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Nairobi the big, smelly city

Sanitation and hygiene in most city markets where uncollected garbage is a common phenomenon. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

The nine contenders for the Nairobi governorship have vowed to restores the city’s lost glory.

Though Johnson Sakaja, Polycarp Igathe, Agnes Kagure, Nancy Wambui Mwadime, Kenneth Nyamwamu, Cleophas Mutua, Harman Sigh Grewal, Esther Thairu and Denise Kodhe are promising to deliver heaven, the city is choking under heaps of garbage.

From the Central Business District (CBD) through markets all the way to homes, Nairobi is littered with trash, some which go uncollected for weeks, making the capital city an eyesore.

But more worrying is the pathetic state of markets where residents get food supplies. Sanitation and hygiene in most markets where uncollected garbage is a common phenomenon are not practiced.

The sad reality is putting at risk the health of millions of consumers who daily get vegetables, meat, fruits, fish, cereals, milk and spices from these markets.   

A survey by The Standard at Burma, Muthurwa, City, Wakulima Retail and Ngara exposed the rot in the markets overwhelmed with filth and odour. In fact the deplorable conditions, has seen some customers concerned about their health, shun them completely.

Women selling fruits near a channel for raw sewer. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Disgusted by the poor sanitation, Ms Margaret Omuga is one such customer who has since stopped going to Muthurwa. Every weekend, Omuga would religiously travel from Saika estate to make vegetable and fruit purchases at her favourite market. She could not anymore imagine the health risks facing her family.

What put her off was the poor sanitation at the market. It had rained on that particular day and what she witnessed made her change her mind about the market. Sludge in the drainage found its way into food items displayed on the floor.

“That day I realised food handling in the market poses health hazards. It was a rainy morning and the wastes easily splashed on the fruits vegetables,” recalls Omuga. She now sources the items from Kiambu and Utawala areas directly from farmers. Although Omuga has since avoided the market where she also shopped clothing, thousands of buyers visit the place in what experts say is a health time bomb.

Apart from filth in drainage’s, mountains of uncollected garbage are lying all over the market, mostly at the sections where produce are sold. With time, the market has attracted scavengers, including stray dogs and pigs.

Ladhies Road is not spared of the garbage slipover. Apart from being a channel for raw sewer, the road, rotten vegetables occasionally finds its way on the road. Muthurwa market chairman Nelson Githaiga acknowledges the poor state of hygiene. 

Lack of toilets

“Pilling garbage and drainage is not the only problem. We don’t have enough toilets for thousands of traders who access the market daily. There few available toilets are in horrible conditions,” said Githaiga. 

Public toilet along Koinange Street in Nairobi. [David Njaaga,Standard]

Lack of enough toilets, according to Githaiga, has forced traders and buyers to relieve themselves on open spaces and footbridges linking the market.  

“We feed the entire city and its neighboring counties but we feel for our consumers since the environment in which we serve them is pathetic. Rodents and open sewer are part of life here,” decried the official. 

The traders attribute the frequent sewer bursts to the small sewerage lines that can no longer hold high volumes of waste. An almost similar scenario presents itself at City Market where heaps of garbage are a constant reminder of a dysfunctional waste collection and disposal system. The market is famous for nyama choma and meat products. However, the nostril-hitting odour can kill appetite for food.

More often, all kinds of garbage, mostly beef morsels from market stalls, pile for days around the market leaving a stench around. Mr Meshack Mbuthia, the market’s chairman, said the poor sanitation is because waste is left uncollected for many days.

Street families

“The garbage around the market should be collected on a daily basis but takes four or more days before they collect it, making it a haven for street families and gang groups posing a security threat in the CBD,’’ explained Mbuthia. 

Sometimes, claim the officials, some tenants around the market hire street boys to dump there trash at the place. A section of the city market has curio shops and money exchange stalls that used to attract tourists but traders say this is no longer the case due to the unpleasant smell.

Public Health expert Collins Lando warns that those selling next to untreated sewage or garbage are exposing customers to deadly diseases mostly noticed during advanced stages.

Street kids at a footbridge near Muthurwa market. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

“A good examples are the flies that land on the wastes then land on the foodstuffs, in fact not all people wash stuff like fruits or beef before eating them and in such circumstances it will expose one to cholera which kills in short time,” he says.

According to Lando, those selling in such places are at risk because they breathe in toxic gases which cause chronic diseases, which can as well be spread to other people like loved ones. Burma market is notorious for stench.

A majority of residents living in Eastlands buy chunks of beef from the place where a repulsive stench wafts all the way to Jogoo Road. At Gikomba, the largest open-air market famous for cheap second-hand clothes, a section is occupied by fish traders and other foodstuffs like fruits and vegetables. Some sections are dotted with all kinds of wastes and poor drainage’s channeling raw waste into the nearby Nairobi River. 

Here, Margaret Mwikali, a vegetable and food vendor, sits just few metres away from a clogged drainage overflowing with filth.

Eateries and bars

Even though she seems to have gotten used to the stench, her biggest worry is the shortage of toilets which forces many traders to check in nearby eateries and bars when pressed. They resort to tricks not only to cut costs but avoid available public toilets which are equally untidy.

“The sanitation issue is a big problem not only here but in other markets as well. We lose business on a daily basis since our customers have noticed the situation in the market,” complained Mwikali.

The same problem is replicated at the Kangemi Market in Westlands where the infrastructure has collapsed. Here mountains of garbage attracting rodents and pigs have been piling up at the market that sits close to the busy Waiyaki Way.

Last year, residents faulted the safety and standards of food sold in their local markets due to poor hygiene in transportation.

A survey conducted by the Consumer Grassroots Association indicated that nearly seven in 10 respondents (67 per cent) consider the food in the markets to be of a lower than acceptable hygiene standard.

Uncollected garbage along Nairobi's Luthuli Avenue on July 21, 2022. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

City County Workers Union leader Festus Ngare says that even though some workers who clean the markets are drawn from the union, the major problem is sometimes corruption and outright contractors.

“Nairobi has several zones and those companies are contracted as per zones, generally when the payment for the contractors are delayed and sometimes those given the job are unable to do it,” he says.

The contractors lacking capacity to collect waste, claims Ngare, use proxies who equally are not up to the task.

“Due to corruption some contractors with small pickups get the tenders thus carting away the trash in the market takes ages to clear tonnes of garbage,” added Ngare.

Away from the filth in other markets, an enclosed section of Wakulima market is exclusively reserved for clean foodstuffs.

At the section, the traders’ area strictly uses battery-powered weighing scales to weigh anything from fruits, vegetables and grains going for different prices.

Unlike other markets, the enclosed market has entry and exit doors that are locked in the evening once it has been swept clean, and all garbage carted away. This is not the case outside for foodstuffs sold outside the pace. 

Wakulima market chairman Cyrus Kaguta says this is because stuff sold in the enclosed area of high grade as compared to those displayed outside. 

“The traders inside the market buy them in the same way in kilograms that is why they sell them the same way, is it also a matter of quality, not quantity,” he says.