Dreams can come true – Janes miraculous Mitumba story

If your dream was to become a doctor and you ended up uneducated and living in a slum, would you just give up on life? Some of us might have, but not Jane Ngoiri. Jane dreamed of being a surgeon, but she was too poor to finish school or go to college. However, today Jane is a Mitumba queen from Nairobi’s Mathare Valley slum. Mitumba is the business of selling second hand clothing that arrives in Kenya from European and American regions in massive bales.

Mitumba trader in Mathare Valley

Mitumba originally referred to used clothing but today it includes everything from clothes to shoes, bags and even kitchen utensils. Huge markets have sprouted in Nairobi where the traders buy selected items when bales are first opened, and sell them in nicely arranged stalls elsewhere. It’s easy to see how mitumba provides hundreds of jobs for the juakali but everyone is doing it and the competition is intense so prices and profits are low.  Jane came up with a clever way of getting past this by finding a unique niche. Unlike most Mitumba operators who simply sell second hand clothing, Jane adds value by taking the clothes apart and re-making clothing that Kenyans want for their children, especially daughters.

Her specialty is girls dresses, frilly, lacy dresses for special occasions, and Sunday bests. You would never find this kind of thing in Mitumba – western kids don’t wear this kind of thing.  Jane buys used wedding dresses for Ksh 500 (USD 7) and from each one she can create three girls dresses and sell each for Ksh 1,500 (USD 21).

It takes her only 45 minutes to sew each one and she can make and sell up to 40 per month making a tidy profit which has literally allowed her to climb out of poverty.

Janes may not be the slumb dog millionaire but her story of escaping a slum life is humbling. I went to see Jane at home – she now owns her very own two bedroom orange and green house in a new housing development just outside of the city. She has running water, sitting room, a huge kitchen with gas stove, an inside flush toilet and solar lighting.

I visited her former home I n the slum,  It’s hard to imagine how anyone could live in a room six foot by five, with just one bed. The mud floor was covered with a plastic mat but the water in the saturated ground seeped through.

Outside might have been disgusting, but inside the the corrugated iron room was but super neat and carefully arranged. On the bed sat the new tenant, 34 year old Catherine with her two daughters Cynthia (17) and Samantha (3). Her 12 year old son was out. To her right was someone else’s room , and to the left a changaa den (changaa is an illegal distilled alcoholic brew). Behind her were three other rooms.

The room measured about 6 x 6 feet – a prison cell! It was slimy and muddy everywhere, the evil sewage and rotting vegetable smells and the ugly structures were not nearly as invasive as the, noise. It seemed like everyone in Mathare was competing to make the loudest noise, – every room had a radio on full blast as well as the changaa brewing and drinking dens which nearly outnumber homes.  Drunkards (all men) filled the street, and pestered us every few minutes, the community just ignored them as they stumbled down the hill. Children, some without shoes ran around and played in the mud, open sewers and picked through rubbish. After seeing where Jane has come from I can totally understand why she can’t stop smiling.

Her three children are no longer surrounded by filth and noise, changaa dens and drunkards. They play out doors safely, are clean and neat, and they go to school near home. This family eats well as they grow their own vegetables in a garden kitchen. And Jane is no longer just one of the million slum dwellers in Mathare, here in Kaputei, she is a respected member of a budding community.

Janes life story is nothing short of miraculous.   Like everyone else in Mathare, she lived in the slum because she had no other option. When her husband took a second wife so many years ago, she walked out on him and headed for the city, four children in tow, including a baby. She thought she’d be able to get a job, but like many uneducated women her only means of survival in one of Nairobi’s toughest slums, was to use her body. That’s how she survived for many years, doing what she called “dirty business” living from hand to mouth in the filthy, noisy, congested squalor of Mathare Valley, with all her children crammed in one room.

Jane is the poster child of microcredit success, it got her out of poverty and she says it saves her life. She got training and a loan from Jamibora, one of the largest micro credit banks in Kenya. Once she’d paid that back she got another loan, and then a third. This made her eligible for membership in a housing scheme, but first she had to rise 10% of the value of the house, Ksh35,000 ($450).  With her earlier loans she had bought a manual sewing machine, using that she made dresses and beaded jewelry for an international market.  It sounds easy but she says it was very hard to raise the money. There were hurdles along the way and at times she almost gave up her dream.  Perhaps the toughest was the election crisis struck in early 2008 when looters raided the slums and took everything she owned. Without a sewing machine she had lost her means of making a living.

So Jamibora gave her an emergency loan which enabled her to get back on her feet straight away.  Sitting in her proud two bedroomed house in Kaputei Jane glows, it’s hard to disbelieve her story. But there’s more. She wouldn’t let me go until I’d heard the whole story. After getting back her life the first time, Jane decided to find out what her HIV status was. Not surprising, it was positive. Despite this she was in good health, but again she asked God to help – she needs to live long enough to pay off the 20 year loan. She promised to help other slum women by giving free lessons in sewing, after all she never paid for her own classes. So far Jane has taught three others including Catherine.

Are you inspired?  Here’s a question, can you guess why Jane painted her house orange and green?

Turning rubbish into dinners in Kibera

There are few things that make me madder than seeing lorry loads of charcoal going into schools, hospital and other institutions in Kenya. These places are wrecking havok on our natural environment because they need energy for cooking  – but wont use clean (but more expensive) options like butane gas. Another thing that really irks me is the plastic waste that is taking over our country, it is disgusting, unhygenic and am environmental disaster that we not only drive by, or walk past every single day – we contribute to it through our negligent shopping habits (how many times does a lump of butter have to be bagged in Nakumatt?).

