Tag: Nairobi

Turning Human Waste Into Human Welfare (The Daily Beast)

IMG_6609 - Copy

(Via The Daily Beast)

NAIROBI, KENYA – About half of Nairobi’s 3.3 million people don’t have access to piped water or a sewage grid. Put simply: this is a public health catastrophe that disproportionately harms women and children. Water and sanitation development projects are legion in the informal settlements of Nairobi, and yet the basics of sanitation—access, affordability, and cleanliness—barely exist.

Sanergy, a for-profit/non-profit hybrid started by five MIT students in 2011, may change that. It manufactures and distributes toilets designed specifically for dense, urban informal settlements, then collects the resulting waste and processes it into high-value byproducts like fertilizer, which can be sold to local farmers. Its model has the potential to sustainably improve sanitation in dense, urban areas unequipped with a proper sewage grid.

“There’s still not a clear answer for how you actually build a sustainable sanitation network in urban slums,” Lindsay Stradley, one of Sanergy’s five co-founders, told me in an interview at its office in Mukuru Kwa Ruben, an informal settlement a few kilometers south of Nairobi’s central business district. One question in particular drew the team in, she said: “How do you harness the waste that comes out of sanitation—and now is a huge cost center—and turn that into a source of revenue to sustain not just the operations but potentially a whole community?”

In other words: how do you turn human waste into human welfare?

With a proper, piped sewage grid, this is relatively straightforward: waste is channeled to a central location where it can be sorted, disinfected, and treated with microorganisms, then sold as a high-value byproduct like fertilizer or biogas. New York City’s 6,000 miles of pipes, for example, move 1.3 billion pounds of wastewater to 14 treatment plants each day, resulting in 2.4 million pounds of “biosolids.” Some is sold as a liming agent, and some is disposed of in landfills (though it used to be sent to Colorado to fertilize crops).


Without a sewage grid, waste collection would need to be sanitary, simple, and efficient—an impossible ask of traditional pit latrines. Waste must be periodically removed from the pit, which most often involves modern-day night-soil men who bale it out, bucket by bucket.

Sanergy designed a toilet to allow quick, clean waste removal. Rather than using a pit, the toilet has two blue modular plastic jugs that collect waste during the day, and are efficiently removed and replaced with clean ones each evening by its logistics team.

To install its “Fresh Life Toilets” in communities, Sanergy employs a microfranchising model, allowing entrepreneurs to purchase and run the toilets as independent businesses. Fresh Life Operators, or FLOs (Sanergy’s term for its microfranchisees) receive advising, discounts on sanitary products, and other forms of support from the organization, but otherwise “they own it, they operate it, [and] their success is their own,” Stradley said.

FLOs purchase Fresh Life Toilets for 50,000 Kenyan shillings (about $580—the manufacturing cost), and can buy additional toilets at a discount. Unfortunately, many prospective FLOs don’t have that kind of money, and accessing credit can be very difficult for the chronically unbanked settlement population. This was a significant challenge to Sanergy’s model until it partnered with Kiva in September 2012. Since then, dozens of FLOs have received loans to purchase toilets.

The toilet was designed to have a very small footprint—just three feet by five feet—so it fits on an individual’s plot of land. After manufacturing pre-fabricated components at its headquarters, Sanergy engineers install a toilet on the FLO’s land, and it is immediately ready for use.

Currently, there are 365 Fresh Life Toilets in Mukuru Kwa Ruben and other settlements, owned by 190 FLOs. The toilets provide hygienic sanitation to about 15,000 residents each day, and 2,050 tons of waste has been collected in the past two years.

Simon Stumpf, a Regional Representative for Ashoka East Africa, which elected co-founder David Auerbach as an Ashoka Fellow in 2013, told me in an email interview that Sanergy’s model

“may not sound that innovative at first, but this is the key Sanergy insight. It has to be all three: Affordable. Accessible. AND hygienic… they are proving that ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough anymore.”

Other solutions manage to hit one or two of these needs, but Sanergy is unique in its ability to achieve all three at once. One popular alternative model is a “sanitation block”: a large structure that houses multiple toilets and often includes hot showers. Some sanitation blocks, like the “bio-centers” constructed by Umande Trust, even generate biogas from the waste. But these blocks are large by definition and by necessity, so finding space for them in cramped, congested informal settlements is an issue, as sanitation block-builder Maji na Ufanisi (Water and Development) has found. The blocks are also quite expensive at $30,000 each.

