A few days ago I returned home from my 5-week trip through East Africa. Seeing home through new eyes requires some cultural adjustment. I’ve been thinking about how to explain my capstone week in Kenya. Is it wrong to feel like I just had an amazing vacation while exploring some of the darkest threats to humanity?

In their course Art of the MOOC: Activism and Social Movements, instructors Pedro Lasch and Nato Thompson talk about this duality. Citing feminist activist Emma Goldman’s famous quote “If there’s not dancing at your revolution, I’m not coming” they describe the importance of celebration in social movements to counterbalance the consciousness-raising that comes with pain and mourning.

Our shared climate crisis

Urbanization and wildlife interface at Nairobi National Park.

If I were to capture my sabbatical in a modified version of Emma Goldman’s quote it would be “If there’s not dancing at the climate crisis, I’m not coming”. Regarding the first modification to Goldman’s quote, I’m not calling for a revolution to counteract climate change. I am however supportive of the growing media discussion about whether the term climate change cuts it any longer (Yoder, 2019). I understand 16-year old Swedish advocate Greta Thunberg when she says “It’s 2019. Can we all now please stop saying ‘climate change’ and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis, and ecological emergency?”

My second modification to Goldman’s quote is more subtle. Using ‘the’ instead of ‘your’ is vitally important to stem the tide of ‘us versus them’ thinking as we talk about climate migration. We’re all in this climate crisis together after all – the existential defining issue of our time. This spirit of togetherness and seeing joy through crisis pretty much sums up my capstone week in Kenya.

Zebras, hippos and climate solutions on the shores of Lake Naivasha

Lake Naivasha hippos performing water ballet off the bow of our boat.

Case in point was a day trip from Nairobi to nearby Lake Naivasha to tour a social enterprise called Sanivation. Sanivation turns human waste into a charcoal substitute by using concentrated solar to flash-pasteurize poop. How cool is that? Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Emily Woods was our tour guide. I met Emily during an informational interview by Skype earlier this spring. Emily is a go-getter of a mechanical engineer. She makes us fellow women mechanical engineers very proud. For her master’s thesis at Georgia Tech she designed a solar powered plant that turns poop into a pathogen-free vitrified fuel source. When she graduated she moved to Kenya to help build a business around her technology. I was excited to meet Emily in person and catch a tour of Sanivation.

Solar-powered flash-pasteurization process.

Only 5% of the 300,000 residents in the booming Lake Naivasha region have access to sewage services. For 200 Kenya Shillings (KES) per month or roughly $2 U.S. Dollars, Sanivation provides a private utility-based sanitation service.  Each customer receives a container-based toilet that Sanivation services twice per week. The waste is then converted into an affordable cooking fuel under the brand names Everburn and Ecoflame.

Of particular interest to my sabbatical goals, Sanivation has figured out a business model to deploy their technology to refugee camps. Sanivation offers a licensing model to work with refugee camp implementers to design, build and train local staff and refugees on operating their waste to energy plant. Essentially plants like the one I toured in Naivasha can be designed to fit in a single shipping container for rapid deployment to conflict zones. The plants are designed to process 35 tons of human waste per month. The first pilot plant of this nature is operating at 20 tons per month.  It’s located at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in the Turkana West region of Kenya.


Sanivation Co-Founder Emily Woods espousing the benefits of poop briquettes while they dry in the background.

Converting human waste to cooking fuel is an example of a force-multiplier type of solution needed to address such a wicked problem as climate migration.

  • Not only does Sanivation’s product save lives from improved sanitation, it produces a cooking fuel that burns twice as long and produces less indoor air particulate, a leading cause of death in developing countries.
  • Every ton of Sanivation briquettes saves 88 trees from being harvested to produce conventional briquettes. Firewood for cooking and charcoal production combined with population growth has led to tremendous strain on the forests and wood resources in developing countries.
  • Beyond the environmental benefits, Sanivation is providing an affordable product that saves households money. Even bigger, they’re growing local jobs and employing 95 Kenyans in Naivasha.
  • Located at the gateway to Sanctuary Farm on the shores of Lake Naivasha, Sanivation’s location serves a useful land use purpose.  Co-locating a sustainable enterprise like Sanivation on its outskirts provides the sanctuary a helpful buffer between wildlife and the busy roadway into Lake Naivasha.

