Container based sanitation could solve the world’s toilet problems

Oxfam recently hosted its first International Toilet Summit, where participants were challenged to think big about one of the world’s biggest sanitation challenges: how to get a toilet into every household which currently lacks one. Container based sanitation could well be the solution as Brian McSorley, WASH Coordinator, explains.

Our first ever toilet summit was organised jointly with Sanergy, a social enterprise in Kenya. The two day event brought together sanitation experts and service providers from Africa, North America, the Carribean and Europe (LooWatt, MoSan, Re:Source, Sanergy, Sanivation, SOIL and Oxfam ) to share knowledge and brainstorm on toilet design, business models and constraints to getting a toilet into every household.

Oxfam and Sanergy’s prototype container based toilet in house during field trials & the same toilet showing how the urine diversion works. Credit: Brian McSorely/OxfamOxfam in Kenya is partnering with Sanergy to produce an in-home urine diversion toilet which could meet the needs of millions of Kenyans who live in densely populated slums. This is the third phase of a project which started in 2009. Land tenure issues, lack of regulation and enforcement of policies conspire to create the current situation whereby over two million Kenyans in Nairobi are without safe sanitation within convenient access to their homes.

The majority of homes in informal settlements are single room dwelling and even if there were unlimited financial resources, there is insufficient space to build the number of toilets required. Oxfam’s proposed solution was to promote a portable toilet for in-home use. With no existing ‘off the shelf’ solutions fitting the requirements and balancing functionality, ease of servicing and affordability; we were compelled to design our own toilet. The first prototype, known as the jitegemee (a Swahili word meaning ‘to help oneself’) was field trialled in 2011 within one hundred households.

Along this journey we realised there were other like-minded individuals and organisations who had come to the same conclusion that container based sanitation (CBS), is the most appropriate solution to address the sanitation gap in densely settled urban areas where sewers are lacking and there is either insufficient space or the water table is too high to dig an improved pit latrine. CBS refers to a process of capturing waste in a removable container, which when full, is transferred, sealed and without risk of exposure or contamination, to a waste processing facility for safe disposal or processing.

In 2013, Oxfam began a partnership with Sanergy who had established a franchise network of safe sanitation solutions in Nairobi’s slums. To support the sustainability of their model, Sanergy converts the waste collected from their toilets into valuable end-products, including organic fertiliser and insect based animal feed, which are sold to farmers. The following year we developed a prototype fibreglass toilet which separates urine and faeces, reducing odour and handling and simplifying the processing stage. Based on our learning from the field trial we will modify the design ahead of manufacture of a mould and planned production at scale in Nairobi later this year. 

Everyone in the world would like to have safe, convenient access to a toilet and yet we are still measuring success in terms of hundreds or thousands of people, not the hundreds of millions of people who really need a toilet.

Everyone in the world would like to have safe, convenient access to a toilet and yet we are still measuring success in terms of hundreds or thousands of peopleOne of the challenges of container based sanitation (CBS) is that although it poses a negligible risk to public health and the environment and may be the safest means of waste disposal, notwithstanding the additional waste that can be derived from converting the waste into usable end products, it is not widely recognised as an improved sanitation solution. This means there are challenges to promoting CBS, accessing funding and scaling up these solutions.

The summit acknowledged that we are stronger working together and agreed to form an alliance. In addition to the obvious benefits of working together to pool resources, share learning and avoid duplication; by developing standards on what constitutes CBS and demonstrating that a service model collecting and transferring waste from households to a point of treatment is not only viable but also safer than alternative options, we aim to educate policy makers and establish CBS as a recognised option for addressing a growing global sanitation crisis.

The summit, facilitated with support from fuseproject, an international consultancy who specialise in business innovation and product design, challenged us to think big. In Europe and North America every household has a toilet. Everyone in the world would like to have safe, convenient access to a toilet and yet we are still measuring success in terms of hundreds or thousands of people, not the hundreds of millions of people who really need a toilet.

In the same way as access to mobile phones has gone from zero to near universal coverage in less than two decades, the same can and at some point will happen with toilets. We hope our first international toilet summit is the start of this global revolution.