David Kuria

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2007
This description of David Kuria's work was prepared when David Kuria was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007 .


David Kuria is creating high quality sanitation facilities accessible to the urban poor, by connecting sanitation as part of the dignity of living in community. He includes the community in the design, construction, and management of the facilities.

The New Idea

David is the first to successfully construct and manage hygienic public sanitation facilities in Kenyan slums and other informal settlements. He engages urban communities in the design and construction of his “Iko toilet” (coined from the word “eco” meaning environmentally friendly). David has made sanitation facilities a profitable venture for the urban poor as well as the business community by collecting dues and providing innovative financing schemes in collaboration with local and international financial institutions and funding partners.

The time is ripe for David’s initiative, with an increasing focus on improving the standards of urban communities in all the major cities of East Africa. City councils are eager to have new and effective mechanisms of service delivery, and donors are willing to provide alternative financing for David’s sanitation facilities. This opportunity represents a significant shift towards a long-term collaborative and creative process between urban communities, city authorities, and the business community in the region. David is well poised to influence and change public health practices for many communities.

The Problem

Approximately 60 percent of Kenyans in major cities live in 199 slums across the country, and the conditions are dehumanizing. Houses are no more than ten square meters, and often accommodate large families. Because there is little space between and within homes, there are no effective and efficient waste disposal mechanisms.

Although built on land owned by the Nairobi City Council, Kibera is an illegal settlement. In the 1920s the British colonial government allowed a group of Nubian soldiers to settle on a piece of land in Nairobi. The Nubians—an ethnic group from neighboring Sudan—had been fighting on the side of the allies in World War I, as part of the King’s African Rifles, but the British did not give the land titles to the Sudanese. So while the Nubians built homes and businesses, they had no legal rights over the land. Since then they have been joined by many other tribes but the Kenyan government still does not recognize Kibera as a legal settlement—explaining the absence of government water and sanitation services.

Kibera is the biggest slum in Nairobi and after Soweto, the second largest in Africa. It is home to 800,000 people, approximately one third of the population of Nairobi, but squeezed into one square mile of land. Without government services, Kibera relies on an inadequate and privately owned water supply. The residents share only 600 toilets. The result is indiscriminate disposal of waste, out of date latrines, open sewers, improper drainage, no rubbish collection and wide spread disease. These are extremely overcrowded and unhealthy living conditions.

In the last twenty years many local and international citizen organizations (COs) have concentrated their resources on installing improved ventilation in pit latrines in informal settlements. Although they are cost effective they are not sustainable and have resulted in many unused structures.While the Kenyan government has commissioned several housing projects with quality sanitation facilities, water and drainage systems on the outskirts of Kibera, without recognized legal status, sanitation facilities have not been provided to Kibera. Moreover, these projects have often resulted in more squalid conditions for residents as their land is reduced to accommodate major housing projects.

Slums are a long standing problem in African cities. The introduction of trade during colonial times that was more economically rewarding to replace the subsistence livelihoods and the emergence of cities as the centers of trade attracted people from their farmlands. In reality, cities could not provide opportunities for all the migrating workers to make sufficient incomes and informal settlements grew to accommodate the growing population. Many African governments perceive slums as tangible evidence of their inability to protect their people.

The Strategy

David knew that even in dehumanizing living conditions, it is essential that people retain their self-esteem and self-worth. By connecting sanitation with dignity, David is successfully equipping informal sector communities with the tools and skills required to manage their sanitation. He facilitates the communities to identify local resources, design and manage the sanitation facilities, and makes the toilets profitable investments for private investors. David provides public health education programs to build knowledge among slum and informal settlement communities, private investors, and city authorities to ensure proper management of the facilities and the importance of hygiene.

David began by getting a community to donate some of their space to construct a public sanitation facility. This requires a deep understanding of the power structure in the communities and persistently engaging senior authorities to buy in to the idea—to build community consensus on the program. David has successfully sold his program to three slums in Kenya by connecting his facilities with the dignity of the people. When the community agrees to participate, the authorities will donate land (often where former sanitation facilities were located) for the construction of the facilities.

