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In Kenyan slum, mobile phones pinpoint better water

An innovative course at Stanford is designing mobile phone platforms that help improve living conditions in Kenya’s largest slums. The course teams students up with local organizations to co-create technology projects that address clean water, sanitation and safety issues.

Kibera is Kenya’s largest human settlement or “slum” where water is expensive and sometimes hard to find. | Photo: Sarina Beges

Kibera is Kenya’s largest human settlement or “slum” where water is expensive and sometimes hard to find. | Photo: Sarina Beges

Single-room shacks with mud walls, metal roofs and dirt floors sleep families of eight here. Plastic bags filled with human waste are thrown into unpaved streets, earning the nickname “flying toilets.” Trash piles up in front of homes and storefronts. The flies are everywhere. People struggle to survive but the appetite for change is strong.

This is Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum home to hundreds of thousands packed onto one square mile of land. Kibera's population is a matter of debate – and politics – with unofficial estimates ranging from 250,000 to 1 million.

And it is next door to some of the city's wealthiest neighborhoods. On its edge lies a golf course serving the elite, the lush green grass a stark contrast to the rusted metal roofs that clutter Kibera's skyline.

The government says those who live here are illegal squatters, and officials withhold basic public services like electricity, sewage and waste collection. Health care and education are expensive and out of reach for those struggling to find steady employment amid the rising price of food and fuel. Water is scarce here – a resource turned on and off by the government and a commodity overpriced by a handful of private dealers.

But mobile phones are so cheap and easy to access that more than 70 percent of people living in Kibera have one. Harnessing the potential of technology for development, an innovative course at Stanford is designing mobile phone applications to improve living conditions in Kenya's slums.

Incubating ideas

Stanford political science professor Joshua Cohen and Terry Winograd, a professor emeritus in the Department of Computer Science, created Stanford's Designing Liberation Technologies course, which is taught each spring at the School of Engineering's Hasso Plattner Institute of Design ( Grounded in the principle that an effective product cannot be designed without participation from the local community, the course pairs student teams with NGOs to co-create technology platforms.

“We started with the belief that by combining emerging mobile technologies with human-centered design, our students could find new opportunities to change people's lives for the better,” says Winograd, a computer scientist. “We were fortunate to develop connections with strong local organizations that could guide our understanding of the needs and provide a vehicle for turning our students' ideas into real programs.”

The course is part of the Program on Liberation Technology at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute. Cohen and Winograd helped launch the program in 2009 with CDDRL Director Larry Diamond to explore how technology is being used to advance change in the developing world.

Originally funded with support by Nokia Research Center in Africa, the course is now supported by the Silicon Valley-based Omidyar Network.

One of the first ideas to come out of the class is M-Maji, which means “mobile water” in Swahili. M-Maji is a mobile application that uses a two-way SMS system to provide users with accurate and up-to-date information on the location, price and quality of one of Kibera's most precious resources – water.

Water economics

Water is scarce, expensive and can often be contaminated in Kibera. The government supplies water to Kibera just two or three days a week. When the water flows, vendors fill large hundred-gallon plastic storage tanks that tower imposingly from the rooftops.

Water is collected from kiosks housed in storefronts along dusty streets and open gutters. Young girls pour water from rusty faucets into large jerrycans and struggle to carry the containers through Kibera's pock-marked streets. They spend about two hours a day collecting water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and bathing.

“On a good day they can go to their normal spot to find water, but on a bad day they have to keep walking around until they find a source,” says M-Maji co-founder Sangick Jeon, a Stanford PhD student.

Jeon explains that water has turned into a big business in Kibera and large cartels deemed “the big five” control the price and availability of water, shutting out the smaller vendors from the marketplace. That means Kibera's residents pay more than double the cost for water than their rich neighbors on the other side of the golf course.

Water quality is always a concern.

“Most water is contaminated because steel pipes are stolen and they use above ground plastic pipes that break off and flying toilets can seep into the pipes,” Jeon says.

Jeon is researching conflict and cooperation in Africa. He took the course taught by Cohen and Winograd two years ago and has stayed invested in M-Maji. He says Kibera is a fascinating place for a political scientist to work, but also points to the strong partnerships that have allowed the project to take root.

When asked about how the M-Maji technology works, Jeon laughs.

“I am just a political scientist,” he says. “The guys at Umande Trust are doing it all.”

Dialing for water

Kelvin Lugaka is a young Kenyan water specialist at Umande Trust who leads the M-Maji project. He implements the technology and gets people to use it. Lugaka grew up in Kibera and is proud of his childhood home that he calls a human settlement, not a slum. His parents and siblings still live here, and he knows all the water vendors in the five villages where the technology is being piloted.

Walking through Kibera, Lugaka shows how M-Maji works on a very basic Nokia mobile phone – the kind that costs the equivalent of $15 on the second-hand market. The technology was developed by a local team of Kenyans working for Wezatele, a Nairobi-based startup located at the iHub technology incubator.

