Our doors are always open: Climbing the sanitation ladder together

Community health volunteers reinforce public health messages

Joy Wanja Muraya
Sanitation community health volunteer
17 November 2021

A common adage goes that work that creates real value, like childcare, teaching and community advocates, rarely pays well. The same can be said of community health volunteers who have dedicated their lives to public service in Kenya’s Kitui County.

The Musokini Self Help group comprises 22 women who have become more of family than the public health champions they are.

The group’s initial goal was to promote Universal Health Coverage, a government commitment to provide every Kenyan with affordable medical coverage by 2022. Starting in 2016, the women from Musokini would visit homesteads to reinforce public health messages and ensure families were healthy.

Sanitation community health volunteers

But today, this group has transformed into community advocates who have gone beyond the national health agenda.

“We began selling sanitation products,” says Joyce Kanini, one of the members. “The proceeds were used for table banking where we took loans from the groups for personal development like paying school fees, buying household goods and later repay with interest,” says Joyce Kanini, one of the members of the group.

Some group members like Dorcas Mwendwa have ventured into businesses such as soap making, which has provided extra money to support their families.

Making disinfectant and handwashing soap

“I was trained to make disinfectant and handwashing soap which have become a crucial public health measure during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Mwendwa.

Another group is called Bar Agulu group, which operates in Siaya County and is committed to ending open dedication.

The community health volunteers have been trained on the importance of basic sanitation, installing SaTo toilet products, as well as setting up income generating activities like soap making.

Siaya County achieved open defecation free (ODF) status for 2,245 villages -- equivalent to 100 per cent ODF and 92 per cent latrine coverage – in April, 2018. The county has now embarked on post-ODF activities, maintaining sanitation standards  and improving latrines and basic household sanitation.

Even with the commitment and success of community groups, one major challenge is non-payment of debts by customers who purchase sanitation products.

To combat the issue, Financial Inclusion Improves Sanitation & Health in Kenya (FINNISH INC) is working with the communities in Kitui County to create access for basic sanitation to for healthier children, women, families and communities.

Sylvanus Mark Owuor, a programme officer at FINNISH INK says the sanitation programme has been a great success largely because of the dedication of the community health workers who have vowed to ensure every household has a toilet and that it is used properly.

“Our main role is to create awareness on the need for a safe and durable toilet and to strengthen local businesses,” he says.

On development, a total of 75 entrepreneurs, mainly young people in Siaya County, have been trained to establish sanitation businesses including construction services. They are working with new toilets and improving existing ones, using SaTo products, starting up mini hardware businesses for stocking and supplying construction materials, manufacturing hygiene and maintenance products, such as detergents, disinfectants and soap, as well as running other water, sanitation and hygiene-related businesses.

Selling soap

Soap-making business with a community health worker in Siaya County.

In the meantime, an effort to eliminate open defecation in Kenya by 2025 has been launched by the government and partners.

The Kenya Sanitation Alliance is led by the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Water, Sanitation and Irrigation, along with 15 county governments with the highest rates of open defecation.

(The 15 counties are Baringo, Garissa, Homa Bay, Isiolo, Kajiado, Kilifi, Kwale, Mandera, Marsabit, Narok, Samburu, Tana River, Turkana, Wajir, and West Pokot.)

The alliance will bring together decisionmakers from the 15 counties, to take steps toward achieving Kenya Vision 2030, a plan for industrializing the country, review progress and mobilize resources.

UNICEF Kenya WASH chief Mahboob Bajwa says Kenya is one of many countries that are off track to end open defecation by 2030. “Ongoing investment in sanitation services by governments is necessary to shift community behaviour so that ‘toilet use by all’ becomes the new norm.”

He said UNICEF will support counties to align their sanitation policies, strategy, road map and subnational operational plans to the SDG 6.2 target and to the Kenya Vision 2030 commitments.

Specifically, UNICEF will provide technical and financial support to bring together senior leadership from the 15 counties and key development partners to create a sanitation movement that eliminates open defecation in these counties in five years.

By Joy Wanja Muraya