Fecal Sludge Management in Africa and Asia

The following post by guest blogger Pascal Garde on behalf of Doulaye Koné of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) refers to a recently published study on Fecal Sludge Management in Africa and Asia.

Non-sewered, or “on-site sanitation” is the main technological approach used in most urban areas in Africa and Asia. Use of this technology requires regular provision of human waste collection and transportation services, which are generally unregulated and usually provided by private operators.

There are currently huge information gaps on how collection and transportation of human waste is organized. Decision makers, entrepreneurs and investors often lack important information (e.g. market size, business opportunity, profitability) to make Fecal Sludge Management (FSM) a functional component of the sanitation value chain. However, providing safe emptying, transport, and treatment of human waste is critical to ensure healthy urban environments. In order to better understand the types of FSM services offered in two different regions, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a study , entitled “Landscape and Business Analysis for FSM Emptying and Transportation in Africa and Asia” that analyzes these business segments in 30 cities across Africa and Asia.

The 30 cities were selected according to their size, geographic location, and the type of business models used in each. The findings of the study provide valuable insight into the urban FSM services (or lack of services) provided to over 67 million people (or over 12 million households). The comparison between the different cities was based on factors related to supply (e.g. business size, number of trucks, truck capacity), and demand for services (e.g. size of the city, household income, household occupation, etc.).

Fecal sludge emptying and transportation service providerFecal sludge emptying and transportation service provider

The information used in the study was obtained by conducting detailed surveys in 13,000 households and with 150 fecal sludge emptying and transportation service providers. The findings of the study are intended to guide donors, investors and policymakers to enhance sustainable sanitation service provision in Africa and Asia.

The study highlights common practices and interesting differences between Africa and Asia. For example, the waste transport trucks used in Africa are second-hand (sometimes more than 30 years old) and imported from Europe, whereas in Asia trucks are 5 to 10 years old on average. The cost of a truck in Africa is almost three times higher than in Asia. Thus, reducing capital investment costs is critical to ensure the profitability of FSM service business in Africa.

Waste transport truck in SenegalWaste transport truck in Senegal

The operating costs of collection and transportation business services are also three times higher in Africa than in Asia — 76% of total costs are for fuel and maintenance. This may be due to a difference in truck size — truck capacities in Asia are just over 3m³, whereas in Africa trucks have about 10m³ capacity and therefore require more fuel. Despite the higher investment costs per truck in Africa, the average annual profit per truck is US$ 12,000, twice the profit in Asia.

In contrast, in Asia, fixed costs like salaries represent the majority (62%) of costs. With regard to fees for services, the average fee charged in Africa is US$ 60, compared to US$ 28 in Asia. The annual per truck profit is also higher in Africa because operators undertake twice as many trips to dumping sites or treatment plants than Asian ones. The best performing companies showed annual revenue ranging from $40,000 up to $2,000,000 per truck per annum, and a return on investment higher than 30 % for companies operating more than 2 trucks. The overall market size for fecal sludge emptying in the majority of the capital cities studied varied from $2.5 up to $43 million.

A large number of households surveyed (34 %) still use manual emptying by family members or paid laborers. This is a common practice in poor communities in Africa and Asia and is most often used when mechanical emptying fees are too expensive for households. Pits are generally emptied several times a year, or when the sludge in the pit is too thick or dry to pump. Manual pit emptying occurs also when access to pits is too difficult for mechanical emptiers due to truck size or bad road conditions The sludge emptied manually is often dumped or buried in the vicinity of the households while mechanically emptied sludge is discharged in most cities in open fields, in bodies of water, or used untreated for fertilizer or aquaculture. Hence, the uncompleted value chain in the current FSM scheme contributes to a high toll of preventable disease in poor communities.

Mechanical emptying of sludgeMechanical emptying of sludge

Based on this analysis, the study made a number of recommendations for how to improve the business environment for FSM, including creating transfer stations across the city to lower distance and therefore lower fuel costs, which make up to 40% of the variable costs of service providers in Africa. This would also increase the number of trips per day to collect sludge from households and generate more revenue. By reducing distances, transport costs decrease and more income is generated. As an example, the map below illustrates the impact that locating disposal sites based on the viability of the service in Phnom Penh could have.

The report also recommends:

  • Encouraging formal registration, licensing and regulation of businesses by local authorities;
  • Finding ways to scale up single trucks operators;
  • Improving access to finance to purchase trucks;
  • Encouraging scheduled desludging;
  • Improving the local sourcing of trucks and the supply chain for parts and repairs;
  • Increasing the number of sludge treatment plants
  • Reducing access fees to sludge treatment plants; and
  • Establishing re-use facilities.

Fuel costs increase with distance of dumping site in Phnom Penh.Fuel costs increase with distance of dumping site in Phnom Penh.

