Monday, December 31, 2012

Toilet Tales and Loo Blues

Though it’s the most basic facility in a human house hold the toilet is more often than not ignored or treated with disdain. In many African societies its mere mention borders the taboo associated with sex and in some cases it has no official name. 

Even in developed countries it’s considered good manners to refer the toilet by its many pseudonyms developed through the ages. John, London, restrooms, loo, crapper and washrooms are among several terms developed to skirt around saying toilet.

 But for the 2.5 billion people in Africa, Asia and other third world countries that the United Nations says they have no access to toilets 230 years after Scottish watchmaker Alexander Cummings invented the flash, this important sanitation facility is a big luxury.

This is why world renown philanthropist and the world’s richest man Bill Gates has challenged a group of young innovators from topnotch American universities to design a lavatory that will operate without running water, electricity or septic system and operate for less than five US cents a day.

To demonstrate his commitment to spearhead the designing of the world’s first state-of-the-art toilet for the world’s poor Mr. Gates has pumped in more than $180,000(Sh14.76) million into the so-called “poop project”. The money was part of the prizes and grants awarded to the winners and runners up of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, a competition set up to get the best prototypes for the new toilet design.

 “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 wining designs at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle. “Many of these innovations will not only revolutionize sanitation in the developing world, but also help transform our dependence on traditional flush toilets in wealthy nations”.
The project is part of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Water, Sanitation & Hygiene (WSH) which has committed $370 million (Sh3 billion) in the area of sustainable sanitation for the poor.

Bill Gates’ appetite for toilet matters was whetted by a visit to Durban in 2009 where he came face to face stinking and dilapidated latrines in the South African city’s shanty neighbourhoods. The software magnate was so moved that the quest for a cheap and high-tech toilet now consumes him with same passion that software designs deed when he was setting up Microsoft in the 70s.

South Africa is famous for its open air flush toilets, infamously known as “apartheid toilets”, common in townships and other low income neighbourhoods. These dehumanizing contraptions have been so controversial that they formed the chore theme of the 2011 municipal polls prompting the press to dub them the toilet elections”.

African National Congress (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 has also built around 1,600 similar toilets in Rammulotsi Township in Free Town Province. 

The ruling party took DA to court over the issue where the judge declared open air toilets a violation of residents’ constitutional right. While the opposition party cited lack of funds to build enclosures for the toilet ANC accused the white-dominated party of racism against Africans.

In a bid to solve the thorny issue of sanitation in crowded areas introduced Ventilated Improved Pit latrines, or simply VIP toilets. The difference between a regular latrine and VIP is a ventilation pipe siphoning the fumes from the pit through the roof, thereby reducing the intensity of the offensive odour. 

Like it’s her neighbor down south, Zimbabwe has also been a theatre of toilet politics in years past. An improvised latrine in the economically unstable Southern African nation is popularly known as a Blair toilet owing to the fact that they were 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 a bid to settle the scores with former British Premier Tony Blair the Robert Mugabe government commissioned the recording of a song called The Only Blair I know is a Toilet done by Last Chiangwe, since referred to as “Toilet Tambaoga”. 

With the United Nations report in 2010 saying that fifty percent of Zimbabweans in the rural areas defecate in the bush cholera outbreaks are frequent in that country. In 2009, over 4,000 people died after an outbreak of Cholera in the country.

Back in Kenya matters sanitation are not any better than in nations down south. 

The “flying toilets”, which basically refers to defecating in a polythene and then swinging them them on rooftops, common in Kibera and other slums are so famous around the world that they have been a subject of study for several individuals and non-governmental organizations. According to a United Nations Development Programme launched in 2009 “two out three people in Kebera 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 walking to the outdoor toilet enclosures is a security risk. Besides being a health hazard especially when the polythene bags burst and spill their contents Rift Valley Railways blamed flying toilets thrown on its tracks that cut across Kibera for causing a derailment of one of its cargo trains that killed two people in 2009.

Led by African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) several non-governmental organizations launched “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 where residents pay a small fee every time they do their business. 

But sanitation is still a big issue in this crowded slum where statistics from non-governmental organizations claim one pit latrine serves about 50 people.

Enterprising Kenyans have turned the sanitation problems that bedevil the city and other urban centers across the country into ainto booming business generating thousands of shillings everyday. From the Nairobi Central Business Association (NCBDA)-controlled city toilets to fully fledged private entities dealing with poop disposal, many Kenyans are now earning a decent living from this rapidly growing industry.

