Garbage millionaires: Jobless city dwellers strike gold in Dandora dumpsite
Apart from numerous health hazards, Dandora dumpsite has for a long time been associated with insecurity. There was a time when carjacked vehicles were driven there, and the occupants assaulted and stripped of their valuables. But once a safe haven for armed hardcore criminals, the place has turned into a theatre of tuff wars among gangs fighting over control of the lucrative trash business.
At one point, the vicious fights spilled over to the surrounding informal settlements of Dandora and Korogocho where rival gang members fought each other with the ferocity of dogs on heat. This was in 2013 when a trash lord only known as Mulusia alias Daddy was killed in Korogocho. Daddy’s murder triggered a wave of violence that lasted for almost one month as two gangs fought over control of the dumpsite.
It was only after musician Charles Njagua Kanyi aka Jaguar, now Starehe MP, and then Senator Mike Sonko intervened that gang members agreed to a cease fire and surrendered some of their arms.
The weapons, comprising two guns, several matchetes and knives, were handed over to then Nairobi PPO Benson Kibue at Kinyago Police Station.
Mwangi Ndirangu alias Keniuru was one of the fighters. He surrendered a panga and assortment of knives. He vowed before Kibue, Sonko and Jaguar never again to engage in warlike activities again. Fast forward, Ndirangu, a reformed criminal, is now the overall chairman at the dumpsite where he ekes out a decent living while saving to have his own home.
The 25-year-old is in charge of eight groups that jealously guard the dumpsite where members rummage through rubbish for hidden treasure. On a bad day, a member can retire to bed with Sh700 from sale of discarded items like plastics, empty glass bottles, tin cans, polythene, rubber, cartons and scrap metal.
One kilogram of metal fetches Sh30, a kilo of plastic is sold at Sh 20 while one kilogramme of glass costs a shilling. Pig feed collected from food left-overs is the most sought waste by those rearing swine.
“I know of two colleagues who started here and now own fleets of transport trucks. The garbage is a treasure that has made some of us self-reliant and respected individuals in society,” says Ndirangu.
Wagenge, Wazee, Jobless Millionaires, Musii, Kobe, Kajiji, Mothers and Ndau are the groups that call shots at the site where Ndirangu is overall boss. Each group has an average of 30 members. This is about 240 people making about Sh168,000 on a day when business is low. In a month this averages to around Sh5 million. Food leftovers for pigs is the most sought refuse, fetching Sh 50 for a cement sack.
Ndirangu is a member and leader of Jobless Millionaires whose territory is at Dandora 41 where they dabble in pig rearing. A mature and well-fed pig costs Sh15,000 with butchers coming all the way from Ndumbuini, Kiambu County, for the swine.
The group is a registered and members make weekly savings with the sole aim of raising Sh3 million to buy a piece of land where they will eventually settle.
“It will be a nice idea to have our own homes, none of us here is happy paying rent,” says Ndirangu while appealing for support towards the home-owning vision. With this fortune in trash, it is therefore understandable why the likes of Ndirangu are ready to die protecting their territory.
The rubbish money-minting venture starts right at the door steps of households where families pay for their waste. In many neighbourhoods across the city, private entities collect and dispose off household waste at a fee.
According to Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crimes (GI-TOC), around 900,000 households pay Sh 500 monthly to have their collected. This translates to Sh 5.4 billion annually; money paid to private collectors for a service supposed to be offered by City Hall whose number of the officials are rumoured to beneficiaries of trash money.
In a research report, GI-TOC established that some companies are paid to collect waste from areas they are not contracted to operate while others invoiced for work not done. Another form of corruption involves giving tenders to private entities while in essence, City Hall uses its own resources to collect waste.
“These private entities, which are linked to county government officials, do not have to do any work, but still get paid,” says GI-TOC.
Sometimes, State agencies like National Youth Service (NYS) step in when the garbage problem gets out of hand. More than 3,000 tonnes of solid waste is generated in the city daily by over four million people. It is estimated that Nairobi Metropolitan Service (NMS), which took over wastage management from City Hall, collects slightly above 2,000 tonnes.
The garbage collection chain benefits many while fueling crime and corruption at the same time. This dishonest way of managing waste has sapped City Hall of resources needed to clean the city where residents are constantly choking under mounds of uncollected garbage.
And when collection is done; residents are charged exorbitantly by gangs and sometimes faceless entities that have no qualms unleashing terror for non-payment or compliance.
“The waste-management sector is vulnerable to criminal exploitation because it can offer high profit margins at low risk of getting caught for involvement in illegal activities,” says GI-TOC.
There is also a thin line between economic subsistence and organised crime with a number of those rummaging through garbage said to be involved in gun running and drug dealing. Guns and drugs find their way in and out of the site since screening of waste is not done and policing has become a challenge after security agents ceased conducting patrols at the dump site.
According to GI-TOC, firearms are concealed in waste because rubbish is hard to physically check and that there are no scanners at the weighbridge. But Ndirangu denies his territory is a paradise of guns and drugs, terming GI-TOC findings skewed. He says guns that find way there are brought by fleeing gangsters, which he says is is not common practice nowadays. The man explains with each of the eight groups taking care of its marked territory, many loopholes for criminals were sealed.
“Yes I won’t lie, guns are sometimes hidden here without our knowledge. It is easy to conceal a weapon under these massive mounds of garbage. But the situation is not as bad as is being portrayed,” says Ndirangu.
In a day, about 100 trucks offload waste at the dumpsite. Most of them are privately-owned and the drivers must pay Sh 100 protection fee to offload.
According to Ndirangu, the amount is shared among members of the eight groups who provide security to the drivers.
“In turn, we make sure the drivers are safe; nobody can dare harass or steal from them,” he claims.
There are concerns of gangs being allowed to carry guns at the dump site where interests of private waste management companies associated with influential individuals are protected. GI-TOC says the sad state of affairs is due lack of surveillance. A planned exercise to improve security at the place flopped as soon as it was launched four years ago.
City Hall had purposed to construct two toll stations installed with floodlights for lighting at night. Building of the stations was abandoned mid-way and the incomplete worn-out structures are an embodiment of a failed waste management plan.
“Nairobi is continuing to urbanize, but this expansion now comes at a time when waste management; an activity that is critical to the environmental and population health of the city, has become deeply criminalized,” observes GI-TOC.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. So any attempt to relocate or modernize the dumpsite will deprive Jobless Millionaires their only source income.
“This is the only place I get my daily bread since reforming. For sure, we shall struggle to cope should the government evict us from this place,” says Ndirangu.
Fixing the dump site is, however, a song that has been sung for some many years that ‘new plans’ are always met with big yawns.