Lugaka dials *778# onto the phone's large buttons. A few seconds later, a SMS message pops up on the phone's small screen prompting him to press “1” for water, “2” to sell water or “3” to file a complaint. He presses “1” and a list of villages appear that have water available that day. Next to each landmark is the cost of water that day.

Because there are no street signs in Kibera, the M-Maji team had to use popular landmarks – schools, health clinics and churches – to identify water vendors locations.

“M-Maji is going to have the coordinates for water vendors, which will allow people to find out information about water and the cost of water today, so people can move to a different water vendor (if the price is too high),” says Lugaka.

Each morning the registered water vendors are responsible for entering the price of water at their kiosks into the M-Maji system. Lagaka currently has 45 water vendors registered in the system but would like that number to grow to 100.

A unique partnership

Josiah Omotto is one of Umande Trust's original founders. Born and raised in Kibera, Omotto has devoted his work to improving water and sanitation conditions in the community.

He has a booming voice and commanding presence. When he speaks, everyone in the room listens.

“Umande Trust implies that you wake up in the morning with a new perspective on the world,” Omotto says. “We work on projects that do not recycle the ideas or biases of yesterday.”

The power of technology to advance change has always been part of Omotto's vision for development in Kibera and before working with Stanford he claims there were no other mobile phone-based projects here.

“Access to information is power and technology represents the future potential to transfer and share information,” he says.

Over a lunch of rice, vegetables and bits of meat, Omotto talks about the unique partnership with Stanford. It’s unusual to see student researchers in the field translating knowledge into practice and impact, he says. Other researchers have showed up at Umande Trust to collect data for their surveys. But they rarely stay long enough for lunch or a walk through Kibera.

Before the course starts, students spend over a week in Kenya meeting with local NGO partners, conducting needs assessments with the community and developing the ideas that will turn into their design projects.

Some of the prototypes created have used mobile phones for reproductive health counseling, to coordinate a system of community foot patrols, provide legal advice, report violent crime, and incentivize savings, among others. With the ease of a mobile device, they attempt to break the information divide that exists in Nairobi's poorest communities to connect users directly to medical, health and legal professionals.

Not all the projects succeed. But M-Maji seems to be defying the odds.

Leveling the playing field

Standing outside in the hot afternoon sun as water trickled from the tap into the muddy street, one of Kibera's few female water vendors enthusiastically endorsed the M-Maji service. She’s optimistic that the service would drive more customers to her smaller kiosk that struggles to compete with the larger vendors in Kibera.

At her station, a teenage girl rinses her clothes in bright red plastic basins of soapy water as young children run through the narrow streets filling small tin cups. As they drink, dogs fight over scraps of garbage.

“M-Maji allows the poorer water vendor to enter the marketplace,” Omotto says. “The larger water vendors are well known, they control the water supply and are connected to big political players and the government. The moment you make this information open you liberalize the system.”

M-Maji's co-founder agrees.

“The system will put downward pressure on the water prices so if you are selling water for five shillings when it is only worth two shillings, then someone else will sell it for four and people will go there,” Jeon says.

In discussing the politics of water, Omotto says water is one of the few areas the Kenyan government has been making an effort to improve in Kibera.

“The government does not invest in informal settlements,” he says. “Resources are typically channeled outside the city into rural areas or spent on defense and the police.”

Omotto shrugs his shoulders when asked why water policy has improved in Kibera and suggests that the new Kenyan constitution – which contains provisions for water rights – might be the answer. Or he just chalks it up to politics, suggesting that it may have to do with the political ambitions of the current water minister. Not surprising in a country where resource allocation and politics go hand-in-hand.

Scaling the service

As the project grows, water quality testing is going to be an important component. M-Maji is planning to do periodic tests on the water quality and would eventually like to employ infographics technology to visually plot the sources of contaminated water for residents. Jeon is hoping to work with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's office in Kibera on water quality testing.

While M-Maji is gearing up for a full launch of the service this year, they expressed concern about the sustainability of the project. For the pilot they received small grants through the Freeman Spogli Institute's Global Underdevelopment Action Fund and the Center for Innovation in Global Health. But it is uncertain where the funding will come from going forward.

M-Maji does not charge people to use the service, which is equivalent to the cost of sending a text message, but will be unable to subsidize the service indefinitely.

“The cost of sending a message through M-Maji is the cost of one vegetable or liter of water,” Omotto says, underscoring the trade-offs that will force the M-Maji team to work hard to prove the utility of the service to the community and vendors.

Umande Trust has already received 400 calls from community members interested in the service and believes M-Maji will have traction on the ground once it is fully launched. Lugaka has been busy working with the local radio station in Kibera to develop advertisements for M-Maji as part of a larger community outreach strategy.

The problem of water availability and quality are not unique to Kibera. If the project takes off it has the potential to scale to other human settlements across Africa and the world.

“If the technology works perfectly then Kibera is just the start,” Jeon says.