Most importantly, access is still a problem for those that live far from a block. If you don’t solve the access problem, you don’t solve the sanitation problem. The small footprint of Sanergy’s toilet allows for it to be placed just about anywhere, which allows for more efficient allocation of toilet supply.

Typical pit latrines are often inaccessible and unclean. Pit latrine operators simply don’t have the inherent incentive to keep them clean; sanitation is an added expense, and owners have a captive market. As a mission-oriented organization, Sanergy cares about offering hygiene and a clean environment for customers. When FLOs purchase a toilet, they agree to keep it well-stocked with sanitary products like toilet paper and soap. If they don’t, a Sanergy employee will work with them to fix the problem.

Typical pit latrines in Mukuru Kwa Ruben

Typical pit latrines in Mukuru Kwa Ruben

Alex Wekesa, a 26-year old employee of Sanergy, also owns two Fresh Life Toilets near his home in Mukuru Kwa Ruben (it’s not uncommon for Sanergy employees to also be FLOs). Before working at Sanergy, Alex did what many residents of informal settlements do: he strung together an array of side jobs—barber, driver, launderer—to make ends meet. Unlike many of his neighbors, though, he completed university, which allowed him to get a more stable job. He used his savings to become a FLO.

As we were walking through the congested, uneven, dirt streets, narrowly dodging the schoolchildren running around after school, I asked Alex why he decided to become a FLO. “The sanitation in my area is very bad,” he said simply. “And the pay helps me to pay for my brother’s schooling.” In return, his brother is his employee, operating the toilets while he is away.

A long, narrow alleyway lined with corrugated aluminum homes led to Alex’s two immaculately clean toilets. He charges four shillings per adult use (about $.05) and two shillings per child use (market rates in the area), but was quick to point out, “if someone doesn’t have the cash, I let them use the toilet and they can pay back later.”

Alex‘s location is perfect for the toilets—a main thoroughfare with lots of foot traffic—so he didn’t have an issue attracting customers. He had so many, actually, that it made sense to purchase another Fresh Life Toilet, and now about 100 customers visit his toilets each day.

Alex pays an annual leasing fee, and must commit to keeping the toilets clean and well-stocked with soap and other sanitation products, but otherwise is free to run his business as he sees fit.

Other FLOs have had more trouble than Alex. Some simply haven’t had enough demand, and others have managed their toilet or their money poorly, and have defaulted on their Kiva loans. To prevent defaults and failures, Sanergy carries out extensive market research ahead of entering a new neighborhood, and the model itself works against failure: because the FLOs are in business for themselves, they are incented to do well.

After collecting the waste, Sanergy’s logistics team brings it to a central processing facility in Mukuru Kwa Ruben, where it is weighed and placed in large bins. It is monitored, tested, and treated, and becomes fertilizer after about eight months. The most pressing question is whether Sanergy’s fertilizer, which is up to the safety standards of the Kenya Bureau of Standards and the World Health Organization, will be competitive on the Kenyan marketplace.

Waste slowly turning into fertilizer at Sanergy's production facilities in Mukuru Kwa Ruben

Waste slowly turning into fertilizer at Sanergy’s production facilities in Mukuru Kwa Ruben


Many external individuals and organizations are optimistic about its chances. Sanergy has racked up accolades, awards, and investment for its model; it was even the first recipient of the WASH for Life Award, a $100,000 grant given byUSAID’s Development Innovation Ventures in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. These grants and private investments have allowed Sanergy to build up its network of toilets and to experiment with its fertilizer production, but for it to be financially sustainable it will need to sell a quality product. Initial testing of the fertilizer was positive; the Sanergy plot yielded 30% more sorghum than a non-fertilized plot. While Sanergy’s fertilizer has not yet been tested against other fertilizers, the organization believes that it will be competitive with organic fertilizer on the Kenyan market.

There’s a deep potential market for fertilizer in Kenya. On average, the country’s farmers use only 35 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare of arable land—higher than the region’s average, but a fraction of what is used in other developing countries. It is highly likely that using fertilizer would increase yields and incomes, and while under-use stems from disparate causes, behavioral economists have found strategies that significantly increased its use.

