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!