Citizen science for improved air quality in Nairobi and Addis Ababa

Air pollution is associated with 670,000 premature deaths in Africa each year, but action on controlling pollution has been hampered by a lack of awareness and information on the pollution hotspots. In this story, we find out how a citizen science project working in Nairobi, Kenya, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, aims to change that.

Africa is experiencing the world’s highest human population growth rate, and at the same time is the world’s fastest urbanizing region. It is estimated that Africa will account for more than half of the world’s projected population increase from 7.6 billion in 2018 to 9.8 billion in 2050, with sub-Saharan Africa recording the highest pace of urbanisation among all the world’s regions. The explosion in urban spaces – of people, settlements and industries – brings with it new challenges for settlements, waste management, sanitation and pollution in urban Africa. In searching for solutions, can citizen science – in which non-scientists and amateurs participate in research – provide an edge? A team of early-career researchers from Nairobi, Kenya, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, have joined forces to find out.

Mukuru is the third largest informal settlement in Nairobi, with a population of more than 100,000 squeezed into just 647 acres of land in an industrial area to the south-east of the city centre. The challenges faced by the community are similar to those faced in many informal settlements: extreme overcrowding, poor sanitation and water services, and a constant threat of eviction due to insecure land tenure. The quality of the environment – especially pollution of air, water and land – has increasingly worsened in Mukuru over the years, but there’s little or no information on the scale of the problem and the impacts on the inhabitants of the area.

Located on the outskirts of Mukuru are many smoke-emitting and polluting industries, including factories producing chemicals, paper, chalk and plastic, as well as steel-recycling plants and tanneries. On a major landfill site, waste from Mukuru and other parts of Nairobi is burnt in the open all day long, filling the settlement with smoke. The smoke primarily consists of particles and occasionally pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, which may be toxic to human health. The smoke outdoors is compounded by indoor smoke, mainly resulting from the residents’ cooking habits. Homes in Mukuru are typically poorly ventilated one-room houses, in which residents cook by burning biomass fuels such as kerosene, charcoal and firewood. This is typical across Africa; of the estimated 7.5 million tonnes of fine particulate matter emitted annually in Africa, almost three-quarters is from burning biomass indoors.

“The major problem in a place like Mukuru, where we are surrounded by industries, is the prevalence of respiratory infections, and chronic illnesses such as asthma and tuberculosis which affect many of the residents”, says Joseph Waweru, a resident of Mukuru.

As the exposure to pollutants increases, residents are becoming more aware and are increasingly concerned with the negative health consequences. The primary pollutant of concern is fine particulate matter (PM) – very tiny particles that are not visible to the naked eye but have serious effects on health, causing illnesses of the upper respiratory system. PM is estimated to be associated with 670,000 premature deaths in Africa each year.

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Actions to control air pollution and reduce exposure of the community to PM have been severely limited by lack of information and awareness among local communities, researchers, policy makers and industrial investors on where the pollution hotspots are, the magnitude of the problem and potential impacts on health. In the absence of information, some residents were observing symptoms of air pollution exposure such as coughing, but were not able to relate this to the high levels of pollution in the area, and consequently were not taking any measures to reduce their personal exposure. For example, one of the female residents interviewed mentioned that her child experienced high coughing and sneezing while in Mukuru, but said the same was not the case whenever she travelled to her rural home upcountry. She could not understand why this happened until she got involved in the air pollution study where she learnt about the effects of air pollution on health.

The lack of information further hampers implementation of the changes required to curb the rapid increase in air pollution. For example, few community members were able to relate the increase in risk to lack of or poor ventilation in their households, especially when cooking in the evening, yet most families in Mukuru use biomass and kerosene for cooking, heating and lighting, and these are associated with high PM emissions. Of the 538 households that participated in our study, 40% of respondents who live in Reuben and Viwandani sections of Mukuru occupy houses without windows or proper ventilation. The community members noted that while all are affected by the pollution indoors, women who cook, and children and the elderly who spend most of their time indoors, were more exposed to high levels of PM indoors.

In order to get a deeper understanding of this complex problem, a team of researchers and practitioners from the Stockholm Environment Institute Africa (SEI), APHRC (African Population and Health Research Center), University of Nairobi, Slum Dwellers International Kenyan Chapter (popularly known as Muungano wa Wanavijiji), and the Horn of Africa Regional Centre and Network (HOAREC) in Ethiopia have teamed up to use the citizen science approach, working with the communities so as to co-produce knowledge that will respond to the community’s and policy makers’ needs to address air pollution in Nairobi and Addis Ababa. These researchers have trained some residents and given them portable PM sensors to assess their exposure to particulate matter both indoors and outdoors.

“We started by working with the local community, identifying some talented young people in the community, training them and then working with them to collect the data. We did it this way because we wanted to provide them with the opportunity to be actively involved in the research, learn from it and take actions to reduce their personal exposure. And also, we believed that they are part of the solution,” says Philip Osano, the principal investigator of the joint research project.

Besides moving around with the portable sensors, the trained community members also participated in focus group discussions and in qualitative interviews through household surveys in order to better understand the complex context of indoor and outdoor air pollution and its related health impacts.

In the process, the selected community members are also sharing information with fellow residents, and with policy makers in Nairobi and Addis Ababa, and contributing to raising awareness of the potential health impacts of air pollution. Some of the citizen scientists are community health workers (CHWs) – people from the community, mostly women, who have been trained as paramedics by the Ministry of Health to be able to assist with health outreach services among local residents. These CHWs are now helping to educate others on how to avoid being exposed to air pollution as part of their routine health education visits to families, through a programme funded by the Health Departments.

In this way, the involvement of community members, policy makers, industry groups (such as the Kenya Association of Manufacturers), and civic associations (such as the Kenya Alliance of Residents Association in Kenya and the 100 Resilient Cities Network in Addis Ababa) to co-produce knowledge also facilitates the process of framing relevant solutions. “We are raising awareness about the magnitude of the challenge of air pollution and having discussions with them to increase the understanding of some very simple solutions such as opening windows when cooking in the evening, and removing sacks mounted on walls, that they can actually even do without external intervention” says Philip.

In addition to practical actions to reduce exposure, knowing more about the sources and risks of pollution has enabled the community to speak up about the smoke. “I had a good experience being part of the research because I also got to learn about [it] and that stopping it can only start with us before we can approach other players like factories and other stakeholders”, says Elizabeth Njoroge, a resident of Mukuru, who together with other youths in the community, has since taken up advocacy activities, including producing videos to raise awareness on the pollution challenges (see “Injustice” and “Nyongwa: Smoke chokes”).

For the research team, involving different interest groups, despite being challenging, has already helped to generate interest in their findings. The results of the PM measurements have been included in the status report for the Nairobi City County’s Mukuru Special Planning Area (SPA) project. The research and practitioner teams also are actively involved in the preparation of the Air Quality Policy and Air Quality Action Plan for the Nairobi City which is being developed by the Nairobi City County Government, besides contributing to the national air quality management plans and to the international projects on air pollution and health coordinated by the UN Environment (UNEP) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Addis Ababa.

As the researchers acknowledge, it is no longer enough for scientists to do research and publish findings in peer-reviewed journals in isolation. Involving the people affected by the problem through citizen science approaches, as the team are doing in Mukuru, promises to not only provide a deeper understanding of the problem but also enable and facilitate the co-creation of solutions that are relevant to the affected communities, and policy actions that are owned and driven by government institutions.

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