In order to guarantee consistent supply for its customers, Sanergy needs to grow its network of toilets and its capacity “by three or four times,” Auerbach said recently. But scaling presents new challenges. Most visibly, it needs somewhere to put all of the waste. The current fertilizer production process is “hugely space-intensive… as we grow, it’s becoming completely not feasible” Stradley told me.

A recently-purchased machine can cut the treatment period from eight months to one week, which should reduce the amount of space needed and help the organization ensure a consistent supply of fertilizer for its customers.

As the density of toilets increases in Mukuru Kwa Ruben and the other nearby settlements, it will also need to expand, which will, at a minimum, force the logistics team to go longer distances to collect the waste, and could require additional processing facilities. This isn’t an immediate concern—there is a lot of room to grow in its current locations—but it will be a challenge in the future.

This year, it will begin to sell its fertilizer to farmers, and aims to have 1,000 toilets in use by the end of 2015.

Wednesday Links

Saturday Links

Five Things I Learned (the Hard Way) From Running My First Marathon in Nairobi

Yes, it says "Full Marathon Women"

Yes, it does say “Full Marathon Women”

Sunday morning in Nairobi (Kenya’s capital) was cloudy and temperate – the perfect climate for marathoners and half-marathoners racing through its Central Business District, up Machine Hill, and (for the marathoners) looping around Mombasa Road before finishing at Nyayo Stadium. The organizer – Standard Chartered Bank – did an excellent job of ensuring that the race was clearly-marked and safe.

I ran, and finished, the race. It was my first marathon, and though I did it in a semi-respectable time (sub four hours, but at least 30 minutes of that was spent walking in pain), I was pretty disappointed by the result. I wanted – and expected – to do better.

Fortunately, I learned a few things from the experience, and I think they’ll help me better prepare for the next marathon. Maybe they’ll help you, too:

1.     If you don’t train well, you won’t run well

This is trivially obvious to most people. But prior to running, I didn’t respect how vital proper training is for a marathon – or at least, for running a marathon in a time you’re happy with.

Due to a combination of near-constant travel for work, a few minor-but-annoying bouts of food poisoning and stomach flu, and pure obstinance, I didn’t put much effort into training; my only long runs were 12, 13, and 20 miles (with the 20 two weeks before the race), and I never trained at altitude (Nairobi is 5,450 feet above sea level – higher than Denver). In the two months preceding the marathon, I only ran something like 150 miles.

The end result? I wasn’t prepared – physically or mentally – for the race.

So, my knee (wonky earlier this year) started to act up right around the time I hit “The Wall” (a runner’s term for using up the glycogen stored in the liver and muscles), and my legs just weren’t prepared for the strain. The minute I stopped to massage my knee (see #5), every muscle seemed to ossify, and re-starting jogging was an exercise in futility for far too long.

Mentally, I expected the marathon to be similar to a long half marathon, but it wasn’t. I assumed that my inborn stubbornness would be enough, but it wasn’t.

So the lesson is obvious: finishing a marathon at a desired pace requires consistent, effective training, and mentally it helps to have hit the wall in the past.

2.     Have a specific goal

Duh. But because most of my (limited) training consisted of running on pock-mocked dirt roads (many of which were more pothole than road) without an app to track distance, I didn’t really know what I was capable of, so I didn’t bother setting a hard goal; I figured I would just run at what felt like my normal pace.

I should have set a goal. When I hit the wall around miles 20-22, something specific would have helped me to push harder and break through it (mentally, anyway) and probably would have caused me to put my knee issues to the side until the race was over.

 3.     Pacing is the hardest easy thing to do

When the starting gun blasts, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment – the crowds of fellow runners, the cheering onlookers, the competition – and run way too fast at the start. You can do this for a while without noticing (adrenaline is fantastic), but like going one too many nights without enough sleep, eventually you’ll reap the consequences.

Halfway through the marathon, I was running at a Boston-qualifying pace – about as fast as I’ve ran half-marathons in the past – and it felt great. At about mile 19, I felt it catch up with me, and the rest of the race was a slog.

So: pace yourself. If you’re running an American or European marathon, you can probably run with a pace group, which presumably makes it easier.

4.     Don’t get sick the week before the race

Obvious, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it. Eat right, get enough sleep, and try to stave off any bug you may pick up.