So when one of Kenya’s youngest architects, Mumu Musuvo and his boss Jim Archer told me about the Kibera community cooker two years ago I was very interested. They were looking for funding from the company I ran. I studied the design and took in the environmental implications, saw the potential but my company was not biting. We turned his company, Planning Systems down but I’ve been secretly monitoring the project which was adopted by UNEP and launched earlier this year.

This post is a massive send out to Planning Systems to congratulate them for being highly commended by judges in the Energy, Waste and Recycling category at the 2008 World Architecture Festival in Barcelona, Spain – it’s reported here on CNN. The communal cooker is turning rubbish into fuel to feed residents of one of Africa’s biggest slums, Kibera, 


turning rubbish into energy
turning rubbish into energy

Garbage is brought to the community cooker by volunteers shovel itinto one end of a giant concrete oven. At the other end are the hotplates where the community cook and boil water. 

“It might smell a bit but it doesn’t make  our food taste any different,” says Virginia Wamaitha, as she pours sugar into her steaming pan of chai – the gently spiced tea loved by Kenyans. “It will taste just like chai should.”


Any one for Ugali and sukuma?
Any one for a cuppa?

The garbage to fuel oven is sponsored by UNEP as one way to clean up Kenya’s slums while reducing dependency on wood and charcoal to protect forests. The community cooker burns garbage and generates heat for sterilizing water, for ovens used by community groups, as well as individuals. The original concept was that a kikapu (basket) of garbage would equate to an hour of cooking time on the stove. 

What kind of garbage? Any, plastics, food wastes even clothes – anything that will burn really! But doesn’t that produce toxic fumes you ask?? This is what’s so clever about the project. Using technology that I don’t understand the oven burns at temperatures of up to 930 degrees F. which basically detoxifies many hazardous pollutants.

“It uses a superheated steel plate inside the incinerator box to vaporize drops of water. The oxygen released then helps burn discarded “sump” oil from vehicles – itself a pollutant in the slums – driving temperatures higher”.

The process is simple enough to be controlled by locally trained volunteers.

According to UNEP this is the first of its kind, and it cost $10,000. 

Personally I think it’s a brilliant  idea, a great solution to slum garbage disposal, water treatment and hygiene (hot water an be used for community showers, to clean toilets, and to cook meals – therefore is safer (no more unstable jiko’s with pots of boiling water that kids tumble into on the floor). Plus the cooker can be used for commercial purposes – womens groups are using the cooker to produce baked products like queen cakes (you know the ones – “coke and keki”

Imagine if this could be replicated in slums around the world, in IDP camps like Kakuma, Dadaab, and in hospitals, prisons, and schools. 

Don’t let me blow their trumpet – help share this important story. You can read more praise for this project here  and Rob Crilly on CS monitor has a detailed article here and its also here on Sustainable Development International website here and on Sustainable Footprint here

Farming Innovations in a Slum

Kibera from space
Kibera from space

Google Earth is one way to appreciate the crush in Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. Not surprisingly popular images of people living in desperate conditions aren’t far from the truth when it comes to this corner of Nairobi – but out of the madness comes a little hope.

Raw sewage flows above ground
Raw sewage flows above ground

I witnessed some amazing innovations in Kibera and conclude that people have adjusted to their situation and are making the most of it.  Because of the stress associated with limitations on land, energy, water, and food the people have found innovative ways of surviving. This post is mainly about farming.

Vertical farming

like this guy and his vertical garden which feeds his family and he even sells some produce. It’s a variation on what JKE wrote about in the post on Keyhole gardens in Botswana.

Like the key hole garden of Swaziland, this veggie patch serves a family on a tiny piece of land
Like the key hole garden of Swaziland, this veggie patch serves a family on a tiny piece of land

Finding land in rubbish

Now a local organic farming company Green Dreams has been documenting the progress of transforming a garbage dump to an organic farm on the Green Dreams blog. They are working with a local youth group comprising reformed criminals in converting garbage into organic manure, and garbage dumps into organic farms.

Before the clean up and farming
Before the clean up and farming
Clearing land of garbage
Clearing land of garbage
installing irrigation
installing irrigation

Irrigation taps the mains water and supplies nutrient rich feeds from organic fertilizer produced on the site from crops and worms, yes they harvested local earthworms to start vermiculture.

Worm farm
Worm farm – just a tray with kitchen wastes feeds a bunch of earthworms that produce organic liquid manure
Planting seedlings
Planting seedlings, cleared waste is bundled under shade cloth and planted with pumpkin to create a green soil erosion barrier

Check out the planting implements, a PVC Pipe adapted to deliver seeds into a perfectly dug hole!  This was invented to help with the back breaking work of planting.

Kibera organic farm - after 3 months
Garbage dump transformed this is the Kibera organic farm – 3 months after clearing the dump

After 3 months the community of 30 families were harvesting, eating and selling organic produce. Yum! Impossible to ignore how a dirty dump turned green, everyone wants a farm in Kibera now. This group is now selling their expertise to raise funds and help others.

Natural Bean Tenderizer

There was a smouldering fire where banana leaves were being reduced to ash, then the ash dissolved in water and the brown murky astringent solution sold for Ksh 50 ($.80) per 250 ml in vodka bottles! This is a bean tenderizer reducing the time to boil red kidney beans by 50%! Imagine the savings on charcoal/fuel.

Safe Dispensing of Fuel

Kerosene is dispensed from a caged petrol pump for security
Kerosene is dispensed from a caged petrol pump for security

Notice that there was no protection around the farm or it’s equipment. Apparently the reputation of these ‘reformed criminals’ is enough of a deterrent.

Kids in Kibera
Kids in Kibera

Life might be hard in Kibera but yet when you visit you can’t ignore the vibrancy, colorfulness, camaraderie amongst the inhabitants it was one time that I got the feeling that people here love life