The urban sanitation challenge is huge. Worldwide, an estimated 2.6 billion people lack access to sanitation. In the informal urban settlements in Nairobi, several million people have limited access to hygienic, safe or dignified ways to relieve themselves.
An Oxfam study in two settlements in Nairobi in 2011 found that most households spent 10% or more of their monthly income to go to “pay-for” toilets. Mostly these are pit latrines and they are often in very poor condition. At night, going to these latrines exposes women, children and the elderly to risk of attack and rape. As a result, many people resort to defecating in a polythene bag or cooking fat container which they later dispose of in an open place - the so-called “flying toilet”. Defecation in open places such as river banks or dump sites is common for children. People are well aware that poor sanitation conditions like these contribute to illness and disease, but have little choice.
So we asked, what if? What if every household could have a low cost, portable home toilet for use in the privacy and security of their own home? And ultimately, what if waste could be converted into commercially viable products so that people had an incentive to deposit their waste responsibly?
We took up this challenge in 2009. In partnership with a local NGO and an Indian plastics factory, Oxfam has designed a portable toilet known as “jitegemee” (a Swahili word meaning “to help oneself”).
We piloted the jitegemee with 100 households and surveyed them in 2011. We found that:
- 78% of households said they saved money (an average of 280 Kenyan Shillings, about $3)
- 24% said they experienced a reduction in illnesses related to sanitation, and a reduction in associated costs
- 72% said there had been a large reduction in flying toilets
- 81% said there had been a large improvement to the surrounding environment
Although it has been two years in planning and implementation, this project is still at a very early stage. But it has demonstrated that the concept of a portable toilet works - it is socially acceptable to use it in the home, and owners are responsible enough to dispose of the contents safely or hygienically in pit latrines or public toilets.
However, there are many obstacles to address before scaling this project up becomes a reality. Without an acceptable and accessible system for collection, disposal and conversion of the waste, the portable toilet risks becoming just another vessel to be emptied into the open.
The next phase of the project needs to go far beyond the traditional remit of a typical ‘water and sanitation’ project, and explore widespread collaboration and partnerships along the whole potential value chain, from the household through collection, disposal and conversion of the waste into a resource - possibly fertiliser and/or biogas.
Oxfam is now linking up with similar initiatives that are taking place in Ghana and India (Ghanasan and x-runner). This information exchange and shared learning may lead to closer collaboration and see different models being tested, designs improved and successful ideas replicated. This is a long term programme that involves many stakeholders including plastics manufacturers, community entrepreneurs, waste collection agencies, government, agro-business and possibly bioscientists, Universities and research institutes.
If we can crack it, we may go a long way to helping millions of poor people live with dignity in safer, happier informal urban settlements across the world.