Oh, and stay off of 12-hour buses next to a clearly-ill man with hygiene issues. This may save you from being mostly unable to eat solid food for three days.

(Pro tip: carbo-loading is a lot easier when you can eat food.)

5.     Don’t Stop Running

Unless you feel seriously injured, “walking off” a wonky knee is not going to help and will only make things worse. Walk it off at the finish line, not at mile 22.


Life of a Salesman: Youth Sell Quality Products in Nairobi’s Slums

(Via ThinkAfricaPress)

Alex Govinda, a star employee of Livelyhoods, with a customer in Kawangware

Alex Govinda, a star employee of Livelyhoods, with a customer in Kawangware

Nairobi, Kenya

Alex Govinda, a short, spry 24-year old Kenyan dressed smartly in jeans and a blue zip-up, puts a clear glass plate face-down on the dirt road and, in his best imitation of the late sales icon Billy Mays, stands on top of it. I cringe, expecting the plate to shatter.

The only thing that cracks is a wide smile on Alex’s face as he yells, “I’m 70 kilos!”

His potential customer, an older woman selling beans and catching up with neighbors, is visibly impressed. She agrees to buy a set of five when she has the money.

It’s a gray, dreary Friday morning in Kawangware, one of Nairobi’s slums located a few miles southwest of the bustling city center. I’m shadowing Alex through a sprawling, congested vegetable market as he proudly makes his sales rounds, smile painted on his face as he greets people and sells his wares. Today, that include glass plates, solar lamps, and fuel-efficient cookstoves.

A few years ago, Alex would slink through the same market in dirty rags masquerading as clothes, getting mistrustful glares and wary glances instead of convivial sasas and habari yakos (Swahili for “Hey” and “How are you?”).

“I was in the street. I was collecting scraps and selling them. We were snatching peoples’ phones for us to survive,” he told me. “As we went to collect scraps, we collected peoples’ shoes… Sometimes you found that you were being beaten by mob justice, and many friends of mine died.”

Now, he rents a house and is an expert salesperson, recruiter, and trainer for Livelyhoods, a NGO founded in 2011 by two young American women, Maria Springer and Tania Laden. The organization, which is better known in Kenya as iSmart, hires and trains youth sales agents, then loans them goods to sell to community members.

The young organization is doing a remarkable job of simultaneously providing opportunities to the booming population of unskilled, uneducated youths in Nairobi, and solving the “Last Mile Problem” of distributing high-quality, affordable products to hard-to-reach populations.

“I Was Trying to Run From That Cocoon”       

Springer initially started a microloan program for youth. It failed.

“We realized that young people didn’t want to take microloans,” Springer told me when we sat down at a bustling restaurant above the iSmart store in Kawangware. “So, we started looking at other ways to create employment opportunities for young people that were low risk.”

That’s how she met Alex. As he put it, he was “the street kid all of the other street kids listened to,” so when Springer got to know him, she recognized his potential and helped him find a stable home.

“I was trying to run from that cocoon we were living in in the street.” Alex told me.  “I was able to rent my house and buy my dress, and I started living like other people. And from there I got the training for business.”

With Alex as her guide and assistant, Springer did what many well-meaning people and organizations forget to do: she asked groups of young people what they needed help with.

“We didn’t start with an idea, we started with a conversation,” Springer said. “Alex, do you remember, you guys interviewed hundreds of youths in the slums, asking ‘what are you good at, what do you do? And what came out of that is everyone was selling something to survive.”

Springer also recalled her time at the Unreasonable Institute, where she was “surrounded by a lot of social entrepreneurs that were developing these incredible technologies and goods.”

But having incredible technologies available and ensuring they get to the intended consumer are separate matters entirely. “It became clear that… the real problem was in distribution,” she said. “And so I thought, you know, what if we could actually create employment by solving one of the biggest problems of our time, which is creating access to high quality products and services?”

Livelyhoods chose to use micro-consignment, a lesser-known younger cousin of microcredit. After extensive sales and business skills training provided by the organization, sales agents are ready to sell. As Springer put it, “we’re teaching people how to fish the fish and we’re selling fishing rods at the same time.”

Micro-consignment at Livelyhoods works like this: each morning, sales agents decide what to borrow from 15 base products – things like solar lamps, fuel-efficient cookstoves, and reusable sanitary pads. Then, they stream out of the iSmart store and into their communities, keeping 15-20% of whatever they sell as commission.

