Korogocho is one of the largest slums in Kenya, located in the capital Nairobi.
In Swahili, Korogocho means ‘crowded shoulder-to-shoulder’ — about 150,000 people live here.
Because of inflation, residents are resorting to plastic — also called gunny bags — to cook, in spite of obvious health and environmental concerns.
Peris Nyambura, mother of three, has been living in Korogocho for the past 20 years.
“Life has been difficult and I can’t afford charcoal.I cook for my children with gunny bags that I collect from the dumping site. I am afraid of my health because I get chest pains. This house has no windows, the fumes from gunny bags do not leave, it remains in this house,” she says.
Her house has no windows, so the smoke emanating from the plastic is trapped inside the only room, which serves as the living room, bedroom, and kitchen.
Korogocho lacks proper sanitation services, and is also affected by the spread of HIV, drug and alcohol addiction, as well as domestic violence.
And global inflation is making the situation even worse.
The living conditions, characterised by extreme poverty, have been hit by the soaring cost of fuels such as charcoal and gas.
So families are swapping charcoal with gunny bags which are mostly made of polypropylene, to cook their meals.
Restaurants have also made the switch.
Monica Wanjiru has operated a restaurant for the last 15 years.
“I used to cook with firewood, but when it became expensive, I started to cook with marondo (plastic bags) because they are cheap. Since I started to use this marondo (plastic bags), I have not heard any complaints from anyone,” says Wanjiru.
One of her clients, Agnes Waiheti, eats here.
“I am a street mother who lives in Nairobi and since food is too expensive in town I cannot afford to eat there. Charcoal is expensive, paraffin is expensive and I cannot afford to buy gas. So I come to buy food from this woman because she cooks with marondo (plastic bags) so her food is cheaper than other hotels,” says Waiheti.
But the cost to people’s health is extremely high, according to Faith Muhonja, public health expert.
“Burning of these plastics produces gases,” she says.
“An example of the gas that is produced is actually dioxin which is very dangerous and toxic to (the) human body. It predisposes an individual to non-communicable diseases such as lung cancer, it causes skin rashes because the gas is easily absorbed through the skin. It can also cause lack of oxygen and fatigue and therefore dizziness and headaches can also be witnessed by the people who are exposed to this particular gas. It can be passed from a mother who is expecting an unborn child vertically through the placenta. Another thing is that these gases can also be passed through animals and plants which by very nature we will end up consuming even by use of water or contaminated food.”
Plastic bags are readily available and cheap. Gladys Mburu has been selling them for over five years.
But her clientele is now buying them for different purposes. “We buy these gunny bags from companies then we sew them. We sell them to those who will dry maize and beans on them, those who cook street food and also in their homes because they cannot afford to buy gas or paraffin,” says Mburu.
Communities in Korogocho are extremely vulnerable to severe health risks, and the situation is worsened by this type of negative coping strategy adressing skyrocketing fuel costs.
For most households in Korogocho, it’s a matter of not being able to eat, or eat and compromising their own health.
Fuel prices have more than doubled within the last few years in Kenya, requiring low-income households to dig deeper into their pockets to cook their meals.
A whole sack of gunny bags goes for ksh.50 ($0.50) and can last up to one month, depending on usage.
Roseanne Mucogo buys her plastic bags from Mburu. She is unemployed and depends on casual jobs to feed her family.
The mother of four claims that since her firstborn is in high school, she uses the bags so she can save and afford to pay school fees.
“Since the war in Ukraine started and COVID-19, commodities have increased in prices. Food and gas have increased in prices. That is why we are using marondo (plastic bags), so we are going to the hospital more frequently because the smoke is affecting us,” she says.
Typical houses in Korogocho are made of tin or corrugated iron roofing and mud or corrugated iron walls.
Plastic bags generate high levels of potentially harmful gases in the indoor environment.
Women patch holes in the roofing to reduce exposure to the high levels of air pollution and minimize the risk of respiratory infections and other diseases for their loved ones.
And beyond human health, the fumes also negatively affect the environment.
“When you burn plastics it produces the black soot. This is a composition of several greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane and these are the gases that are primarily responsible for global warming,” says Victor Boiyo, environmentalist.