From shack to a toilet mall: How I moved with my toilet to the city

By David Kuria, CEO of Ecotact Limited, IkoToilet and Africaqua

Standing in the chilly, drizzling night of April, I debated whether to dash some 100 feet to the corner of our garden, where a little shack of rafters and mud—with a severely torn sack for a door and without a roof above—served as our toilet. The floor was laid with wood poles, with enough gaping separations that I could fit my leg through. I was not convinced I would make it, and my stomach was not giving into the demand to wait till morning.

That was three decades ago.

A decade later, I was admitted in Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology for an architecture degree in Nairobi. On admission to the residence hall, with the toilets and showers designed at the intersection of two wings, and at least with lights, I felt relief.

I quickly learned how to use a flushing toilet. I could not fathom how much water was being used and the amount of pressure just to flush a few grams of waste—but it was fun flushing. It was even greater fun trickling water for a shower, especially because I’d come from a village where we could only take a bath from a small jerry can.

My visits to a toilet in the city of Nairobi after my graduation were never very welcoming. These communal spaces were inhabited by street boys, clad with dirt and holding the muddy waste, ready to paint your face if you didn’t part with some coins. The toilets were dirty, stretches of feces from one end to the other, urine flowing towards the entrance, like a rude welcome gesture—nostrils closing from the emanating ammonia smell.

When I was faced with the possibility of clean, functioning toilets with running water a decade later, I knew I had to do something for our cities. The IkoToilet idea was born. This would be an urban toilet structure; it would be safe, clean, and convenient and we would add on utilities—like the sale airtime cards (which allow Kenyans to buy minutes and data for their phones) and M-pesa transfers (which allow them to make mobile money deposits/transfers), plus snacks and shoeshine services to ensure economic sustainability. This idea became a reality and now we have “toilet malls” across Kenya serving more than 10 million customers per year.

Today, when I look back, I agree with UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon: “We have a moral imperative to end open defecation and a duty to ensure women and girls are not at risk of assault and rape simply because they lack a sanitation facility.”

This is a dignity issue, and we must face it head on, both governments and the private sector.

David Kuria is a Ph.D. Researcher on Project Management and CEO of Ecotact; He is a 2015 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.

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