Micro-consignment is a recent addition to the microfinance space, having been developed in the early 2000s by Greg Van Kirk, a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Guatemala.

Brett Smith, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship and Director of the Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Miami University, has studied the model extensively.

“I would look at micro-consignment as the first rung on the ladder, of sorts, for micro-entrepreneurs,” he told me in an interview. “You’re not really risking anything in many of the micro-consignment arrangements, besides time – and that is often something that people are able to risk.”

If Alex has a terrible sales day, he just returns the unsold goods to the storage room at the end of the day. In contrast, the downside risk of microcredit is acute for many borrowers: fail to succeed, and you may have to borrow more to pay off the initial loan.

“Micro-consignment says, ‘just try it!’ Just come out and in time we’ll help you train, we’ll help you figure out how to sort of do this,” adds Professor Smith. “That’s one of the real benefits of micro-consignment.”

The model seems to be working for Livelyhoods’ sales agents. More than two years after the organization’s official launch, 197 youths have been trained, selling a total of about $100,000 worth of goods.

A pop-up store outside the Livelyhoods office, in Kawangware

A pop-up store outside the Livelyhoods office, in Kawangware

In June alone, 18 sales people sold over 325,000 Kenyan shillings worth of goods (about $3,720), and earned, on average, income of 7,200 shillings ($82) –10% of which is automatically put in an individual savings account. Seven more sales agents were trained in July, and a second store is about to launch in Kangemi, just north of Kawangware.

Equipped with the skills and savings that Livelyhoods helped bring to Kawangware, “graduates” of the program have started up hotels and entertainment centers where kids can hang out and play videogames. Others hope to eventually use the skills they learned at iSmart to join larger companies in Kenya, like Safaricom and Coca Cola.

Employing the Unemployable

The large market is bustling, packed with vendors selling impeccably-stacked piles of tomatoes, carrots, and peas. Customers mill about, taking time to purchase the day’s food and chat with friends and neighbors. Dirt roads take us past electronic stores, sewing shops, and chapatti vendors.

I’m playing assistant for Alex, holding up items he’s discussing while attempting to keep up with his quick pace, walking from one potential customer to the next through tight alleys and pocked streets.

Alex is an intuitive, well-trained salesman. One group of elderly women looks confused as he’s discussing the Firefly solar lamp, so he hands me the solar panel as he demonstrates how it works.

In a pitch-perfect sales flourish, he asks one of the women for her mobile phone and connects it to the lamp. After waiting a few minutes – to build up suspense – he shows the women that the phone is charging. Their eyes light up as they imagine using the lamp in their daily lives.

In addition to possessing a unique ability to sell, Alex is also set apart from his peers by having a full-time job.

Unemployment is an issue that negatively affects all of Kenya, but young people are hit the hardest. Using the most recent data (from 2006, unfortunately), a recent report from the United Nations Development Programme estimated that “80 percent of Kenya’s 2.3 million unemployed are young people between 15 and 34.” The highest unemployment rates were found among poor, uneducated, urban youths.

Livelyhoods targets youths living in slums for this reason. “We don’t care if you’ve gone to university,” Alex said. “We need you the way you are, because we’re going to train you on that. Yeah, we are proud about that.”

This is one of the reasons that the organization is supported by the Segal Family Foundation, an organization that supports grassroots solutions affecting reproductive health, food security, and youth in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Livelyhoods is an organization that invests in the power of young people to bring forth positive change,” Ash Rogers, the foundation’s Director of Operations, told me in an email interview. “[It’s] creating a model which harnesses that potential to build profits for the youth sales agents.”

Bringing High-Quality Supply to Where It’s Demanded

In Kawangware, it’s easy to find a cheap, simple cooking stove: roadside kiosks and hawkers sell them at nearly every block. They’re small clay stoves prone to cracking, but work well enough, and you’ll find one in almost every home.

Still, out of everything Alex was selling, customers were mostinterested in the Envirofit fuel-efficient cookstove he carried around; I took it out of the box nearly every time Alex stopped to make a pitch.

It’s the Viking Range of cookstoves. The sleek black finish just looks “smart,” as the Kenyans say – a vestige of their days as a British colony. The stove is something a family could show off in their home, Alex tells me.

