Monthly archives: August 2018

#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.