“The NCBDA decided to rehabilitate the facilities because as a body in charge of the city centre welfare we realized Nairobians had a sanitation problem since the public toilets were dilapidated, dirty and acted as hiding places for city urchins,” explains NCBDA Chairman Timothy Muriuki. “We entered an agreement with the city council and designed an operational model that led to the clean and well maintained facilities we have today”.

He says that NCBDA does not make any profits since they are not a commercial entity but they lease them to independent operators who pay them a small fee.

 “We are currently working on a formula where toilets in markets like Muthurwa will be accessible to the public for free with the operators being paid through the levies charged on traders by the city authorities,” Mr. Muriuki says. “This is the system that will be adopted by the county government that will be in place after the next elections”.

The sanitation business in Nairobi is so promising that NCBDA and its affiliates is not the only player. There are numerous establishments, some from as far as Europe and the United States that have joined the fray to get a piece of the “poop pie”. 

One of the foreign-based poop dealers is Sanergy, a company that was hatched in a classroom by three students studying at the Sloan School of Business in Massachusetts a few years back. 

“We work on 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 fertilizer,” explains David Auerbach, one of the co-founders. “At the moment we are based in Mukuru where we have franchised 80 Fresh Life toilets to local traders who pays Sh45, 000 for the first toilet and then Sh25,000 for the second purchase onwards”.

Some of the after sales service includes a daily collection of waste, training on how to run the business any other assistance that the trader might need.

“Charging between five and ten shillings per customers most Fresh Life toilet traders are able to recoup back their profits in six months,” Auerbach says. “Our waste collection point at Mukuru is producing organic fertilizers which we will be available in the market commercially very soon”.

Sanergy, whose business model won a $100,000 (Sh8.2 million) in a business plan competition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2011, aims to have 1,000 by 2013 where the directors say the company’s biogas digester will produce enough electricity to feed the national grid.

PeePoople, a Swedish company with outlets in Kibera and other slums in Nairobi, is another sanitation company that entered the Kenyan market recently. It has developed special bags called Peepoos modeled around the concept of “flying toilets”, but in this case the bags don’t fly but ends up in a designated collection point. Peepoos have inbuilt properties to convert human dung into nutrient-rich fertilizer after a few weeks. 

“By turning human waste into fertilizer in a very short time, what could be a problem is transformed into a valuable resource,” the company explains through their website. “This is one of the driving forces behind the development of the Peepoople business model for urban slums”.

The project is also meant to provide business opportunities for small scale traders especially women since they are the majority distributors of Peepoos. 

With one of these special bags selling at Sh3 and a shilling refund for every Peepoos delivered at the special collection points, the company says its one of the cheapest sanitation solution for slum dwellers.

“In urban slums, Peepoos are normally sold directly, door-to-door to end-consumers by women micro-entrepreneurs or cooperatives,” the company says. “Used Peepoos can be utilized as fertilizer in household gardens. They can also be collected and distributed profitably to local peri-urban farmers based on the inherent value of Peepoo as fertilizer”.

From the drop-off points Peepoos are transferred to a storage facility where they are kept until they are fully sanitized and processed into usable fertilizer without the risk of contamination, which usually takes around four weeks.

One of the most prominent homegrown providers of innovative sanitary solutions is EcoTact. Started by David Kuria, an architect with a Master of Arts in business administration (MBA), in 2006 the company is in charge of the Ikotoilet facilities that are scattered in various urban centers across the country. 

Inspired by a zeal to improve the sanitation of thousands town dwellers especially those in informal settlements Mr. Kuria says he is in a mission to demystify the toilet and ensure Kenyans speak freely of this critical facility in human homsteads. 

“We need to make sanitation sexy and address it from different perspectives,” he told a microfinance conference of his company’s campaign to demystify toilet matters. “We have engaged beauty pageants to start talking about the relationship between beauty and hygiene”.

Besides recruiting beautiful models, comedians and politicians as ambassadors of his toilet campaigns Mr. Kuria made a first by converting public lavatories into minimarkets. 

“When you look at economics, whet we have done is to transform the toilet aspect into a toilet mall where you can get more than the two functions of the toilet,” he says. “You can have your polished, you can buy your airtime, you can blog your companies-corporate blogging and the recent one is you can also buy a coke, if not a banana, in the public toilet”.

Besides being invited to speak in various conferences both locally and abroad Kuria has also won several international awards like Ashoka Fellowship on Public Innovation 2007 and the Schwab Foundation’s Africa Social Entrepreneur of the Year Aw3ard in 2009, both firsts for a company in sub-Saharan Africa, among many others.

Therefore, even as Bill Gates pumps millions of dollars in his quest to design a state-of-the-art toilet affordable and to the world’s 2.5 billion without access to sanitation, he will have to contend with competition from young innovators from Kenya.

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