Tag archives: container-based sanitation

#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!

#WEDC41 Part 1: The challenges of the world’s number 2 business

In July, I spent two weeks in Kenya at the 41st 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 first in a five-part series of blogs about that conference and those visits.

Sanivation and Sanergy are two companies making changes to the state of sanitation in Kenya.  The two companies provide container-based sanitation services to residents in Nairobi and in Naivasha and are using the collected poop to make a product that they can sell.

Sanergy uses a combination of black soldier fly larvae processing and composting to create animal feed and fertiliser.  Sanivation dries faecal material to produce briquettes that replace the charcoal used for cooking across Kenya.  Despite treating faecal waste to produce different products, the two companies face some similar challenges.

Both companies pointed out that it has taken longer than they expected to develop the businesses to where they are today.  Currently, both companies are reliant on donor funding to allow them to cover costs and have not yet reached profitability.  It is a challenge that is common for sanitation businesses, particularly those aimed at sanitation provision for the poorest people in society.  This was highlighted in SOIL’s latest report about their container-based sanitation work in Haiti.

Part of the challenge is that sanitation companies in LMICs are held to higher account than those in HICs, by donors and governments.  In Kenya, sanitation companies are often expected to provide sanitation services from scratch with no involvement from the government.  But compare that to the UK, where most wastewater treatment companies inherited sewage treatment works and sewer networks that had been built through government funding.  Even new infrastructure projects benefit from huge amounts of government support – look at the Thames Tideway Tunnel for example, billed as London’s new super sewer, which has been provided with a government support package which transfers liability to the taxpayer if certain risks materialise.

If companies are to provide sanitation services with no support from government and turn a profit, then they have to focus on the most profitable sections of that service.  For example, both Sanivation and Sanergy treat faecal material but the urine from their urine diversion toilets is sent to the public sewer (in the case of Sanergy) or stored, diluted and allowed to infiltrate into the ground (in the case of Sanivation).  Why?  Urine simply does not have the concentration of nutrients to make urine processing a financially viable process.  This is something that donors are not always keen on.  They want to see a full service for the world’s poorest.

Providing sanitation solutions to the poorest people in society requires alternative sources of income, and sustainable sanitation through processing faecal material into valuable and saleable resources can offer part of the solution.  However, wherever in the world sanitation businesses are based, if they are to succeed, we need to recognise the huge value that comes from the support of institutions such as governments.  We need to understand that whilst private companies play an important role in providing sanitation for all, we cannot expect them to do it alone.