Michelle Chen and Jesika Haria, two members of MIT’s Engineers Without Borders chapter, have come to Nairobi this summer to help Sanergy develop a shower module to complement, in time, the Sanergy toilet. We believe strongly in creating products tailored to what people in the slums desire and can afford. Michelle and Jesika share their insights on taking their work from the classroom into the field:

“Exploring the Nairobi slums this summer has been like zooming into a Seurat picture. From our perspective at MIT, we could only see the big picture and made similarly big assumptions. As we drew closer, we realized that there were so many more dots to decipher.

Interviewing Residents

We had thought that we could identify most of the problems associated with the current bathing situation – such as water supply, proximity to homes, and spatial constraints, and then just figure out how to adapt the model that we had built at school.

However, we soon learned that the slums were much more difficult to understand and that it would take tremendous effort just to identify all of the pertinent factors. We interviewed local residents in the slum of Kwa Njenga for two weeks to learn about bathing habits. Some of our assumptions got thrown out the window immediately – for example, there were practically no bathrooms at all suitable for a shower addition. We found the main issues that burdened residents include: a lack of privacy when confined to 10ft x 10ft homes, having water spill everywhere during the bathing process, and having to carry water from a central basin to their external bathrooms (if they have one), which were often far away, where they would then bathe.

For our next redesign, we have several insights: first, we want to make our shower both more portable and more compact so that more people could gain access to showers with the desired privacy. Second, we have begun to prototype an air compression water pump using jerry cans – which are commonplace throughout the slums – in order to control the flow of water. Finally, we have begun to develop a methodology to reuse shower water for agricultural purposes.

New Testing

Working in the field has been a challenging and exhilarating experience. We’re headed back to MIT with new ideas, hard data, and, most importantly, a unique sense of that Seurat-like Nairobi. With a more realistic big picture, we are excited to launch into the next stage of designing our shower module.