Tag archives: 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 4: The wider system and the role of religion

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 fourth 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 and about behaviour change toolkits here.

Nothing exists in a bubble. Sanitation is no exception. Sanitation is a social issue and any sanitation process will be affected by the communities, businesses, governments, NGOs and a host of other stakeholders that interact with them. Understanding that sanitation is part of a wider system and how that system works is a vital part of successful projects.

WASH Catalysts Malawi and Engineers Without Borders Canada held a workshop on systems mapping. The aim of systems mapping is to understand the stakeholders present and how they relate to each other. Armed with that information, it is easier to identify potential blockages to sustainable projects. The example that was given was an NGO looking at a withdrawal strategy from Malawi. They had set up a borehole management system that was working well but were concerned that when they left the system would break down. A systems mapping exercise was carried out and it was seen that the NGO acted as a go-between in several critical relationships. By identifying this early, it was possible to look at how the system needed to change so that it would continue to operate after the NGO withdrew.

Later in the conference, I attended a presentation by Nathan Mallonee of Living Water about the role that religious organisations play in sanitation provision. In Africa, 90 % of people identify as either Christian or Muslim and religious organisations play a major role in their lives. That means that religious organisations can be powerful stakeholders in community systems. Yet only in a small number of cases are religious organisations involved in the delivery of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes. Water plays an integral role in virtually every major world region (think about Muslims washing before prayers or Christian baptisms) but WASH programmes rarely consider in detail the implication of religious ideas and religious practices on programme delivery and outcomes. This is an oversight that people are starting to realise needs addressing. To halt the spread of Ebola earlier this year, Oly Ilunga Kalenga, the Health Minister for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), identified churches as one of the “best allies to carry public health messages that require communities to change age-old habits and challenge their traditions”. Wilf Mwamba, a Senior Governance Advisor at the Department for International Development (DFID) is passionate about working better with faith organisations and other powerful non-state stakeholders.

In the WASH sector, we are getting better at engaging with communities and recognising the value that community engagement brings to programmes. However, we need to get better at looking at the wider system and all of the stakeholders in it, and understanding the nuances of how they interact. For most communities in Africa, one of the important stakeholders is probably a church or a mosque and too often we overlook the value that such organisations could add to WASH programmes. Many faith based charities understand that, but perhaps it is time for all of us to look a little deeper at religion and the opportunity that it may offer for better water and sanitation in Africa.

#WEDC41 Part 2: Blunders, Bloopers and Foul-Ups – Time to Talk Failures

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 second in a five-part series of blogs about that conference and those visits. You can see the first post about the need for government support for sanitation businesses here.

Shit happens. But maybe it shouldn’t always happen… At WEDC41, over 80 people took part as the audience of the very first edition of Blunders, Bloopers and Foul-Ups: A WASH Game Show. Complete with theme music, a host in a sparkly jacket (me!) and buzzer sounds, the aim of the game was for the two teams (and the audience) to identify which of the WASH failures described were made up and which really happened.

Unintended negative consequences happen in every project and range from the mildly amusing (communities dismantling toilet superstructures for firewood as fast as they can be constructed) to the downright deadly (children drowning in poorly constructed pit latrines). Every WASH professional has a failure story they are willing to share over a drink, but sharing those same mistakes more formally to prevent them from happening again is less common.

The game show was designed to break the silence about failures in a professional setting. It led onto a more serious discussion about identifying unintended outcomes in projects and the lessons that we need to get better at learning from them. Both the panel and the audience willingly shared a selection of failures that they had been involved in, including:

  • A research project with farmers using faecal sludge derived fertilisers that assumed all the farmers would have smartphones to access the developed app
  • A clever technical solution that was shown to have no market appeal
  • A simple process that did not fit the shiny, high-tech aims of the project leaders
  • Not realising that by giving communities a choice about their sanitation would reduce the perceived power of the municipal facilitator who deliberately blocked that choice ever reaching communities

This led to a call for all WASH professionals to be “fiercely transparent” in reporting their work, whether it is good, bad or ugly. There was an agreement that WASH professionals need to be open about where and how negative unintended consequences have happened and learn from that to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated. Across development, there is a need for better understanding and more openness and learning about the things we get wrong. We hope this will not be the last time that Blunders, Bloopers and Foul-Ups takes place and there are plans for an action research project focused on identifying practical recommendations for the sector. For more on this, follow @FSM_Fail on Twitter, read our editorial in Engineering For Change and watch out for a declaration of the practical changes that can encourage more sharing and learning from failures in WASH.

#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.

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.

Reflections on FSM4

I spent last week at the 4th International Faecal Sludge Management Conference in Chennai, India. It was a packed week of presentations, workshops, meetings and networking with over 1000 people with an interest in addressing the challenges of global sanitation. I have slowly been processing the things that I heard, saw and learnt and I have summarised some of my most important points below. Read more