The study demonstrates that, with the support of local authorities, the market for sludge collection and transportation has great potential for investment and development of a healthy business environment, which would also indirectly contribute to better urban health and welfare in Africa and Asia.
In response to these challenges, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is currently developing a set of technologies to make fecal sludge emptying easier and safer for operators, and increase their profitability. A technology called the omni-ingestor, is being developed to service the existing infrastructure (2.1 billion pits, cesspools, and septic tanks that require immediate servicing and/or maintenance). The Omni-ingestor will be safer, more affordable and amenable to users, and more sustainable for utilities, private companies, and municipalities by achieving the following goals:

  1. Lowering mechanical emptying prices for customers across the world to less than $5/ emptying cycle – 4 m³
  2. Improving access capabilities for mechanical emptying technologies
  3. Improving operator economics to ensure service continues and grows
  4. Reduce capital and operating cost to less or equal to current vaccuum trucks service
  5. Designing hand-operated, portable systems to provide current manual emptiers with adequate tools and the opportunity to become formal service providers

The foundation is also developing cost-effective and sustainable solutions for the processing or combined processing of fecal sludge and urban organic waste (omni-Processor). The omni-processor would support 1,000-5,000 people (or less) in an urban setting and have a capacity of 0.5-5 tons of waste per day. Ideally, processed waste will be converted into products that can be re-used such as electricity, biochar, gas, water or fertilizer and therefore generate revenue. This will offset waste collection costs, encourage technology acceptance and use, and increase the countries’ standard of living.

These types of innovations will begin to solve some of the complicated challenges that the fecal sludge management study highlights and, hopefully over time, reinvent the sanitation industry to make it more profitable for service providers and more accessible to everyone.

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  1. I have serous concerns about one of the expressed goals of ths ntatve, specfcally “Increasng the number of sludge treatment plants” and all that that encompasses. In the classc sense of the term “sludge treatment plants” refer to the ncredbly energy and captal ntensve systems that wealthy socetes use to facltate the release of toxc ndustral waste nto the envronment whle holdng ther ctzens’ well-beng hostage through a relance and dependence on a system that costs an absurd amount of money to support and damages our envronment. Sure centralzed treatment plants have worked decently to reduce nutrent loadng of our surface waters (and thus made possble the appearance of clean water) but they are a dsaster n terms of the toxc sludge they produce (whch most tmes ends up beng dumped on open land and farm land) and the toxc substances whch they do not remove or depost n the sludge that are then dscharged nto our waterways. When are we gong to come to terms wth the fact that ths system s broken?

    Meanwhle, back n Afrca, s t the rght thng to be advocatng for another centralzed system tself so relant on unsustanable transportaton and expensve and energy ntensve technology? We ourselves mght be behnd the “excreta soluton curve” n the West but should that prevent us from recommendng to Afrcan communtes – who, t can be sad, actually beneft from not already havng an expensve system already n place – a new, much safer and less energy & captal ntensve path?

    In my opnon there are only two proven technologes out there that make any sense; urne dvertng dehydraton tolets (UDDT’s) and bodgesters. Homeowners, groups of homeowners, landlords, etc. can themselves drectly beneft fnancally from the use of ether technology to the excluson of government and prvate ndustry. And ths s lkely why both smple concepts are so overlooked. Centralzed systems, be they sewer or sludge treatment plants, are wdely accepted fnancal engnes whch serve to make only a few people a lot of money. UDDT’s and bodgesters , on the other hand, nsulate ndvduals, famles and assocatons from the fluctuatons n the market by allowng them produce several valuable byproducts; n the case of the former, raw urne, whch s a wonderful (and safe) fertlzer, and desscated and composted feces whch s also a wonderful (and safe) fertlzer, and n the case of the latter, methane and composted excreta (AKA “sol”). These are products whch they can make use of themselves or sell to others and/or area farmers for a proft. Government and prvate ndustry makes very lttle money under these scenaros. Nether technology produce a dsgustng and dffcult product that endangers workers health and requres an expensve fleet of pumper trucks to deal wth. They don’t produce a product whch ends up needng to be dumped on the edge of town or needs expensve and energy ntensve treatment plants and oversght to keep from pollutng the envronment. They don’t produce a product that n ts raw form routnely contamnates nearby surface and ground water sources. And after the ntal constructon cost outlay, nether requres people to regularly pay some outft to haul somethng away. In fact, each allow folks to beneft themselves from the creaton of valuable products. Farmers beneft from ether because of beng able to take advantage of low cost, locally produced and sustanable fertlzer nstead of havng to pay some huge multnatonal corporaton for fertlzer produced va the use of fossl fuels and trucked n from far away. These smple and proven technologes allow local wealth to reman local, promote sol fertlty and can even defend aganst deforestaton (methane for cookng fuel nstead of wood).

    The Gates Foundaton recently awarded przes to wnners of ts “Renventng the Tolet” boondoggle. Really? Why the need, I wonder, to renvent what’s already n exstence?

    The technologes we have – UDDT’s and bodgesters – are nfntely scale-able, nexpensve, make use of local materals, are feld mantanable by the people who rely on them, and produce valuable by-product that won’t hurt anyone and actually beneft the envronment. The system dscussed n the post above does just the opposte. Yet we contnue to focus much of our energy on the latter to the detrment of the former. But, most mportantly, to the detrment of the people we are supposedly tryng to help. K.I.S.S. – Keep It Smple Stupd s the mndset we should be operatng from, partcularly now that we are begnnng to navgate our low-energy future (the result of havng already passed peak-ol). In the wake, communtes around the world – n the East AND the West – need sustanable methods and systems now to deal wth ther excreta NOT antquated, neffectve and expensve methods we came to take for granted durng our bref love affar wth cheap energy. The best thng we could do s to assst those poorest among us to create sustanable systems that wll stand the test of tme. Trucks, treatment plants, chemcals, etc., are not t.

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