The refuse problems that plague informal settlements all over the world are enough to make any person cringe. In Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, this is no exception. The government not acknowledging these “villages” as populated isn’t helping the matter either.
There are individuals taking measures to help, however. Nathan Cooke, along with Sanergy, the organization he works with, is taking small steps toward a more sane and sanitized future.
When Cooke first went to school at UC Irvine (UCI) to be a filmmaker, he never would have imagined he’d end up in Nairobi assembling portable toilets and collecting the waste to be turned into usable byproduct.
“I was never super passionate about sanitation; it was more that I had a general idea of wanting to use the skills that I had to do something that left a positive impact in the world,” Cooke said.
Cooke originally planned on going into the film industry. He discovered early on, though, that he just wasn’t happy with that particular route in life at that time.
“I was going to UCI studying film. I hated it,” Cooke said. “Just studying stuff, not actually doing stuff.”
He ended up taking classes that taught about entertainment design in film outside of UCI. The teacher of that class recommended that he attend Art Center. That settled it for him. He dropped out of UCI and transferred to Pasadena City College (PCC).
While at PCC he “serendipitously” met Stan Kong while working on his portfolio. With guidance in a new direction, Cooke gained a scholarship to go to Art Center. Shortly after Art Center he was offered a job to teach at MIT. He took it, not yet realizing that move would be one of the first steps toward a future helping others through his skill as a designer.
While at MIT Cooke met the other co-founders of Sanergy and was able to help them bring their idea to fruition.
“I started teaching design and while I was teaching I met my co-founders of this organization when they were taking business school,” Cooke said. “And so they had this grand idea of ‘toilets to valuable byproducts’ but they didn’t have the ability to actually realize those things. So I said I’d help them out.”
These toilet systems are finally starting to make an impact, however small, which is what Cooke and Sanergy had hoped for. Sanergy formally incorporated in 2011. It wasn’t until the beginning of last year that the toilets really started making a difference. The next steps are seeing that these implementations continue to go further and help more and more people the world over.
“At the beginning of last year we had [about] 300 toilets and by the end of last year we had a little over 600,” Cooke said. “Our goal is again to double that this year.”
The systems themselves are actually toilets put together with about 10 pieces of pre-fabricated concrete parts and are about the size of a portable toilet when assembled. These toilets are franchised out to people who run business. It is common in informal settlements, such as Nairobi, for people to pay businesses to use their toilets because they simply do not have access to one in their own homes.
Sanergy then goes and collects the waste and transports it to a centralized place where it is processed into fertilizer. They are currently looking at other types of byproducts that could be produced but currently are only creating the one. They also hope to expand beyond the borders of Kenya.
“We still want to expand beyond Nairobi because there are other cities that have informal settlements that could benefit from this,” Cooke said. “But we also are looking to expand within the region. We don’t know yet if that’s some place like Uganda, Tanzania or Ethiopia, which all border Kenya…We have not looked at South America specifically but, yes, there’s potential for this to go beyond just Kenya and definitely even beyond Africa. There’s a need for this wherever there’s an informal settlement that lacks sanitation.”
Cooke does not currently have any other life-altering plans in the near future as he is primarily focused on this project currently. He does have personal art projects in mind, but they’re “not that big compared to this” he says. He does leave a note of inspiration for the student that doesn’t quite know what they want to do or feels stifled.
“The traditional sort of line would be something like, ‘Follow your dream’ or something, but I can’t subscribe to that completely because I was lucky enough that I had a full time job when I was going to PCC,” Cooke said. “But I knew also that wasn’t what I wanted to do…You have to recognize that you’re either following your dream or you’re not. That recognition is big in either ‘I’m doing this, or I’m not. And if I’m going to do this, then I have to take risks to get further.’ But little half measures aren’t going to get you there if you’re really going to commit to something.”