Thinking like an ecosystem – how innovative local solutions solve many local problems at once

One of the great strengths of local solutions to local problems is that it seems, almost always, that they address more than one problem at a time. In other words, the solutions grow from an understanding of how problems are inter-related.

Take for example, the innovative and practical Kibera community cooker project. Kibera sits on the outskirts of Nairobi, a sprawling informal settlement that has become home to a variety of innovative local solutions to problems over the past decade. It is home to a brilliant gardening project created by local youth who had run into problems with the law, and the social marketing of SODIS-treated water, to give just two other examples.

Like many other informal settlements, Kibera has many people who live on small incomes or on no income at all. It has a garbage problem – waste litters streets and streams. And it lacks trees, so people use charcoal for cooking. The community cooker project addresses all of these issues simultaneously and in an integrated way, and it also creates jobs.

Instead of seeing garbage purely as a problem to be solved, Kibera now sees garbage as a resource to be used. Garbage now is picked up by local people in exchange for their use of the community cooker, and is burned at a high enough temperature to eliminate toxins from the smoke and ash. Organic waste is sorted into a pile to be used for making compost, and plastics and other items are taken out of the waste for recycling.

Garbage equals money

Garbage thus has become a kind of currency, helping to make the cooker self-sustaining. One woman told AlertNet that it costs her 180 Kenyan shillings (about $2.50) for the 6 kilograms of charcoal she uses daily to boil maize for her business. She also uses 2 kg of charcoal at home. Two hours of collecting 90 kg of rubbish earns her one hour of cooking time and that is enough to meet her energy needs at home and in her business.

Multiply that by many more people and you can see how much charcoal is being saved  and thus, the trees that would be burned to produce the charcoal. One international consultant estimates that if used 24 hours a day, the community cooker would save the equivalent of burning 2,400 mature trees each year.

The community cooker is lit three times a week. People who don’t want to pay for their cooking time with garbage can pay 10 shillings for 15 minutes of cooking time. And the community cooker is used for baking bread and other baked goods that are sold to support the project, as well as providing hot water for local people to use for bathing.

Sorting the garbage has created seven jobs for local young people, who separate the organic and recyclable garbage from the rubbish that is to be burned for fuel.

Maintained locally

While agencies like the UN Environment Program helped fund the original prototype designed by a local firm, the community cooker was designed to be maintained by local people themselves. It doesn’t need outside expertise to operate or manage. In fact, the innovative design feature that lets the garbage be burned hot enough to eliminate toxins was developed by a Kibera blacksmith, who thus solved a problem with the original prototype design.

The community cooker project effectively has become a new part of the local ecosystem, in a way that could not have been imagined from outside. There are a variety of externally designed projects to eliminate or reduce deforestation, create jobs, or create healthy environments. This simple idea links all of those activities together in a way that makes sense to local people and that does so in a way that enhances community spirit and honours local capacity.

Now this locally-designed project is spreading, as other people recognize a great idea when they learn about it. I remember reading last year that one UN agency was looking at installing similar cookers in refugee camps in northern Kenya. And local people can see the value of putting community cookers into local schools.

The International Council of Societies of Industrial Design recently honoured the community cooker project by making it the first recipient of the inaugural World Design Impact Prize. Congratulations thus are in order twice – to the community cooker project and its community, and to the industrial design specialists who can see the value of an integrated approach to a problem.

To read more:

Garbage-fed community cooker cuts wood use, energy costs, by Isaiah Esipisu, AlertNet.

The Community Cooker Foundation

Community Cooker awarded inaugural World Design Impact Prize

Waste-burning community cooker solves many community problems in Kenyan slum, Hopebuilding wiki.