to report a problem or provide a suggestion. Currently, they don't have a very clear or efficient way to note down these pieces of information or to track their progress, i.e., did someone fix the broken toilet, was it noted that one location needs emptying more than once a day, etc. When we were visiting the Mukuru slum a man said that he would appreciate a toilet that supports those with physical disabilities. Insights like this are immensely valuable and we hope that our system will allow Sanergy to track and act upon them.

Overall, it was truly remarkable to be a part of the Nairobi tech landscape for a few days, and I'm excited to see it grow. The organizations in the Bishop Magua Centre have a very symbiotic relationship, and I appreciated the shared resources and ideas. My only wish and hope for Nairobi and for Kenya as a whole is that it finds peace and safety during these tough times.

That's it from me now, if you want some more realtime updates, feel free to follow me on Twitter or Instagram. More to come on the other locations!


Is poverty an emergency?

I met with Martin Burt, the Executive Director and founder of Fundacion Paraguaya a few days ago and he said two things that left me contemplative. The first was that poverty is an emergency, and the second was that perhaps the most important factor in achieving something is a belief that you can.

Consider the first point. The widely accepted understanding of an emergency is something that is urgent and needs to be addressed immediately. At Ushahidi we pride ourselves in being able to provide the technology that can assist in that moment of need. If I asked you to give me a few examples of emergencies you would probably refer to natural disasters or life threatening medical situations. Very infrequently do people consider poverty as an emergency.

But when Martin said it, it immediately made sense to me. Poverty is a life threatening, society threatening phenomenon that must be addressed immediately. If treated and prioritized like the bleeding gun wound it is, maybe we'd be faster to eliminate it. Chronic, festering poverty has become a standard all over the world. Martin and his team are unwilling to accept the status quo. I'm excited to be implementing an instance of the Ushahidi platform in this new and necessary definition of emergency, and look forward to other similar usages of the product. 

Martin's second point, said with reference to his methodology of empowering the poor with the tools and perspective they need to help themselves fight poverty, resonated with me when thinking about women and underrepresented minorities in tech. Many of us have heard stereotypes stated as facts ... Men are more logically wired, Asians are really good at math, women are better at the soft skills, etc. Imagine a little girl, told from an impressionable age that it's okay for her to be mediocre in math and science because that's what nature intended. It is highly unlikely that this girl ever believes that she could be good at those subjects, and very likely that she will be alienated from them for life.

I was honored to think and talk through these ideas with Martin and his team, and am eager to see the far reaching implications and effects of his work.