Japanese architect promoting construction of “infrastructure-free homes in Nairobi

Japanese and Kenyan architects Izumi Sakata and Dick O'Lango talk on the roof of a housing unit under construction in the Katani district of Nairobi. The two are promoting the Rainbow Project to build green homes. | KYODO
Japanese and Kenyan architects Izumi Sakata and Dick O’Lango talk on the roof of a housing unit under construction in the Katani district of Nairobi. The two are promoting the Rainbow Project to build green homes. | KYODO

A Japanese architect is promoting construction of “infrastructure-free” homes for people in a Nairobi slum.

“Kenya has ‘people power’ though it’s poor,” Izumi Sakata, 59, said. “Seeds cultivated in Japan should bear a lot of fruit there.”

Sakata is leading a project in Kenya to build homes in areas lacking water supply, sewers, electricity and other infrastructure. A 12-unit apartment building is due to be completed early next year in a suburb of the Kenyan capital, the project’s first major achievement.

While each 22-sq.-meter unit will have a kitchen and bathroom, the building features a water-free toilet system.

“As building and maintaining gigantic infrastructure entails enormous costs, the mechanism the modern age has relied on is collapsing,” said Sakata, citing “network-type sewage systems” as a typical example of high-cost infrastructure.

Sakata plans to create a “self-contained” home that converts human waste and kitchen garbage into manure, cleans rainwater and groundwater so it is drinkable, and generates electricity using recycled batteries.

The water-free toilet system, the first step toward Sakata’s goal, was developed by a Japanese housing equipment maker for the project.

The system separates solid waste from urine and mixes kitchen garbage and sawdust with the former. The mixture is left for several months to ferment, by which time it has developed into high-quality manure because its temperature rises above 50 degrees, killing germs and worms.

The whole work can be automated if advanced technologies are adopted. But a key question is “how much people in developing nations should depend on technology, because leaving tasks such as transporting human waste and converting it into manure provides some with an income,” Sakata said.

Sakata joined the office of leading postwar architect Kunio Maekawa after attending graduate school at Kyoto University. He was then recommended by a professor to teach architectural theory at a university near Nairobi.

“I wondered where Nairobi was and even thought it was the name of a country,” Sakata recalled. But he eventually accepted the offer and taught at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology for a year from April 1994.

He said he walked around on weekends and was impressed by the “human power” of local people.

Returning to Japan with a determination to utilize that power, Sakata launched Rainbow Project with Dick O’Lango, 36, a Kenyan architect, aimed at building infrastructure-free homes.

Mary Adhiambo, a 51-year-old housewife who lives in the slum, is looking forward to fulfilling her 15-year dream of moving into an apartment building.

Like other people in the district, the Adhiambo family lives in a shack and she earns 3,000 to 5,000 Kenyan shillings (¥3,900 to ¥6,500) per month by selling fried bread and coffee.

The new apartment building will accept slum residents who can save a certain amount of their daily earnings to pay 20 percent of the construction costs. Adhiambo has already saved enough over the last 15 years.

There will be areas for making manure and growing produce on the premises. While residents will begin moving into the building in stages from early next year, Sakata, who visits Nairobi almost every month, is also planning to build infrastructure-free dwellings for 500 families from the slum within a few years.


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