Africa > East Africa > Kenya > Enterprise and ingenuity thrive amid the waste in Nairobi

Kenya: Enterprise and ingenuity thrive amid the waste in Nairobi


It is an apocalyptic scene. Fires burn amid the detritus on the side of a major road, sending acrid smoke into the air. Thin men in filthy clothes move amid the rubbish. Some recline on old sofas, watching as trucks lurch past, spewing diesel fumes just feet away. Women and children emerge and disappear down a passage of corrugated iron leading to slum houses illuminated by light bulbs that are linked, illegally, to a mains supply by overhead wires.

Welcome to Enterprise Road, Nairobi’s recycling centre.

A closer look reveals the careful organisation of the place. Beside the gateway to the slum housing is a mountain of large, dirty white bags containing plastics and cardboard. Next come wooden pallets that once held vegetables. Further along is a stack of airline trolleys, their metal bars in tidy parallel. Plastics, cardboard, wood and metal. Each is a separate business.

The fires burn paint off metal. They also incinerate the foam and fabric cushioning of chairs that once spun in city offices. The smell is bad and the fumes attack the lungs.

“You get used to it and then you don’t smell it any more,” says Sixtus Nyamai, who runs a metal recycling business called Baba Kilatya on the edge of the dual carriageway. He is the local chief, chairman of an area of roadside called Barclays Village, after the bank that stands at the junction. If officials want to know about anybody or anything going on, they come to him, he says.

Nyamai hires trucks and labourers to collect unwanted metal objects from businesses, shops and factories all over Nairobi. A lumbering lorry pulls over; the back drops down. Three men clamber aboard. They throw out used car batteries, which hit the muddy ground with a thud.

Nyamai used to live in the slum. That was 10 years ago, when he started the business. Now he lives with his wife, who works alongside him, in a house near the airport. Recycling pays. He has put his children through school. He buys steel for 25 shillings (18p) and resells it for 30 shillings to a factory that melts it down, by the Athi river.

Ordinary aluminium costs 100 shillings and resells for 120. Hard aluminium fetches a lower price: he buys it for 70 shillings and sells for 90.

Sometimes individuals turn up on a treasure hunt. Nyamai cradles a car wing mirror, in perfect condition though with no box. It could be useful to somebody.

The slum is a testimony to human ingenuity. One of the patchwork coloured shacks of corrugated iron has an upper storey that projects over the path, like a Tudor house. Beside it is a long white pipe that allows waste water to spill out and down the slope, clear of the home.

By the slum entrance is a man leaning over the wooden fence that separates his living quarters from the mud footpath and the main road. He is old, but lean and strong. His earlobes have large holes that speak of his former life. Ole Kalau is a Maasai, far from the cattle pastures of southern Kenya.

There is a not a leaf of greenery on Enterprise Road and the breeze carries only fumes. But there is work for him as a security guard. He may not be leaning on his spear, but nobody will mess with a Maasai.

Related Articles
  • Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz Calls For New Strategy

    2017/10/19 Joseph Stiglitz has advised African nations to adopt coordinated strategy encompassing agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and service sectors to attain same success delivered by the old manufacturing export-led strategy. Prof. Stiglitz, an economist and professor at Columbia University, New York, gave the advice at the Babacar Ndiaye lecture series introduced by African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) which debuted in Washington D.C.
  • Ecobank launches mVisa across 33 African Countries

    2017/10/19 Ecobank Scan+Pay with mVisa delivers instant, fasten cashless payment for goods and services by allowing customers to scan a QR code on a smartphone or enter a incomparable merchant identifying code into either a feature phone or smartphone Ecobank ( has partnered with Visa to launch Ecobank Scan+Pay with mVisa solutions to their consumers. The strategic tie-up signals interoperability on a cross border level – and potentially huge gains – as it affords consumers with the ability to use their mobile phone to due access the funds in their bank accounts to pay person-to-merchant (P2M) or person-to-person (P2P).
  • Drought cuts 14pc in tea production

    2017/10/17 Tea production in the initial eight months of the year dropped 14 % due to a severe drought in the initial quarter. Monthly data from the Tea Directorate indicate the volumes of the crop dropped from 309 million kilos last year between January and August to 265 million kilos in the corresponding period this year.
  • Moody’s set to downgrade 3 top banks

    2017/10/17 World ratings agency Moodys has warned of a likely downgrade of credit and deposit scores of three Kenyan banks, citing the country’s deteriorating deficit situation. The agency said it had placed on review for downgrade the B1 world scale long-term local-currency deposit ratings and the b1 baseline credit assessment (BCA) of KCB Bank Kenya Limited (KCB Bank), Equity Bank Kenya Limited (Equity Bank) , and Co-operative Bank of Kenya Limited (Co-op Bank).
  • ‘Betting on Africa to Feed the World’

    2017/10/17 The president of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina, will deliver the Norman Borlaug Lecture on Monday 16 October as part of the World Food Prize events taking place from October 16 to 20, 2017 in Des Moines, Iowa, USA. The Norman Borlaug Lecture under the title: “Betting on Africa to Feed the World”, will be held on World Food Day, October 16, in conjunction with the annual World Food Prize celebration.