To capture the enthusiasm of the community David quickly implements community design workshops and taps into the creativity of the local population to generate architectural ideas for the facility. The workshops are themed, think beyond the toilet, to encourage participants to develop their ideas. The participants draw their ideal facilities on small sheets of paper. David’s role—using his advanced understanding of structural design—to advise the community about practical considerations for the space and the available resources. The end result is determined by community consensus and is vital to the next phase of the project. The resources will need to be voluntarily offered by the community, and David challenges them to contribute in any way to the actual construction of the facility. Through these clinics, he manages to gather skilled labor, tools, construction material, and funding. Guided by his experience, the community will construct the facility; creating ownership and igniting a sense of pride among the residents. Once completed, a committee is elected by the community to manage the facility. The committee manages it by collecting user fees, keeping it clean, and does repairs when necessary. David’s role is to provide technical support and management advice to the committee. In 2003, David constructed his first three toilets in Kibera. Each toilet was designed to serve 200 people, but currently serves 500 people. Because the facilities are kept clean, many residents have abandoned their toilets and prefer to pay for the facilities. Since these toilets proved successful in improving the hygiene and sense of dignity of the residents of Kibera, David is keen to spread the facilities to the other 198 slums in Kenya.

However, the construction cost of one toilet was so high that communities would find it challenging to do within their resources, and caused user fees to be high for the average resident. David’s new structures—improvements on the design from the community workshops—tackle these challenges by turning all aspects of the toilets into sources of income. With provisions to attract external investors, the structure has space for advertisements, a booth for shoe shiners, telephone booths, and newspaper vendors. The revenue generated from these enterprises will go back to the management committee to subsidize, and therefore reduce the user fees. Even human waste is collected and turned into gas that is pumped back into the facility for light and hot water. While the urine harvested is donated to community groups engaged in composting.

In 2006 David registered IKO Toilet as a CO to spread the sanitation facilities. Through his organization, he promotes the toilets to private investors as a profitable venture. His plan is to enter contracts with businessmen to lease the toilets for five years. The private investor constructs and runs the facility after which he hands it back to the management committee. Within this period, an investor would have recovered their initial investment and made a profit. Central to this strategy is convincing the private sector that investing in hygiene and sanitation is profitable and putting together an attractive package for investors.

David has convinced Safaricom—Kenya’s largest telecommunications company—and Royal Gate—a local real estate firm—to pay for advertising at the sanitation facilities. Kiwi—Kenya’s leading maker of shoe polish—has also bought into the idea, renting all shoeshine spots at the facility. With these income streams on top of user fees the investment proposal is eye catching. He partners with the business community to replicate and spread these economically viable sanitation facilities.

However, a new challenge arose: Raising the initial financing for the construction. No bank in Kenya recognized sanitation, especially public toilets in slum areas, as a viable investment worthy of a loan. Although his investment plan presented a compelling business opportunity, David could not find a local bank to provide the initial loan for the facility. He then took his case to international finance institutions and donors, where he attracted a diverse range of support from banks and private investment funds. He eventually identified a local bank to provide attractive financing schemes to private investors who take on the investment opportunity.

David has negotiated with the municipality in Nakuru to give free five-year leases on land for constructing the facilities. So far, the municipality has approved seven sites. After putting together the investment package, David meets with private investors to present the opportunity.

The Person

As early as age thirteen, David was renting his own one room house and managing his own finances. He was born in a tailoring family and by fifteen he was a qualified tailor, designing his own school bags from scrap pieces of cloth. To raise extra money for school, David offered tailoring services to his classmates for a fee.

A qualified architect, David has worked in both the public and private sectors. He has left new systems everywhere that continue to run today. As an architect in the Nairobi City Council, he introduced computer programs and the Internet that improved the efficiency of staff. While working for Practical Action, a private organization that develops simple technologies for poverty eradication, he was part of the team that developed a power generating system for rural communities requiring only a stream. But David’s real passion is working with slum development, born at age thirteen when he rented his house in a poor neighborhood. Without water or electricity, David developed a resolve to improve the lives of slum residents.