Monday, March 22, 2010

The first annual World [water] Cup!

Throughout the globe today, communities will be celebrating World Water Day, an annual occasion catalyzed by the United Nations in 1993 to focus attention on the sustainable management of water resources. Remembering my first trek to the dirt football pitch in the Mathare slum several months ago, I realize now that perhaps nowhere else is this year's message of water quality more relevant than in the slums of Nairobi.

Squeezing between rows of shanties with a fellow board member from Community Transformers (CT) – a community based organization that's focused on creating a healthier and more holistic community in Mathare – I was suddenly saved from stepping in a pile of defecation. What he didn't need to point out was that this pile would eventually be washed by the rain down to the Nairobi River a few meters away, where mothers would be cleaning clothes, children wildly splashing each other, and fathers taking sips from their hands during work breaks.

Despite the selection of Nairobi as the location for this year's Official World Water Day Event and this behemoth crisis to spread water quality messages to these Mathare families, it appears as if informal communities are noticeably absent in the agenda. Brainstorming this dilemma a few weeks ago with David Kuria, the CEO of Ecotact (recently written about here), we decided a World [water] Cup would be the perfect venue to spread the gospel.

We envisioned this event to be as magnificent as the title implied, with eight championship teams, thousands of fans, five performing groups, four corporate sponsors, numerous media houses, the deputy mayor as a special guest, and a first place prize of 10,000 Kenyan shillings, a goat, a trophy and a Roto water tank.

Despite the extremely short time frame – and with the support of CT as the on the ground organizer – the referee's whistle this past Saturday marked the official kickoff of everything we had envisioned. As if on cue, a brief set of raindrops began to darken the thirsty brown colored pitch – World [water] Cup had begun. Little boys and girls skipped up and down the sidelines and climbed trees to see over the masses. The deejay played Bob Marley and shouted swift Swahili commentary. The Zanaki Acrobats constructed a human pyramid, pinnacled with an 11 year old in a handstand. Roto and the other sponsors handed out flyers and discussed water management techniques, while Ecotact distributed beverages and shared the various water challenges experienced operating their Ikotoilet facility adjacent to the field.

Within no time at all, the two championship teams – CT United and Mathare Tsunami – faced off in true World Cup fashion, with a penalty kick shoot-out concluding a scoreless championship match. Having been subbed out towards the end of the second half, I watched restlessly as the two teams tensely battled back and forth: each team responding to the other's penalty kick, until CT United's striker hooked his shot to the left, leaving the tournament (and the prizes) wide open for Tsunami. As if following a movie script, the final Tsunami striker approached the goal, pulled out a water bottle from his shorts, took a big drink and splashed his face, and buried the ball in the back right corner of the net.

After the 20 minute celebration had finally quieted down – and CT United had slowly risen from the dirt pitch – the awards were presented while the golden sun began to set over the brown tin roofs in the Mathare Valley.

As the music began to fade and the Acumen Fund members shared their business cards with the sponsors, it was exciting to see the level of private partnership in promoting both the health and economy of informal communities. As the general manager from Chandaria Industries – a regional tissue products company – commented: We're a part of this greater community, whether we realize it or not, and we need to invest in them and explore innovative solutions to meet their needs.

He concluded by expressing a desire to see the World [water] Cup annualized and rolled out to other slums, which is exactly what we are planning!

Note: additional pictures taken by brilliant friends/photographers can be seen here, and slightly different versions of this article are available on Next Billion and Acumen Fund's blog.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Emerging trends: Toilet parties in the Nairobi slums

The following is a post that I was planning to write for my personal blog, but was asked by Rob Katz to write for NextBillion and the Acumen Fund blog (here and here) before I had the chance!

Once you don’t have it – that’s when you realize the value
David Kuria, founder and CEO of Ecotact

When I first journeyed to Kenya in 2004, celebrating the launch of a public toilet facility was one of the last ways I imagined spending a Monday morning – or any morning (or afternoon, or evening), for that matter. In fact, unless I had enjoyed an elephant's dose of mango juice and was on a 5 hour safari across the Great Rift Valley, I might not have had reason to celebrate a toilet at all.
Six years later, however, armed with the realization that an estimated 2.6 billion people lack access to basic sanitation and 2.2 million die each year from water and sanitation related diseases, I now have billions of reasons to attend toilet parties, an emerging trend in the Nairobi slums thanks to David Kuria and Ecotact. So when the Acumen team received the invite to attend the launch of Ecotact's 17th Ikotoilet facility last Monday, I practically ran for my dancing shoes.

Sitting under a small tent adjacent to the about-to-be-launched Kawangware Ikotoilet, Rob Katz and I listened eagerly with the 200-plus gatherers inside and spilling out the edges of the makeshift party hall. The crowd – a mix of residents, officials and journalists – engulfed the architecturally distinct Ikotoilet structure. It was clear that Acumen wouldn't be dancing alone at this party.

The Minister of Public Health and Sanitation and the Chief Public Health Officer also showed up for the celebration. Given the honour of Chief Guests, they both made remarks before cutting the ribbon: this day marks the launch of a noble public-private partnership initiative, as we bring necessary services closer to the people and are no longer dependent on flying toilets.

The Kawangware facility is part of Ecotact's newly implemented slum outreach model; it is now the second Ikotoilet in the informal communities of Kenya.  And according to Kuria and the Minister, there will be more Ikotoilets in Kawangware in the near future – extremely exciting news for Acumen as a BoP investor!
Ecotact is experimenting with a school model in the slums as well.  After cutting the ribbon at Kawangware – and being mobbed by reporters as she toured the facilities – Minister of Public Health and Sanitation and Kawangware MP Beth Mugo led a delegation to the Dagoretti Secondary School, about 10 minutes away from the new Ikotoilet.

The school’s 150 students currently use pit latrines. But with funding from the Solid House Foundation, Dagoretti will soon inaugurate a free-for-use Ikotoilet on site. What’s more, a biodigester will generate valuable methane gas, pumped from the toilet to the school’s kitchen.

With facilities in Nairobi’s central business district, city parks, slums and schools, Ecotact is tackling the sanitation problem here in Kenya on many fronts. As an investor and partner with Ecotact, Acumen Fund is eager to continue the celebration with Kuria and his team, as they grow from 17 facilities to a target of more than double that within the next year.