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.

“Next-generation” toilets showcased at Gates Foundation

In June 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded eight universities grants of approximately $400,000 to leverage, in one year, advances in science and technology to create a waterless, hygienic toilet that is safe and affordable for people in the developing world.

Bill Gates with a researcher from California Institute of Technology at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle on August 14, 2012. (src: http://www.gatesfoundation.org)

On August 14th and 15th 2012, the Gates Foundation hosted the Reinvent the Toilet Fair to showcase the work of these teams and awarded the first winners of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge:

1st prize:
A team from the California Institute of Technology won the top prize of $100,000 for a self-contained, solar-powered toilet and wastewater treatment system.

In this system, a solar panel produces power for an electrochemical reactor that is designed to break down water and human waste into hydrogen gas. The gas can then be stored for use in hydrogen fuel cells to provide a backup energy source for nighttime operation or use under low-sunlight conditions. (src & image credits)

Update: a video is available that describes how this “Self-Contained, PV-Powered Domestic Toilet and Wastewater Treatment System” works:

“They would repurpose the solar panels and batteries to powering TVs and charging cell phones and go back to shovels for their sanitary needs”, says one commentator on YouTube.

2nd prize:
A group from Loughborough University in the U.K. took second place for a toilet that transforms faeces into a biological charcoal (biochar) through hydrothermal carbonization (decomposition at high temperatures without oxygen and in water) of faecal sludge.
The proposed system will be powered from heat generated by combusting the produced biochar and will be designed to recover water and salts from faeces and urine. (src & image credits)

3rd prize:
A group of chemical engineers from University of Toronto, Canada developed a system which sanitizes waste within 24 hours:
It’s a technology for treating solid waste streams through mechanical dehydration and smoldering (low-temperature, flameless combustion) that will sanitize faeces within 24 hours. Urine will be passed through a sand filter and disinfected with ultra-violet light. (src & image credits)

The press release also included the winners of round 2 – a much debated challenge as it included a requirement for “prototyping and testing entirely stand-alone, self-contained, practical sanitation modules which intake bodily wastes and swiftly dispose of them without any incoming water piping, outgoing sewer piping or electric or gas utility services”.

Reinvent the Toilet Challenge Round 2 Winners

Cranfield University
This nearly $810,000 grant will help develop a prototype toilet that removes water from human waste and vaporizes it using a hand-operated vacuum pump and a unique membrane system. The remaining solids are turned into fuel that can also be used as fertilizer. The water vapor is condensed and can be used for washing, or irrigation.
Contact: Fiona Siebrits/ +44 (0) 1234 758040 / f.c.siebrits at cranfield.ac.uk

Eram Scientific Solutions Private Limited
A grant of more than $450,000 will make public toilets more accessible to the urban poor via the eco-friendly and hygienic “eToilet.”
Contact: Manohar Varghese / +91 9747060700 / manohar at eramscientific.com

RTI International
This $1.3 million grant will fund the development of a self-contained toilet system that disinfects liquid waste and turns solid waste into fuel or electricity through a revolutionary new biomass energy conversion unit.
Contact: Lisa Bistreich-Wolfe / +1 919.316.3596 / lbistreich at rti.org

University of Colorado Boulder
A nearly $780,000 grant will help develop a solar toilet that uses concentrated sunlight, directed and focused with a solar dish and concentrator, to disinfect liquid-solid waste and produce biological charcoal (biochar) that can be used as a replacement for wood charcoal or chemical fertilizers.
Contact: Karl Linden / +1 303 302 0188/ Carol Rowe / +1 303 492 7426 / Carol.Rowe at colorado.edu

Also, an interesting comment on Bill Gates’ blog post “Inventing a Toilet for the 21st Century” caught my attention as it has some interesting arguments:
“…(…) the challenge is more about planning, management, planning, financing, energy use/sourcing (…), costs, implementation, and, in more developed regions, dealing with tech verifications costs and regulatory issues. Technology is not the first deficiency in promoting effective sanitation. (…) many toilet innovations do not make it to market because the tech verification costs (NSF, etc.) costs $40,000+ and testing programs either do not address new configurations (such as 2-drain toilets) and are too expensive. Add to that arbitrary conventions, such as the illogical traditional siting of the toilet drain pipe in the U.S., which forces the use of higher flush volumes, and you get a stalled innovation market. (…).”

So, obviously, there’s much more to the picture than a reinvented toilet system alone. “A big part of the challenge is technological.”, writes Bill Gates on his blog. And the publicity the BMGF has brought to the sanitation sector in the past few years is truly immense. “We also have to work closely with governments, businesses, and communities to stimulate demand for better sanitation, encourage investment, and create supportive public policies that will allow these innovative solutions to succeed.”, he argues. Well, exactly.

And the best part? All of the future technologies aren’t limited to some “developing” countries only. It’s a global issue, and I am glad that someone as prominent as Bill Gates or Prince Willem-Alexander are promoting our core issue here. Great stuff!

Update: here’s a full list of all exhibitors during the Reinvent the Toilet Fair (thx, Carol!).

How about a Cradle2Cradle certification for toilets?

UDDTs in Ukunda, KenyaYou may or may not have heard of the Cradle to Cradle® design concept – an approach to environmental engineering where materials flows are analysed and optimized to enhance the quality of products for the user so that they are more practical for the user, healthier for everyone affected by the product, and beneficial for the economy and the environment.

Quality enhancement is achieved by focusing on three innovation principles:

  1. Everything is designed to be a nutrient for something else (waste = food)
  2. Use (of) renewable energy produced from current solar income
  3. Support diversity including conceptual, cultural and biodiversity.

A Cradle to Cradle trade fair, held in 2008 in Frankfurt, Germany, already showed C2C products and concepts – mainly from US, Dutch and Austrian manufacturers. This new design concept may just be one side of the medal – the other one being that William McDonough and Michael Braungart, the two inventors behind Cradle to Cradle, actually took this a step further and created a certification: the Cradle to Cradle® Certification.

Now, my question to you, dear readers, is: what do you think – would it make sense to obtain such a C2C certification for one of the existing or a future sanitation (toilet) system?

My assumption as someone who has been active in the field of sustainable sanitation is that most activists in this sector are scientists, who have in the past missed to really market their approaches. It’s because they are mainly scientists and only sometimes business people, where the creation of a problem-to-be-analyzed is more attractive than a marketable solution. This may of course be only one out of many other reasons why sanitation as such has been so neglected as an important issue for every human on this planet (don’t get me started on the public toilets situation in most countries…).

I am a great fan of the “Reinventing the Toilet“-approach, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as I believe that real acceptance of reuse-orientated sanitation systems in the developing world will only be possible when the rest of the developed world also starts using a reinvented type of toilets.

Also, a good product may also be made of high quality materials (which could then be recycled, thus kept in a technical loop) and I can also imagine a different type of ownership for the 21st century – where products aren’t “owned” by their users, but instead leased for a period of 15-20 years. This would enable a much more natural recycling where older products would just be given back to the manufacturer.

So the question really is: would such a C2C certification be a catalyst within the redesign process, and would it be an ultimate marketing tool that would also help changing the general perception of toilets (as a taboo that no one likes to talk about)?

What do you think?

Photo credit: UDDTs in a school in Ukunda, Kenya, by Engineers without borders. Taken from the (CC)-licensed Sustainable Sanitation photo collection on Flickr.