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The Kenya Sanitation Conference showed we know what to do – now it’s time to do it

The event proved sanitation discourse in Kenya has made great strides towards inclusiveness, realism and sustainability. SEI’s Daniel Ddiba hopes to see those values reflected in action.

Daniel Ddiba / Published on 19 November 2019

Kenya pays dearly for the gaps in its sanitation and hygiene services: total economic costs have been estimated at US$ 324 million annually. About 12.5% of Kenyans still practise open defecation and most of the population don’t have access to safely managed sanitation services, according to the latest report of WHO and UNICEF’s Joint Monitoring Program.

It was therefore a very encouraging sign that last month the Kenyan Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation hosted the first National Sanitation Conference in Nairobi, with the theme of sanitation for all.[1] It is even more encouraging that the conference took such a comprehensive view of sanitation challenges, aiming to provide “practical and innovative solutions” along the entire sanitation service chain, from containment to potential reuse of both wastewater and treated sludge, in both rural and urban settings, and dealing with both domestic and industrial wastewater.

On top of that, the participants went far beyond the usual conference crowd of researchers, policy-makers and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) practitioners to include children and youth, pit emptiers and other sanitation workers, musical artists and more. There was even a catchy theme song.

This broad participation was important to bridge the usual divide between research and policy on the one hand and the day-to-day realities and possibilities on the ground. Through the four days of field visits, seminars, side events and plenaries, a few highlights came through about the efforts being made to provide sanitation for all in Kenya.

Improving services along the entire sanitation chain

It’s not just the agenda of the conference that suggests sanitation discourse in Kenya has embraced an approach that considers all aspects of the sanitation chain, including both off-site and on-site solutions. Many local utilities have recently changed from being “water and sewerage” to “water and sanitation” companies. This implies that the utilities will pay more attention to on-site sanitation systems, which are what the majority of Kenyans in fact use today. Ensuring safe faecal sludge management services for people reliant on-site sanitation is a key component of leaving no one behind, the theme of World Toilet Day 2019.

However, what is required is more than changing utilities’ names. Most policies and regulations for sanitation in Kenya are still designed with only sewer-connected systems in mind. They will need to be updated to cover alternative innovative solutions for non-sewered sanitation. Some counties in Kenya, in particular, Nakuru, have made significant progress in this direction through developing a countywide inclusive sanitation strategy, and their experiences offer valuable learning.

Bridging the capacity gap

Kenya’s devolved system of governance means that a lot of the responsibility for providing sanitation services lies with the country’s 47 counties. Offering innovative solutions, as well as providing and maintaining safe off-site and decentralized sanitation systems, will demand new investment and human technical capacity ­­– especially considering the population increase expected in Kenya over the coming decades.

It was encouraging to learn that some Kenyan universities are now part of the Global Sanitation Graduate School. Water and sanitation professionals from Nakuru and Narok counties are also part of the SUWAS training programme (which is partly facilitated by SEI experts). These initiatives are good but they are only a start. The conference highlighted that gaps in technical and human capacity persist in many counties.

At the same time, it was also clear that stakeholders are aware of the huge job-creation potential in the sanitation sector, considering the infrastructure gaps at each stage of the sanitation service chain. This is crucial for a country with a relatively high unemployment rate, especially among young people. This potential will be realized as more investments are directed into the sector.

Innovations in finance and governance

Case studies were presented where so-called smart subsidies are being used at various stages of the sanitation chain to encourage the adoption of safer technologies and practices while avoiding the well-document risks that subsidies often imply. It was interesting to hear several stakeholders expressing worry about the sustainability of subsidies for low-income communities using non-sewered sanitation, given the fact that governments all over Africa have been massively subsidizing sanitation services for years, for example in the form of constructing and maintaining sewerage infrastructure, which mostly benefits high-income areas.

Another area where innovation was on display was in the coordination of the many public-sector, private-sector and civil society stakeholders involved in sanitation governance at different scales. Poor coordination in such polycentric governance contexts can lead to wasted resources and duplication of efforts. Good insights were shared from Nakuru County, where the Nakuru County Sanitation Steering Committee (NACOSTEC) has been used as a platform for such coordination. It was therefore good to hear that building on examples like this, the national government is also planning to establish a coordination mechanism at the national level, led by the Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation.

Will Kenya walk the talk?

The conference not only saw discussion of practical and scalable solutions – many implementation commitments were also made by the Deputy President, William Ruto, and the Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation, Simon Chelugui, among others. These included developing a national sanitation master plan, the establishment of a dedicated sanitation department in the Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation, ring-fencing some of the revenues collected from water service providers to finance sanitation programmes, coordination between the central and county governments to establish coherent service delivery mechanisms for non-sewered sanitation, and creating incentives aimed at increasing the use of recycled wastewater to expand irrigation.

However, in an incisive address at the close of the conference, Dr Wale Akinyemi, CEO of the consultancy PowerTalks Ltd, reminded everyone that commitments are not enough if action does not follow. A close look at the coverage of basic sanitation services in Kenya between the year 2000 (34%) and the year 2017 (29%) reveals not progress but regression, despite previous commitments such as those in the Ngor Declaration. Dr Akinyemi’s verdict? It is not that we don’t know what to do: it is that we don’t do what we know.

Hopefully by the time of Kenya’s next national sanitation conference, whenever that is, the various stakeholders will have walked some of the talk and made progress that the entire country can look back on with pride.


[1] The conference took place 28–31 October 2019 at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi.

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