From faeces to fuel: innovation in sanitation

Innovation, Water

2.5 billion people around the world do not have access to decent sanitation. On World Toilet Day our WASH Coordinator, Brian McSorley, describes some of the innovative ways in which Oxfam is working with others to tackle this problem, providing toilets in slums and refugee camps, and even turning human waste into cooking fuel.

Sanitation and sustainable energy are arguably two of the biggest challenges of modern times.  There is a growing volume of waste that is costly to safely dispose of, and an absence of incentives to do so. The consequences are indiscriminate disposal and open defecation. As a result, a child in Kenya dies every 17 minutes of preventable diarrhoeal disease. At the same time a growing population demands more energy. For Kenya this means chopping down trees at a faster rate than they can be replenished.

the whole sanitation value chain needed to be analysed and incentivisedFive years ago Oxfam began a pilot project to develop a household toilet for residents living in slums. There are no sewers, and complex land issues and a lack of space conspire to prevent the majority of slum dwellers from accessing a toilet near to their home. This presents major public health problems and safety issues, as it is often not safe to go out after dark, especially for women and children.

Our solution was a portable toilet that sits in the corner of the house – similar to a camping toilet but without the chemicals, and affordable to households whose average monthly income is less than $100 a month. A small scale pilot in 2011 was successful in confirming the social acceptability of the concept. Collection and disposal of waste for 100 participating families was manageable, principally because we had a grant and money to tackle it.

However it was abundantly clear as we concluded the pilot, that for it to lead to anything that could be scalable, the whole sanitation value chain needed to be analysed and incentivised. We envisaged a service collection model with waste conversion to bio-fuel, organic fertiliser or other bi-products that had an economic value. I even attended a briquettors conference and was laughed at when I
described my vision of barbequing on briquettes made from human waste.

Eventually however I found like minded people; a group of graduates from Massachusetts Institute of Technology had formed a social enterprise called Sanergy. By 2012, Sanergy was rolling out its business plan based on a franchise sanitation solution that was selling their low footprint modular toilet to entrepreneurs within the informal settlements and equipping them with the skills to manage a business. A core component to this was daily collection and processing of the waste to produce organic fertilizer. I viewed their rapid growth with a mixture of
admiration and envy.

Then in 2014 I visited an organisation called Sanivation that had set up a toilet leasing and waste collection enterprise on the outskirts of Naivasha town, North-West of Nairobi. They were turning organic waste into briquettes which could be used as cooking fuel. ‘You know it’s safe when the smell is sweet.’Emily explained as she removed the lid and the three of us peered at the contents of the bucket. My colleague Angus, was quick to volunteer to put on the rubber gloves, so my role (and I wasn’t complaining), was confined to
supervision. As he mixed the faeces with sawdust before placing it into the briquetting press, he had the assurance of knowing that although the contents of the bucket had probably exited someone’s body within the last 72 hrs, it was only warm because it had been sitting on a solar heater, pasteurising for the previous 8 hours to kill all the harmful pathogens.

Oxfam is working with both organisations. We are supporting Sanergy to scale up their Fresh Life toilets to ensure that school children within slums have access to toilets and safe
. These schools have been set up on a shoe string by parents and volunteers within slums many of which receive no external support. Unlike the Fresh Life toilets which are purchased and managed by the increasing network of Fresh Life operators and run as a business, without grant support the schools would never be able to afford the cost of a toilet. In some schools where Fresh Life toilets have been provided, student enrolment has dramatically increased, particularly amongst girls. We are currently planning the next phase of our in-house toilet project which is now a
joint venture.

Sanergy has continued to grow, picking up awards and getting well deserved recognition along the way to a point today where they have collected 6,200 metric tonnes of waste, created 766 jobs and provided toilets that are being used by 30,000 people every day. They have also started making animal feed from pupae of black soldier flies who feed off human waste.

In 2014 Sanivation moved their toilet and waste collection concept into Kakuma refugee camp where Oxfam supplied some lightweight plastic toilets to be used, a type of toilet that could easily be flown in bulk in an emergency.

This year, Sanivation opened what it believes is one of the world’s first human waste processing and briquette production sites. Since I visited them in 2014, Sanivation has been researching different combinations of material and analysing the combustibility and calorific content to determine the optimal composition of a briquette made totally from organic waste. The result is a combination of rose waste, from some of the many horticulture farms present along Lake Naivasha, bound together with material that started out as human faeces – a material which is also in no short

These exciting initiatives are challenging perceptions in Kenya, and together with initiatives elsewhere in the world leading the way towards a growing realisation that human waste doesn’t need to be a problem. Admittedly this is still currently on a small scale but by demonstrating the viability of sanitation as a business and the value of its by-products, not only will Sanergy and Sanivation grow, but other social enterprises and commercial businesses will enter the market.

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Author: Brian McSorley
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.