By Vanessa Akoth

Waste management is among the major challenges facing Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Of an estimated daily production of 2,400 tonnes of solid waste, less than 45% is recycled and reused.

This is way below the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA)’s set target of 80%.

According to NEMA, the ever-changing lifestyle and consumption patterns embraced by the urban dwellers including; single item use, over-reliance on pre-packaged food and impulse buying, makes solid waste management in the city very challenging.

The quest to devise mechanisms that will drive solutions to waste management in Nairobi is continuous with some of the known waste management innovations being of Taka Taka Solutions, Mr Green Africa and Petco. These initiatives are working with the mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle, and are setting the pace for sustainable ways to conserve the environment.

While Mr Green Africa and Petco have established their niche in plastic recycling to reduce waste in the urban settlement, Taka Taka Solutions turns compost organic waste into organic fertilizers that are sold to farmers across the country.

Similar and more diverse innovations are on the rise diversifying techniques that will aid waste management in the city.

Founded in 2020 within Mathare slums, Motobrix stands as a community-centered innovation hub. This small initiative, ran by youths, operates to transform discarded materials in the informal settlement into eco-friendly energy.

Mathare is the second largest informal settlement in Kenya after Kibera and is home to 206,564 people, according to a 2019 census report. The settlement is made up of about 13 villages including Kwa Kariuki, Mathare No. 10, Kasovo and Kiamutisya among others.

Youths collecting waste in Mathare slum

“The idea that gave birth to Motobrix sprung from the need to offer waste management solutions to residents in my area, who have no access to public services involving waste collection offered by the county government,” Calvin Shikuku, founder of Motorbrix and a resident of Mathare says.

He adds that the ambition to become a green entrepreneur inspired him to begin transforming the garbage collected in Mathare to clean cooking energy that could be affordable to members of his community.

Working with a team of about 20 youths who comprise informal waste collectors, marketers and casual labourers, the company produces about 1,140kg of briquettes which serves an estimated 200 families in the area.

The informal waste collectors, mostly youth, go around the 13 villages collecting charcoal dust, sawdust, paper, cassava peels and vegetable stalks which are ideal for making the briquettes.

Magic brix briquettes

Once the waste is delivered to the company, all except sawdust are laid and evenly spread on mats for sun drying which removes excess moisture. However, according to Shikuku, sometimes the waste comes in dry and this speeds up the production process as the time spent in drying, which takes a maximum of two days and a minimum of a day depending on the intensity of the sun, is channeled elsewhere.

The sawdust exempted from drying in the initial stage undergoes soaking in water for about five days in a barrel with limited air to carbonize the material, ensuring the briquettes produced burn more efficiently while emitting less smoke.

After this phase, the materials are mixed together in a barrel. For instance, to produce a 20 kg bucket of briquettes, 20kg of charcoal dust is blended with a fifth kilogram of sawdust and 5kg of assorted waste.

Cassava peels are also added to the mixture to act as a binder. “The reason we use cassava peels as a binder is due to its good water resistance property and its high bonding strength that enhances adhesion of the briquette,” notes Shikuku.

“The prepared raw material is then pressed into a bar shape by passing it through a briquette-making machine under a pressure of 40 degree Celsius and discharged as briquettes at the bottom of the machine.”

The final process of production before dispatch for sale is the carbonation process. This involves the hardening of the substance which is achieved by placing them on a furnace and gently heating them with flames to fasten their drying. This lasts for about 36 hours.

Shikuku confirms that the entire cycle involving the waste being turned into briquettes spans a minimum of three days as they never run out of the soaked sawdust.

Part of the working station where the briquettes are being made

Faith Muthwa, a mother of three, resides in Mathare Number 10 area. She had been cooking using charcoal for the better part of her life despite being aware of the negative health risks caused by carbon monoxide – a gas emitted during the combustion of charcoal.

She discovered the briquettes in 2020, through youths who were marketing the product. “I was unsure of what to expect since it was a new product to me and I had to be well convinced before I made the bold move of making the purchase,” says Muthwa.

She adds that her zeal to try the product was further driven by her realization that this was an initiative that was converting waste in the area into clean cooking energy solutions, a move that she was pleased with.

With a leap of faith, she made the switch. The mother of three says that compared to charcoal, the brix are eco-friendly as they do not fill her poorly ventilated house with smoke when cooking for her family.

A mathare resident using the briquettes in his meat business

Gilbert Ogolla, a resident of Mlango Kubwa also uses the briquettes. A two-kilogram tin of briquettes which retails at Ksh 50 (about 0.4 USD) sustains his cooking for an entire week. He prefers using the briquettes as opposed to charcoal and kerosene which are relatively expensive.

As of 2023, a two-kilogram tin of charcoal sells at Ksh 100 (about 0.8 USD) and a litre of kerosene at Ksh 172 (about 1.19 USD).

Ogolla says that with the little he earns daily, he has to find an alternative fuel solution that is budget-friendly. The briquettes have helped him cut costs as he only requires about four of the briquettes to make him a hearty meal unlike the heaps of charcoal he would use for an equal amount of food, he notes, adding that, briquettes cook just as swiftly as the Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) once they are well lit.

However, he notes that the briquettes take a long time to light and the process can be tedious as the density of the briquettes demands more than just a simple matchstick. It takes a unique igniter to make them light.

Special igniters used to make the briquettes light

Nilace Njeri, a resident of Kosovo, says that compared to other available sources of fuel, the briquettes are very affordable and they burn for quite some time.

But since Motobrix is the sole producer of the brix in the area, she has to walk at least three kilometers from home to get access to the cooking fuel, a distance that can be frustrating sometimes. Also, the heavy nature of the brix leaves a lot of ash in the stove, she says.

Shikuku, notes that the team is exploring ways in which they can further collect the ashes and reuse them.

Collectively, since 2020, the 24-year-old says they have been able to recycle an estimated 50 tonnes of the waste collected from the slum area, adding that their machines do not hold the capacity to work with as much waste as they would wish.

“Given an opportunity to access finances and training we see Motobrix upscaling its waste management solutions from the slum area to other parts of Nairobi in the future,” he says.