The pressing Third World matter of affordable loosBy JENNIFER MUIRURI | Friday, August 31 2012 at 11:44
You may take it for granted but the economics of the toilet is such that it cries for a fresh approach.
According to the UN, 2.5 billion people in Africa, Asia and other developing regions have no access to toilets 230 years after Scottish watchmaker Alexander Cummings invented the flush toilet.
This is why philanthropist Bill Gates, the world’s second richest man, according to the 2011 Forbes List, is challenging innovators from top-notch American universities to design a lavatory that will operate without running water, electricity or septic systems and run at less than five US cents (Sh4) a day.
“Imagine what’s possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead,” Gates said during the presentation of the winning designs at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle.
“Many of these innovations will not only revolutionise sanitation in the developing world, but also help transform our dependence on traditional flush toilets in wealthy nations”.
The idea is part of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WSH) project which has committed $370 million in sustainable sanitation for the poor.
Bill Gates’ interest in toilets was triggered by a visit to Durban in 2009 where he came face to face with stinking and dilapidated latrines in the city’s shanty neighbourhoods.
South Africa is famous for its open air flush toilets, infamously known as “apartheid toilets”, common in townships and other low income neighbourhoods. These dehumanising contraptions have been so controversial that they were the core issue in the 2011 municipal polls elections.
The ruling party ANC accused the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) of building toilets without walls for black residents of Khayelitsa Township outside Cape Town, a city controlled by the latter. However, media investigations revealed that the ANC had also built around 1,600 similar toilets in Rammulotsi Township.
The ruling party took the DA to court over the issue where the judge declared open air toilets a violation of residents’ constitutional rights. While the opposition party cited lack of funds to build enclosures for the toilet, the ANC accused the white-dominated party of racism.
To solve the thorny issue of sanitation in crowded areas the South African government introduced Ventilated Improved Pit latrines, cheekily referred to as VIP toilets. The difference between a regular latrine and the VIP is a ventilation pipe channelling the fumes from the pit through the roof, thereby reducing the intensity of the odour.
Like its neighbour to the south, Zimbabwe has also been a theatre of toilet politics. An improvised latrine in the economically unstable Southern African nation is popularly known as a Blair toilet because it was designed at the Blair Research Institute in Harare when Zimbabwe was still a colony.
The major feature of a Blair toilet is a ventilation pipe rising from the pit to the roof fitted with a fly trap.
In his exchange of brickbats with former British Premier Tony Blair, the Mugabe regime commissioned the recording of a song called 'The Only Blair I know is a Toilet.'
However, in spite of the Blair business, a 2010 UN report says that 50 per cent of rural Zimbabweans defecate in the bush. In 2009, over 4,000 people died after an outbreak of cholera in the country.
Matters are not any better in Kenya. “Flying toilets,” the euphemism for depositing poop in polythene bags and then tossing the waste to rooftops or water drains, is mostly associated with Nairobi’s Kibera slums.
According to a 2009 United Nations Development Programme report, “two out of three people in Kibera identify the flying toilet as the primary mode of excreta disposal available to them”.
Most slum dwellers prefer flying toilets due to their conveniences, especially at night when venturing out of your house is suicidal. But a most unexpected effect of the flying toilets is on transport. The Rift Valley Railways has blamed them for the derailment of one of its cargo trains that killed two people in 2009.
But something is being done about this dehumanising facet of slum life.
Led by the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), several non-governmental organisations launched the “Stop Flying Toilets” campaign in 2001 whose objective is to build as many latrines as possible in Kibera and other slums across the country.
So far, tens of community-maintained sanitation blocks have been built and residents pay a small fee per visit.
But sanitation is still a big issue in this crowded slum where statistics from non-governmental organisations indicate that one pit latrine serves about 50 people.
The silver lining on this dark cloud is that enterprising Kenyans have made the sanitation problems in Nairobi and other urban centres across the country their business.
From the Nairobi Central Business Association (NCBDA)-controlled city toilets to fully fledged private entities dealing with human waste disposal, many Kenyans are now earning a decent living from this niche market.
The NCBDA rehabilitated Nairobi’s public toilets after the endemically corrupt Nairobi City Council left them to rot and sold off some of the toilets on whose sites now stand less-smelly pieces of real estate.
“We entered an agreement with the city council and designed an operational model that led to the clean and well maintained non-profit facilities we have today,” says NCBDA chairman Timothy Muriuki.
NCBDA does not make any profits since it is not a business but it does lease the toilets to independent operators who pay a small fee.
The NCBDA is working on a formula where toilets in markets, such as Muthurwa, will be available to the public free of charge with the operators being paid by the city authorities.
“This is the system that will be adopted by the county government that will be in place after the next elections,” adds Mr Muriuki.
And sanitation is a money spinner in Nairobi. A company called Sanergy was formed in a classroom by three students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Sloan School of Business a few years back.
“We work according to a concept called Sanitation Value Change where we are involved in the whole process of waste disposal from building toilet structures, collecting the waste and processing it to fertiliser,” explains David Auerbach, one of its co-founders.
The firm is based at Mukuru slums of Nairobi where it has franchised 80 Fresh Life toilets to local traders who pay Sh45,000 ($533) for the first toilet and then Sh25,000 ($296) for the second purchase onwards.
Some of the after-sales service includes a daily collection of waste, training on how to run the business and any other assistance that the trader might need.
“Charging between five and ten shillings per customer, most Fresh Life toilet traders are able to recoup their profits in six months,” Auerbach says.
The company’s Mukuru collection point is also producing organic fertilisers which we will be available in the market in the near future.
Sanergy, whose business model won a $100,000 (Sh8.2 million) in a business plan competition at MIT in 2011, aims to have 1,000 toilets by 2013 in Kenya and its directors say its biogas digester will produce electricity that will be fed to the national grid.
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