Alex stove

It’s also more expensive than the average stove: 2,400 shillings, compared to 320 for a roadside stove ($27.50 and $3.65, respectively).

But, just like everywhere else, people in Kawangware are willing to pay more for nice things that will last, and when Alex explained that it would quickly pay for itself in reduced fuel costs and that it came with a warranty to boot, they were sold.

Customers probably wouldn’t know about this high-quality stove without Livelyhoods’s sales agents. Quality products are tough to find in urban slums.

Go to any bus station, market, or traffic jam in east Africa, and you’ll see dozens of hawkers, carrying their body weights in a seemingly-random assortment of products: gum, portable lights, earrings, bags, shoes – whatever may sell that day.

But quality isn’t typically among the wares they sell: the products are either second-hand or cheap, and buyers don’t expect them to last long. Quality items are expensive, and few hawkers can afford to tie up their meager income in inventory.

A store could keep quality items, but demand doesn’t always make it all of the way to the store; transportation is time-consuming and expensive, making shopping excursions a luxury for many living in slums.

Livelyhoods sales agents bring the supply of high-quality goods to where they’re demanded: at markets and in homes. A personal touch is critical when selling expensive goods, so sales agents get to know the community members extremely well. At one home, Alex spent an hour helping a woman with a problem she was having with her malfunctioning solar panel batteries, which he didn’t sell to her. While he kept saying “time is money!” as he tinkered with the wires, he didn’t leave until he fixed her problem.


Alex uses a M-PESA kiosk to immediately deposit a sale in the Livelyhoods account











“Let’s Say No, No, and Make Change”

“iSmart is like a stepping stone,” Alex tells me. “There are others who are now earning more than me. And I’m very happy, because I gave them that knowledge. I recruited them. I trained them.”

The sales day is over, and we’re having a late lunch at a small restaurant in Kawangware before I have to leave – as in many of Nairobi’s slums, foreigners almost always leave Kawangware before sunset.

Over ugali, chapatti, and beans, I ask Alex what he wants to do in the future. He says he’s thinking about school, but, really, he wants to make music. “I love music. I rap. I write music. I wrote when living in the streets.”

He jumps right into personal take on living in the streets that begins and ends with this repeating chorus:

Let us see this kind of life we are living.

Let’s say no, no, and make change

Saturday Links

  • Wow. Some of Mukuru’s women are petitioning the government of Kenya for ownership of the land, and they already have 8,000 signatures. Mukuru is one of the slums/informal settlements I visited to report on No Means No Worldwide
  • Does toxoplasm gondii really cause “cat-lady” syndrome, or is that just a myth? Carl Zimmer on the debate
  • The Affordable Care Act’s Healthcare.gov site – the federal exchange where users are supposed to be able to purchase health insurance – is glitchy. Why? “The site basically DDOS’d itself” according to this article – like an auto-immune disease, it attacked itself due to poor programming
  • A fecal transplant in a pill is a big deal, and if this research holds up, it’ll be extremely useful for patients with C.Diff (more on fecal transplants here and here)

Westgate Mall Massacre Round-Up: The Latest News and Analysis

The attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, by al Shabaab terrorists, appears to be almost over. I’ll keep updating this as I find smart analysis and up-to-date reports:


  • “The Kenyan government continues to insist that five attackers were killed by its security forces, but has admitted that none of their bodies has been conclusively identified so far” – from the most comprehensive report I’ve seen so far


  • “We believe issuing the travel advisory is counter-productive in the fight against global terrorism,” Ole Lenku said.”We request the United States, as a friend of Kenya, to lift the travel advisory” – Reuters on the Kenyan government’s reaction to America updating its travel advisory
  • Jeffrey Gettleman, the New York Times’ East Africa Bureau Chief, with a personal reflection and analysis of the attack that’s worth reading


  • “The masked gunmen who stormed Nairobi’s Westgate Mall on Saturday did one thing right. In targeting a site at the epicenter of elite consumerism in the upscale neighborhood of Westlands, they galvanized worldwide attention.” – a post from Africa is a Country that tries to understand why the world cares about the Westgates but not all of the other terrible things that happen


