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In the Water Works: Bringing Clean Water to Kenya’s Largest Slum

June 22, 2016
by Glen Martin
Kids drinking clean water from a drinking fountain

Nairobi is a tough town, and there’s no place in Nairobi that’s tougher than Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. Maybe a half-million people live there, maybe a million. No one’s really counting. But virtually everyone is desperately poor, with per capita earnings averaging about a dollar a day. Rape, assault, and murder are simple facts of daily life. The streets are paved with rotting garbage, sewage flows in the gutters, disease is rampant, and city services are largely nonexistent. But Kibera does have one thing that isn’t hellish and misery-inducing: a water production and treatment facility that conjoins the latest information and sensor technology with sophisticated green construction techniques; a facility that transcends its humble environs and points to the urban infrastructure of the future.

The water plant is the cornerstone of the Kibera Town Center, now supplying between 5,000 and 10,000 residents with water, laundry, and restroom facilities, plus banking and educational services. There’s also a café that serves some of the best samosas in Nairobi.

Flooding in a small town in Kenya

In Africa, projects of such ambitious scope are seldom completed successfully. And if one is built, it is usually through consortiums of connected politicians, foreign contractors, and maybe an NGO or two or three or four. A lot of money gets thrown around. Some of it sticks to the project, the rest goes into various pockets.

But the Kibera Town Center didn’t happen that way. It was built through the auspices of a Danish movie star, a legendary Silicon Valley pioneer, a prominent Marin developer, one of the world’s great distance runners, and a bunch of hardworking Kiberans. For one of the partners, John Gage, it started at the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos. Gage, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems and now an advisor for the Goldman School of Public Policy, was chatting with another UC Berkeley alum, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google (now Alphabet).

“Suddenly this petite African woman is coming toward us,” recalls Gage. “She’s dressed in this big fur coat, and Eric gets this look of rapture on his face, and he asks ‘Are you Tegla Loroupe?’”

Turns out she was indeed Tegla Loroupe, a legendary distance runner. A Kenyan, Loroupe has held the women’s marathon record twice, was the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon, and currently holds world records for the 20-, 25-, and 30-kilometer races.

And Schmidt, a running enthusiast, was an absolute and unabashed Loroupe fanboy. He invited her to a Google-hosted party, says Gage, “and every slim Silicon Valley running greyhound who was at Davos was coming up to her, asking for her autograph.”

A group of volunteers helping locals break ground

The World Economic Forum, of course, is an invitation-only event that annually convenes a couple of thousand of the world’s movers and shakers to hash out solutions for the planet’s most pressing problems. And despite Loroupe’s star power as a world-class athlete, her invitation to Davos wasn’t because she can run really fast for long distances. As a member of the Pokot, a Kenyan pastoralist tribe long involved in blood vendettas with other tribes over grazing and water rights and cattle rustling, Loroupe was committed to advancing peace and social equity in Africa. She had enjoyed some success in this mission, including fostering “peace marathons” among Kenya’s numerous pastoralist tribes.

“It was really a remarkable achievement,” Gage says. “These tribes—the Pokot, Turkana, Samburu, Kalenjin, many others—have been fighting each other for centuries, probably longer. But because she was who she was, because of her accomplishments and personal charisma, she was able to get them to put down their AKs and race together.”

So Loroupe came to Davos with an agenda. She had goals, and they required support from people who have the wherewithal to make big things happen. Gage was not only capable of providing some of that support; he was amenable.

Gage is one of those rare people who has made his mark in three separate realms: technology, commerce, and the counterculture. As a Cal undergraduate in the Sixties, he founded the first Community Projects Office for the Associated Students of the University of California, an initiative that ultimately enrolled thousands of student volunteers in East Bay school and community projects. He vigorously opposed the Vietnam War and served as a delegate for Robert Kennedy in the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where the streets were packed with clashing cops and protestors, and blood ran in the gutters. He attended the Business School and John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, decamping to work on George McGovern’s presidential campaign. Later, he returned to Cal, where he worked on a Ph.D. in mathematical economics, leaving in 1982 to cofound Sun Microsystems.

At Sun, as chief researcher and vice president of the science office, Gage helped forge IT history, becoming (not surprisingly) wealthy in the process. And yet, he never really abandoned the progressive ethos. He was a cofounder of NetDay, a 1995 effort to establish the Internet in every school on the planet. And when he left Sun in 2008, it was to join (for a time) the august venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, where he concentrated on funding technologies designed to combat climate change.

“Corruption at all levels is a perennial problem, and to make any progress you need to be pragmatic and patient, and make strategic alliances.”

But back to Davos: Gage’s philanthropy and activism were stimulated by meeting Loroupe. Further, like many people, he was enthralled by Africa, by its geographic dimensions and the diversity of its people, by its landscapes and wildlife. While at Sun during the 1990s, he had traveled often to Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and Sudan to help get those nations’ nascent mobile phone nets up and humming.

