Dickson Ochieng knows firsthand what it’s like to live without proper sanitation. Growing up in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Africa, his house had no toilet or running water, and being surrounded by raw sewage was a fact of life. Unable to pay to use public facilities, the most common solution was, and still is, in the Nairobi settlement, to relieve oneself in a plastic bag and then throw it into the street.
Solutions such as these “flying toilets” or open defecation, while free, reduce the quality of life and pose serious health and environmental risks. One memory Ochieng will never forget from his childhood is having to chase after lost balls while playing soccer. Much of the time, the ball would end up in raw sewage, and he would have to pull it out and clean it before they could resume playing.
Even after moving out of Kibera, Dickson Ochieng couldn’t let these memories go. “[These experiences] are why I’m passionate about sanitation. They really motivate me. I said when I grow up, I need to make a difference for people living in these situations,” said Ochieng. “Thirty years later, the situation hasn’t changed, and it’s getting even worse.”
In the 21st century, inadequate sanitation is still a massive issue. According to a UNICEF report, over 1.7 billion people still practice open defecation or use unimproved sanitation facilities. Even when toilets are available, much of the world’s human waste enters the environment untreated. In Kenya, 95 per cent of waste isn’t treated, usually because it’s too expensive and energy-intensive to do it right.
Seemingly unrelated to the issue of sanitation, but still a major problem, is deforestation. In Kenya, like on most of the African continent, over 75 per cent of the population depends on traditional biomasses such as firewood or charcoal for cooking, providing a constant incentive to cut down trees. Despite the promotion of cleaner cookstoves, breaking this habit has proven to be a long and costly process.
On the shores of Lake Naivasha, two hours outside Nairobi, a team of local and international entrepreneurs are working to tackle both these problems at the same time. This is the headquarters of Sanivation, a Kenya-based company that is both a provider of clean sanitation facilities and producer of sustainable charcoal and firewood. Sanitation and deforestation go hand in hand for Sanivation because the company uses a widely available yet overlooked material to create its products: human feces.
The process, which has been refined over six years, is both safe and environmentally sustainable. At the Naivasha facility, waste collected from special Sanivation toilets is brought on site, where it is de-watered and treated with heat using solar power.
This technique kills all the pathogens and leaves behind a substance that binds well with other materials when dry. Biomass residue, such as charcoal dust, agricultural waste or saw dust, is then added. The resulting mixture is then pressed and dried to create charcoal briquettes or firewood.
The final product, sold as Eco Flame briquettes, burns cleaner and longer than traditional products. According to Emily Woods, one of the company’s cofounders, people prefer their charcoal, but the hardest selling point is what it’s made from. “I always like to show [people] the final product,” says Woods. “You would have no idea it’s feces unless we told you. It doesn’t look like feces, smell like it, burn like it. It looks and feels just like charcoal so it’s the perfect substitute.”
In 2014, after leaving the information technology company he founded, Ochieng was hired as the company’s first employee and has since helped at all stages of development, from perfecting the process and building prototypes to forging relationships with local politicians. He was drawn to the company after seeing the positive difference they were able to make. “They’re a company that’s actually trying to change the situation in Kenya,” says Ochieng. “Sanivation has brought hope to people, that sanitation is something achievable, no matter your economic status.”
In the near future, Sanivation is looking to scale up, becoming both a major sanitation provider and charcoal vendor. The company plans to open a third factory in Naivasha on 19 November, World Toilet Day. The new facility will serve 5,000 people and process 1,000 tonnes of waste while creating 1,000 tonnes of fuel each month. With a factory in Kakuma refugee camp serving as a model, they also hope to establish treatment facilities in other East African refugee camps. All of this is part of a plan to expand to other Kenyan cities, partner with local water service providers and work with local governments to provide sanitation on a larger scale.
Looking forward, Emily Woods is confident Sanivation’s innovative approach can address the issues of both environmental degradation and inadequate sanitation. “We are really looking for a tomorrow were everyone in the world has access to safe, dignified sanitation. And where the environment is not feeling the burden of that waste being dumped.”
“Water is a key factor for development, so it’s essential to give a second life to a resource like wastewater,” says Riccardo Zennaro, Associate Programme Officer for wastewater management at UN Environment. “There is not enough awareness on the potential of reusing wastewater. Its value, and the positive effects of, for example recovering faecal sludge to produce alternative sources of energy, is often neglected.”
Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.
Also, to tackle this issue across Africa, UN Environment has joined forces with the African Development Bank (AfDB) and GRID Arendal in the project Wastewater Management and Sanitation Provision in Africa: An Opportunity for Private and Public Sector Investment. The project, which runs from November 2016 to 2019, aims to promote knowledge of wastewater and sanitation in Africa and develop solutions to enhance wastewater management and sanitation services’ delivery across the continent. In September 2018, the project partners and relevant stakeholders gathered in Nairobi to discuss the ongoing and future activities, and on occasion, went on a field trip to Kibera to see best practices, as well challenges related to wastewater management. For more information: https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/harnessing-data-awareness-and-investment-tackl….