  • “A gaping hole in the mall’s roof was caused by Kenyan soldiers who fired rocket-propelled grenades inside, knocking out a support column, a government official said” – an Associated Press report on the clean-up and investigation
  • “A day or two before the attack, powerful belt-fed machine guns were secretly stashed in a shop in the mall with the help of a colluding employee, officials say” – a New York Times report on the planning and preparation members of al Shabaab are thought to have done
  • “In areas that the militia controlled, Godane imposed strict Islamic sharia law enforced by public executions, amputations and stonings. The measures were so harsh, Hansen said, that even Osama bin Laden criticized him for going too far in implementing sharia and for killing other Muslims.” – a profile of Mukhtar Abu Zubeyr, (or Godane, as he’s known), the currently leader of al Shabaab
  • “Asked if al-Shabab had intended to kill foreigners, the group said “our target was to attack the Kenyan govt on it’s soil and any part of the Kenyan territory is a legitimate target … and Kenya should be held responsible for the loss of life, whether foreigners or local”” – Associated Press report


  • “Far from spreading fear that al Shabaab is on the ascendency, the Westgate attack should be seen as a last-ditch attempt by an ailing group to bolster its own internal networks…” – interesting take by a security analyst on al-Shabaab’s attack
  • “The terrorists are divided and losing ground. But they seem determined to go down fighting.” – another interesting take, focusing more on the political economy of al-Shabab and its internal power struggle that left the more extreme element ascendant
  • “On Saturday, as the full nature of the Westgate raid became clear, al-Shabab on Twitter claimed this was the first of many attacks to come. If it quickly executes other attacks in Kenya, this would suggest a profound resurgence. If it fails to generate another attack over the next six months, the Westgate attack may represent a last desperate attempt to generate popular support, resources, and personnel.” – Foreign Policy analysis on the attack and what it does and doesn’t show about al Shabaab’s current state (short version: not sure)
  • A very good backgrounder on the rise of Salafi Islam in Kenya and Somalia, from the perspective of Kenyan al Shabaab deserters, in Foreign Affairs earlier this year
  • “Then a huge explosion really swept us off our feet – it was like a big gust of wind…” – an 18-year old South Africa at Westgate during the attack talks about his experience

Thursday Links

  • Franchising latrines in Nairobi, by Sanergy. Seems like a neat idea and hopefully it works out. Latrines have the same types of problems as water pumps and chlorine dispensers, namely: if no one is accountable for their upkeep, they fail – either by overflowing (latrines) or underflowing (water/chlorine). Creating a business model to incentivize their upkeep is one way to hold someone accountable
  • Jenny Gold at at Kaiser Health News on everything you ever wanted to know about Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). Excellent roundup – if you want to read more on ACOs and how they fit into the new health care system, try here, here, and here (fair warning: all links to past posts by me)
  • An excellent critique on prizes as a means to generate innovation, though I think the author tosses out the baby out with the bath water. Why not have an innovation prize for the best distribution ? If a given solution exists but is constrained by the Last Mile Problem, say, run a contest to see if someone can crack it, making the prize large enough to scale (this is what the D-Prize did, for example)
  • Why doesn’t medical care get better when residents rest more? Lisa Rosenbaum provides a convincing case that the recent resident hour restrictions are onerous and unhelpful. She maligns hand-offs as difficult and harmful for the patient (if, say, one resident forgets to tell the next something important about a patient) – fairly – but neglects the larger point: however often residents and nurses do hand-off, they still do hand-off.  There needs to be focus and innovation on how to do it better

Kenya’s Women Fight Back (My Article At Newsweek/The Daily Beast)

(Via Newsweek/The Daily Beast)


“Today, I’m your guide and your security guard!” Mercy Anyong’a cheerfully tells me as we walk through the narrow alleyways and muddy paths of Mukuru Kwa Njenga, one of Nairobi’s largest and most dangerous slums.

Caroline Gitau, a young, vivacious Kenyan woman perpetually in motion, tells me that I should give my camera to Mercy: “She knows the slums well.”

“More than a white American?” I joke meekly while handing it over.

“It is always risky, but we risk it because we have to reach these girls,” Mercy adds.

Mercy and Caroline are two very young, infectiously passionate members of No Means No Worldwide, an NGO that is reducing rape in the slums of Nairobi. Caroline is the program manager and Mercy is a trainer of trainers for the organization, which has taught thousands of teenage girls and elderly shooshoos (“grandmothers” in Kikuyu) a specially designed self-defense program called IMpower.

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