How can universal sanitation be achieved by 2030? A quick look at potential models to deliver

By Eve MacKinnon, PhD candidate at University College London

World Toilet Day

To mark World Toilet Day on Saturday 19 November, guest blogger Eve MacKinnon takes a look at the developing innovation in sanitation.

In 2015 Google held a technology festival in South Africa aiming to develop ways to digitify billions of people in the continent, who as yet unconnected are a significant potential new market for their products and therefore hugely valuable for future growth.

Attending this event were other innovative companies interested in the techniques Google and other brands use to access these markets. Among these were sanitation start-ups keen to absorb the information on offer. So what is the connection between sanitation and Google? The recent sustainable development goals (SDG) 6 pledges to provide sanitation to all the 2.4 billion people without any ‘improved sanitation’ and nearly 1 billion people who still have to practice ‘open defecation’ or no toilet at all by 2030. This offers both a massive opportunity to improve public health and a similarly massive market opportunity to enable this service.

This potential market dubbed ‘bottom of the pyramid’ have spending power but often do not act like consumer markets, especially when it comes to sanitation – it is not something people see as a commodity worth buying, it is a not a lifestyle people aspire to: a challenge that is slow and difficult to address. Although changing people’s consumer patterns is achievable; it is not inevitable, even when linked to serious public health issues, infant mortality and morbidity and decreased economic outputs.

However, current innovations in sanitation delivery, have the opportunity to succeed bynot following a traditional approach, engaging instead a circular economy model. The idea of the model is circular flows of resources, where resources are kept in use for as long as possible, recovering and regenerating resources to extracting its full possible value.

Eve Mackinnon with thousands of Black Soldier Flies: insect farming units processing faeceal waste in equatorial Africa
Eve Mackinnon with thousands of Black Soldier Flies: insect farming units processing faecal waste in equatorial Africa

A new sanitation model, built on this paradigm is now proving successful with start-up operations on the African continent, Haiti, Madagascar, Peru, India and even UK based event companies. This is based on collection, conveyance, treatment and re-use of waste. Sanitation services collect human waste and retain this valuable resource for secondary processes to convert into a range of products. Both faecal solid poop and urine are valuable organic products, which can be developed into marketable fertilisers and biochar, briquettes and biogas; the latter of which powered the street lights of London in the 1800 burning of the trapped methane in sewers. Another use of humanure is to feed it to insects as a feedstuff and produce novel protein sources for rearing of chickens, pigs and aquacultures.

The potential gains shown by a non-mathematical proof are clear in that using waste as a product is more profitable than treating it as a waste for treatment.

1) $= Service x Vol. Waste – Cost of Treatment ($)
2) $= Service x Vol Resource + Cost of Product ($)

Offloading faecal waste for processing
Offloading faecal waste for processing

However, even the apparent wins from this model does not lead to easy scale up. The organisations involved tackling the issues now on the ground counter significant challenges, not being limited to; lack of uptake and demand, difficulties in appropriate technical design and engineering solutions and health and safety concerns.

The biggest gains from a shift in perspective to providing a sanitation service is the health of the people it protects. The provision of sanitation is essential to accelerate improvement all social, environmental and health problems that are related to low toilet access. The British Medical Association cited the sanitation revolution as the most important medical advancement since 1840, (above discovery of antibiotics). Extending sanitation to those who require it now needs solutions beyond the sewer, that respond to the needs of consumers and their specific situation. It requires organisations that can develop a market where none exists and that can sell a product that no-one wants!

All the topics mentioned and many more will be discussed at the Institute of Global Health Innovation’s Global Health Forum on ‘Water and Health‘, on 17 November 2016. More information on registering for this event can be found here.

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