“All of those switching systems needed computers, and everyone chose Sun,” says Gage. “We were reliable, and compared to IBM we were cheap, and cost is a huge issue in Africa. And I really enjoyed those trips, both in terms of the challenges and the continent itself. I was always ready to go back.”

So he didn’t need much persuasion to visit Kapenguria, Loroupe’s hometown in western Kenya near the Ugandan border. It’s here that Loroupe built solidarity among traditionally warring tribes by hosting her peace marathons, long-distance races through the sere Kenyan countryside. Loroupe also has built a peace academy in Kapenguria that educates and feeds local kids. Gage was deeply impressed with Loroupe’s vision, and contributed both technical and fund-raising expertise to her efforts. But by 2007, it became clear to both Gage and Loroupe that something was amiss at the academy, and a high-level employee was suspected of malfeasance.

“It really set us back on our heels,” says Gage, “and it all ended up in the courts in Nairobi. For me, it was a three-year lesson on just how things get done—and not done—in Kenya. Corruption at all levels is a perennial problem, and to make any progress you need to be pragmatic and patient, and make strategic alliances.”

Back in Berkeley, Gage fell into just such an alliance. He ran into David Warner, another Cal alum, who was serving on the College of Natural Resources’s advisory board and was CEO of Redhorse Constructors, a high-end building firm based in San Rafael. Warner was good friends with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich and his then-wife, actress Connie Nielsen. Warner, in fact, had built a house for Nielsen.

“In 2010, Connie made a film called Lost in Africa that was mostly shot in Kibera,” says Gage. “In the course of the project, she really got involved with the people there. A lot of them were hired for the movie, and when production was wrapping, she didn’t want to just walk away. She wanted to do something that would improve their lives for the long term.”

But what? Kibera’s misery index matches its sprawling dimensions. Nielsen’s fixer and translator during the Lost in Africa shoot, a guy named William Ogutu, filled her in on the settlement’s most pressing need.

“He told her that movie shoots were fine, job programs were nice; but what people had to have, and what people didn’t have, was water,” says Gage. “Before Kibera could advance in any other way, it needed a clean, reliable water source.”

Unlike nearby wealthier districts, Kibera had no water delivery system. The available water was low quality, trucked in and sold for eight times the price of water delivered to plumbed neighborhoods. There was no sewage system, and few privies of any sort. The lack of water, in short, made life in Kibera almost unbearable. So Nielsen promised Ogutu that she would sink a well, a good well, in Kibera.

A child carry clean drinking water

But she soon realized that a simple borehole with a hand pump on top wasn’t going to cut it. Kibera needed a central facility where water could be pumped, purified, and stored for easy pickup; where residents could wash clothes and take showers, and relieve themselves in sanitary facilities; where the sewage from the privies would be properly treated instead of running through the gutters. And Kibera could certainly use a business center with WiFi, job training and microcredit services, and a marketplace.

So when Nielsen returned to California, she tapped Warner to help her out. Together, the two formed the Human Needs Project in 2010. First mission: Build a water plant in Kibera.

Shortly after Gage had met Warner, he introduced the developer to Loroupe, and Warner quickly realized Loroupe’s charisma and fame would make her a tremendous asset to the project; he asked her to join the Human Needs board of directors. Gage initially was somewhat dubious of the idea. “Tegla is a Pokot, a member of a pastoralist tribe,” Gage says. “They’re confirmed country people. To them, Nairobi is a hellhole.”

Further, observes Gage, Kibera is mainly a Luo stronghold. The Luo are largely urban, and those who live outside the cities are farmers, not herders. So by Kenyan lights, there could be tension if a prominent Pokot became involved in a Luo project. But the pressure to break the tension through initiatives such as the peace runs, is building. Loroupe was invited by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to participate in the International Year of Sport in 2006, and she worked ceaselessly as a liaison between warring tribes.

So Kibera’s leaders understood that Loroupe could bring influence and financial backing to bear on the water initiative, and they urged her participation. She came on board, as did Gage, who helped with fiber-optic connectivity, sensors, and general IT issues. Gage and Warner then enlisted colleagues at the Marin-based water systems firm Xio, whose chairman Paul Sagues is another Berkeley alum. Xio provided cloud-enabled data control and acquisition components so that the water plant can be monitored and ultimately controlled by smartphone. Nielsen corralled numerous other technical and financial wizards to serve as advisors for the project, including Professor Dan Kammen, director of Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. Loroupe and other community leaders provided the necessary political interface with Nairobi’s various power structures.

Although, Kenya being Kenya, there were still snafus.

After much technical brainstorming, fund-raising, flesh-pressing, and yes, a bit of arm twisting, the plans for a central facility were finalized. Construction began at the end of 2010. Four years later, the Human Needs Project Town Center was completed.

“Basically, we built a 21st century facility with 19th century means,” says Gage. “We had no power tools, so we had to build it mostly with hand labor provided by the 400 workers we hired from Kibera. It’s a fully integrated, highly instrumented system that pumps water, purifies it, and treats all graywater and sewage.” Power is provided by solar panels with a diesel generator for backup, and is thus largely independent from Nairobi’s highly unreliable grid. The center serves a thousand people a day, is capable of providing 5 percent of Kibera’s total water needs, and includes a business center and café. Moreover, says Gage, the basic plan is scalable. It can be replicated anywhere, at any required capacity.

