What’s the future of sanitation in Africa? The sector has been sluggish at reaching the objectives set out by the Millennium Development Goals, disappointing even the most optimistic advocates. Should all hopes go “down the drain”? Not yet, according to Ousseynou Guene, sanitation specialist for the African Water Facility (AWF). His experience working on AWF sanitation projects have allowed him to witness changes in the sector, thanks to the emergence of innovative ideas that challenge the status quo in sanitation project designs. At the 4th edition of the African San conference, which took place in Dakar, Senegal, from May 25-27, the AWF went as far as suggesting that a revolution might just be around the corner with the advent of a new sanitation economy.
Participants from all corners of Africa attended the AWF event Monday, May 25, which was dedicated to discussing unconventional un-sewered sanitation approaches to better meet the needs of the urban poor. AWF-funded projects from Benin, Ghana and South Africa were presented to an audience eager to learn more about ideas promising to help accelerate the attainment of Africa’s sanitation goals.
Innovative ideas tested in Benin, Ghana and South Africa
We know for one, that governments can no longer bear alone the burden of managing sanitation services, especially in urban areas where population growth is fast outpacing municipalities’ capacity to respond. Francine Abiola, project coordinator at the Municipality of Seme-Podji in Benin, believes public-private partnerships are an effective and sustainable solution. Handing over a large portion of the management of fecal sludge treatment plants – costs and revenue – to the private sector is poised to increase access to sanitation services. There is money to be made in the sector, whether it is to rehabilitate fecal sludge treatment plants, or operating them. SIBEAU-SA and Agetur-SA are two sanitation companies that intend to invest big in the rehabilitation and expansion of the fecal sludge treatment plant of the Municipality of Seme-Podji. The two companies already own 78% of the shares of the investment.
And there’s more. Actual poop as source of profit is a reality according to Aart van den Beukel, director at Safi Sana, a social venture dedicated to providing sanitation services for the poor in Ghana. Fecal sludge can be treated and transformed into marketable, highly sought-after commodities such as bio-fertilisers, energy and even water. The Safi Sana AWF-funded project in Ghana, for example, will be able to produce 500 tons of fertilisers and 580,000 kWh per year of electricity.
According to Van den Beukel, this type of venture can be highly successful, provided that a number of conditions are met. For one, acquiring information pertaining to market demand for waste derivatives and to people’s willingness to pay for them is essential to effectively assess potential for business. Then, the need to see tangible business incentives at every step of the value chain is critical. “If, say, the truck driver responsible for delivering waste for processing is not benefitting, the whole chain is compromised” said Van den Beukel. Finally, he also believes having a good grasp of the situation on the ground and knowing the resources available is key to avoiding surprises that could jeopardize the business.
Sanitation businesses need not to be large to be transformative, but they need to spread and grow fast and easily. Running small-scale, low-cost toilet franchises is a great way for entrepreneurs to reap the benefits of the new sanitation economy, while providing a crucial service for poor communities. Oliver Ive, managing director at Amanz’abantu Services in South Africa, knows social franchises could potentially turn things around for students, for example. Lack of adequate sanitation facilities in schools have often forced students to relieve themselves in the bush, and for girls to miss school weeks at a times at the onset of their menstrual cycle. His pilot projects in Amathole District and Buffalo city in the Eastern Cape Province should reach over 1,300 rural schools for thousand more students eagerly awaiting a new sanitation reality.
Scaling up successful models
Meanwhile, the African Development Bank (AfDB) is paying greater attention to these innovations with plans to scale them up in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Malinne Blomberg, Chief Financial Analyst for Water and Sanitation at the AfDB, said that “as a sector, we have not yet taken advantage of the promising results of pilots like those funded by AWF, and large investment projects still tend to use traditional approaches, though often not the most sustainable nor cost effective.” The Bank wants to take the lead in implementing the alternative solutions at scale to accelerate the access to improved sanitation, as a staggering 500 million people need to be served on the continent by 2030. A paradigm shift is in order, and “reinventing the toilet” as proposed by the Gates Foundation, also means looking at toilets as businesses with environmental, health and financial benefits not only for small communities, but entire cities.
“The African Water Facility has been one of the best partners in helping us understand how to work with municipalities, local governments and utility services,” said Doulaye Kone, Senior Programme Officer for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “What I find truly exciting is the different investment opportunities their innovative models reveal, and how they show how governments and the private sector can join forces to tackle sanitation issues at a much larger scale”.
Find out more about the ideas discussed at the AWF session, download our sanitation portfolio report.