This last bullet about Sanivation’s location brings me back to my opening quote. To me the quote is simply a reminder to temper the seriousness of the situation by having fun along the way, connecting with nature and bonding with fellow passengers on the journey. That was easy to do at Lake Naivasha, which sits on the floor of the Rift Valley with the dormant volcano Mount Logonot as its backdrop. We took a very fun and memorable boat ride to hang with the hippos, learn about the lake’s 80 species of water birds and soak up the scenery at dusk.

Zebra and Uganda cranes, Nairobi National Park.

Wildlife safari with humanitarian workers

Another example of dancing in the crisis was the wildlife safari I got to take with humanitarian workers back in Nairobi. The main purpose of my trip to Nairobi was to meet with the team of urban planners and engineers behind Kenya’s newest resettlement for refugees called Kalobeyei. The Kalobeyei planning team is a joint partnership between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UN-Habitat.

Kalobeyei is located in Turkana West and was founded in 2015 as an expansion of Kakuma Refugee Camp. We think of refugee camps as temporary settlements but Kakuma Camp was established in 1992 following the arrival of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”.  More than 25 years later, together Kakuma and Kalobeyei host a population of over 186,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers. By definition, Kakuma camp has become a city.

During a mini-workshop with the Kalobeyei planning team, I learned that Africa’s urban growth rate is 11 times faster than Europe’s. Such rapid growth in developing countries requires careful planning. The goal is to unleash life-improving economic transformations while mitigating problems like sprawl, congestion and human health issues. Sixty-three percent of Africa’s urban population lives in slum conditions, including in Kenya. The UN defines slum conditions by overcrowding, inadequate housing, insecure tenure and lack of access to water and sanitation. Good urban planning is very challenging in developing countries. For example, Kenya is experiencing a proliferation of informal and unplanned developments, a significant infrastructure backlog due to competing investment pressures like health and education, and stressed legal frameworks for governing growth.

Kalobeyei’s new sustainability approach for refugee camps

In 2015, the policy stars started to align for UNHCR and UN Habitat to try a new approach to sustainable development in refugee camps.

  • UN countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). UN-Habitat is playing a leading role in addressing SDG #11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities.
  • Meanwhile for UNHCR, the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants has provided an updated platform for sustainable resettlement.
  • In parallel, policy alignment in the Kenyan national government down to local levels further enabled an integrative sustainable development approach for Kalobeyei.

Anicet Adjahossou from UNCHR and Yuka Terada, UN-Habitat.

With this policy alignment in place, the team embarked on Kalobeyei’s integrated socio-economic development plan (KISEDP). During the mini-workshop last week in Nairobi the team assessed progress against the plan, including updates on a new solar mini-grid project and transition of temporary housing into permanent shelters through cash-based incentives (CBI). I was invited to the mini-workshop to share my professional experience with climate resilience.  We discussed how a climate assessment could help to mitigate environmental challenges and strengthen the monitoring and evaluation methods for  Kalobeyei.  I was also interested in the team’s feedback on my preliminary findings on climate migration and what that might mean for settlements like Kalobeyei.

I was very impressed with the UNHCR and UN-Habitat team working on Kalobeyei. Their professional expertise, dedication to communities and interdisciplinary teamwork really shined. Its clear they’ve bonded over their shared experience. Over a trip to Nairobi National Park during the weekend they laughed together, reminisced on funny stories and found time to catch up on kids and family life. I was lucky enough to be included, sharing my own stories of family and home. The highlight for all of us was spotting the illusive lions at dusk.

Works Cited

Yoder, K. (2019, June 17). Is it time to retire ‘climate change’ for ‘climate crisis’? Retrieved from Grist: https://grist.org/article/is-it-time-to-retire-climate-change-for-climate-crisis/