The plant can also be monitored remotely. Gage demonstrates by picking up his cell phone and activating a link. A real-time display of the center’s water system comes up on the screen: From the borehole through the various filters and tanks, it’s all rendered in a clean graphic representation. Similar links show the sewage-treatment and power systems. A red bar on one of the water system’s tanks indicates a problem, and Gage scrutinizes it with some concern.

“That’s the tank for the fully treated, clean water,” he says. “It’s down to 70 centimeters. Maybe there was a spike in demand. In any event, we’ll make a call, find out what’s going on, and get it addressed. Ultimately, we’ll be able to do much of the physical management of the plant with smartphones from anywhere in the world.”

But to even install such basics, you need a lot of money. And it can’t all come from good-hearted wealthy donors. There aren’t enough of them around to fund Kibera-style town centers in all the planet’s slums.

The team is installing a similar water system at Loroupe’s peace academy in Kapenguria, and Gage and Warner see more facilities in Kibera’s future. Certainly, the water exists to support them. The team hit abundant groundwater at 1,000 feet when it drilled the borehole for the existing town center, so now all that’s needed for satellite facilities is the lubricant that’s universal for any ambitious human endeavor: money.

“What we really want to do is provide places like Kibera with the means for both economic advancement and social enrichment,” says Warner, “but you can’t do that without the basics: water, reliable power, fiber optic connectivity, Internet access. After that you can have both child and adult education and training, banking and lending services, job centers, marketplaces.”

But to even install such basics, Warner continues, you need a lot of money. And it can’t all come from good-hearted wealthy donors. There aren’t enough of them around to fund Kibera-style town centers in all the planet’s slums. So somehow, such projects have to pay their way, or at least a significant part of it. And that’s happening at Kibera, Warner says.

“The Human Needs Project is a nonprofit, but we don’t give the water away,” says Warner. “We sell it. It’s at a price people can afford, a price far below that charged by the water vendors who truck it in. But it’s important that we sell it, both for the revenue and because that integrates the center into the local economy. By buying water instead of getting it for free, people have skin in the game.”

The Human Needs Project also has multiple corporate sponsors, and their participation isn’t strictly a matter of PR-motivated philanthropy, says Warner.

“Billions of people live at the bottom of the world’s economic pyramid,” says Warner. “Individually they’re poor, but collectively, they’re a very attractive market. But corporations haven’t figured out how to reach them, how to develop products specifically for them and how to sell to them. We’re providing an entryway at Kibera.”

The Kibera center is unique in that it embeds bleeding-edge “Internet of things” capabilities with century-old industrial processes, local materials, and unskilled labor. The new tech, of course, is the key to the project’s success. If all the systems now handled by sensors and data control and acquisition systems had to be directly managed by human beings in an environment as challenging as Kibera, extended breakdowns would be inevitable.

“In some ways, it’s much easier to build a system like this—or get any technologically advanced project completed—in Kibera than it is in New York or Berkeley,” says Gage. “Here we’re hobbled by both the regulatory environment and the existence of older infrastructure that was highly advanced when it was installed two, three decades ago or more, but is now difficult to upgrade. That’s why we have so much copper wire instead of fiber optic cable in Berkeley. In Kibera, there is basically no infrastructure. So we just dug trenches and put in fiber optic cable. We did it in three days. In New York, it would take months or years to get the permits and remove the old cables and install the new ones. And it would cost you $1 million to $2 million for every kilometer of cable installed. In Kibera, we did it for $2,000 to $3,000 per kilometer.”

Multiple families trying to collect clean drinking water

Which kind of points to a disquieting conundrum for the United States: Despite being the world’s putative technological leader, America seems strangely primitive when it comes to infrastructure. As Gage noted, our cities are sputtering along on miles and miles of copper that should have been replaced with fiber optic cable long ago.

And in California, the Brown administration is pushing a behemoth water conveyance project based on mid-20th-century technology that will not provide a single drop of extra water to ratepayers; in Gage’s view, we could solve many of our water woes by fixing the state’s massive network of leaking pipes, installing sensors everywhere, and recycling wastewater.

“We’d be a lot better off if all our utility systems and all our buildings and our transportation fleet were highly instrumented, if they had the qualifier ‘smart’ in front of them,” says Gage. “Everything would be so much more efficient, we’d save so much in the way of both money and natural resources, and our carbon footprint would be so much smaller. It’s frustrating. What we really need is Silicon Valley venture capital to get behind this. But it’s funny. IT is about glitz and glamour and cool gadgets, and the computer crowd expects things to happen overnight. Water, power, sewage, building construction—they don’t generate the same excitement, and implementing change is slow. It’s much harder to get new high-tech infrastructure companies going than companies based on mobile apps, no matter how trivial or silly those apps may be. Somehow, we have to turn that situation around.” 

Glen W. Martin is a frequent contributor to California.

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