Tag archives: applied research

#WEDC41 Part 5: Be the change you want to see

In July, I spent two weeks in Kenya at the WEDC conference in Nakuru and visiting sanitation companies, Sanergy and Sanivation, and the newly-established sanitation research group at Meru University of Science and Technology. This is the last in a five-part series of blogs about that conference and those visits. You can see the earlier posts about (the lack of) government support for container-based sanitation businesses here, about WASH failures here, about behaviour change toolkits here, and about systems mapping and the role of religion here.

Sometimes you meet a person who you know is going to make big changes to the world around them. Joy Riungu, the Dean of Engineering and Architecture at Meru University of Science and Technology (MUST) is one of those people.

Meru, like any other town in East Africa, has its fair share of sanitation challenges. The sewerage system left behind by the British colonialists covers a small area of the town centre and is overloaded. Some of the septic tankers that serve those not connected to the sewerage system empty at the sewage treatment works but it is just as likely that they will empty into a storm water drain or a river. Many people’s only access to sanitation is a stinking pit latrine that seeps away into the nearest undergrowth or watercourse. Others have no option but to defecate in the open.

Joy wants to see all of that change. Her new research group, which includes microbiologists, engineers, economists, and agriculturalists, is determined that the work they do should lead to real changes to sanitation for Meru. Already, they are working with a local school to provide container-based toilets that separate urine and faeces and will not be affected by flooding when the heavy rains come. The waste from those toilets will be treated at a new black soldier fly larvae treatment facility on the university campus alongside food waste from the local market. The aim is a system with no waste products. The black soldier fly larvae are pasteurised to kill any pathogens and then fed to chickens, the residue from the treatment process is turned into a fertiliser and the urine will also be treated to produce a liquid fertiliser.

Joy recognises the challenges that Meru faces but sees them as opportunities. Across Kenya, if engineers are exposed to any form of wastewater treatment training during their degree, it is heavily focused on sewered sanitation. Joy sees a huge opportunity for MUST to become the first training centre for on-site sanitation engineers in Kenya. The people of Meru have a preference for the “flush and forget” approach of sewered sanitation but know that it isn’t an option for everyone. Joy is determined to ensure that the community understand that faecal sludge treatment and reuse can be a more cost-effective and sustainable option for their town.

Joy wants the research that her team does to have a direct impact on the communities around her and she recognises that Meru Water and Sewerage Services (MEWASS) are a critical stakeholder in that. For now, the MEWASS management won’t let her in to visit the sewage treatment works as they know the system does not operate well. However, when she took us to peer over the fence, one of the operators came to say hello. He was a former student and was pleased to see Joy and the rest of the team’s interest in improving the operation of the works. He promised to stay in touch. It is these little encounters that make you realise that where others only see challenges, Joy sees opportunities.

The enthusiasm and determination of Joy and her team is infectious. It is hard to look around the site when they are planning a faecal sludge laboratory, treatment facilities and agricultural field trials and not see the impact they are going to have on their town, their county, their country and beyond. Remember these names, and watch this space!

Why I’m not the right person to solve your problems: an engineer in sanitation

I sat in a meeting recently about sanitation prototypes that are being tested in the “real world” – the informal settlements and rural households that they have been designed for, rather than the labs where they were created. As with any early stage testing, the prototypes have problems and it was these problems and the potential solutions that were under discussion at the meeting.

While listening to these challenges, it hit me. As an engineer, I am not the right person to solve sanitation problems. Of course, there are some technical problems with the prototypes – materials that foul in a different way than expected causing downstream problems, control sequences that need adapting to deal with different circumstances – but it is the non-technical challenges that really interested me. Some are focused on the views of individuals, like toilet users being unhappy with human excreta being stored in close proximity to their perched backside; some are linked to the wider community, like jealousy and distrust of the families who have been selected to trial new toilets; some are political, like the wrangling between settlement committees and councillors affiliated to different political parties; and some are linked to the wider economic situation of the area, like the theft and sale of copper wire used for earthing electrical connections. Some of these problems do have a technical aspect and technology may play a part in the solutions but, for the most part, sanitation is a social issue.

So what’s an engineer to do?

First, as an engineer I have to acknowledge that I don’t have all the pieces to complete this jigsaw puzzle.

Next, I have to make sure I am working with the people who can add in the puzzle pieces that I don’t have. The advantage of the prototype testing discussed in this meeting is that there are a wide range of people involved – academics with social science and engineering backgrounds, community development specialists who work closely with the communities where prototypes are being tested, and municipal representatives who can contribute valuable knowledge on the economic and political intricacies of the sanitation issues in these communities. Of course, having those people in the room is not enough in itself, which brings me to…

I have to listen to what they say and understand when I have reached the limits of my own expertise. That is not to say that my views are useless here. However, the solution to every problem is not technical. My softer engineering skills still offer a huge amount of value – a logical approach to problem-solving, an ability to work within a team, and written and spoken communication of complex ideas.

There are several young engineers involved in this testing and I hope that the experience of working with a diverse team will help them to recognise the value of inter-disciplinary collaboration when it comes to overcoming challenges in sanitation. Sanitation is a complex issue and engineers cannot solve these problems alone.