The Past and Future of Uganda’s Sanitation: A Photo Essay

Mikael Baker is an MBAs Without Borders Advisor in Kampala, Uganda, on a 12-month assignment with Water For People, an international water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) non-governmental organization (NGO). Through his assignment he is working to launch and scale Sanitation Solutions Group (SSG), a social enterprise using a market-based approach to bring improved sanitation to Kampala. Read below to learn more about his experience, the state of WASH in Uganda, and what SSG is doing to help improve WASH in Kampala.

Sanitation Solutions Group (SSG) has begun a fight to improve the weak state of access to proper sanitation in Kampala, the capitol of Uganda. Over 90% of Kampala residents lack access to a sewer line, which means that the majority of the city residents do not have access to flush toilets and therefore use pit latrines or resort to open defecation. It is common for latrines in Kampala to be abandoned once full because of the prohibitive cost of pit-emptying and/or the difficult logistics of reaching some latrines to have them be emptied. This has caused over 50% of the latrines in Kampala to become full or overflowing. The filled latrine pits that have been emptied are typically done so illegally and secretively. When accessing a latrine is difficult, adults and children are forced to walk long distances, to resort to open defecation, or to resort to defecating in a plastic grocery bag, commonly referred to as a “flying toilet.”

One of the reasons so many latrines are abandoned in Kampala is because the owners have no financial stake in the process as the latrines were provided at no cost by local and international NGOs. The social enterprise I work for as an MBAs Without Borders Advisor, SSG, a spinoff from Water For People (W4P), is working to address many of these issues by providing products and services at a low cost including latrine construction, latrine upgrading, and latrine emptying. All of SSG’s products and services are sold at unsubsidized prices, making the business model sustainable, and in most cases resulting in caring ownership and maintenance by customers. Through my photos below, you can learn more about the state of WASH in Kampala and what SSG is doing to help it improve.

 What is and what will be in Kampala

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Mason-built pit latrine. Mason-built latrines, commonly found throughout Uganda, can take weeks to months to be constructed. The pit is open, meaning flies and insects can freely spread sanitation-related disease; and odors can make using these sorts of pit latrines quite unpleasant. Some pits such as these have larger openings making them a safety concern for small children.

Hope for Children

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Four-stance SSG DuraSan latrine. Robert Makune (above), SSG’s Commercial Manager, inspects a leaking roof on a four-stance DuraSan latrine SSG constructed in Namuwongo for Hope For Children (HFC), a UK-based children’s rights NGO. (The DuraSan is SSG’s pre-fabricated concrete latine model and can be built in configurations of 1-10 stances.) Namuwongo is an illegal settlement in Kampala where thousands live as squatters. HFC purchased this four-stance latrine because many of the public latrines in the area have been demolished by the government in land seizures, are full or overflowing, or were deemed to be in too poor condition to empty and repair. The latrine is for adults and children, with adults paying a small fee for use.

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Hope For Children Employee hands out toilet paper. An HFC staff member hands a child a wad of toilet paper after placing a colored piece of paper into a bin to tally the child as a user. HFC collects data on the gender and age group of its latrine users. Though not at this particular latrine, some public latrines have maintenance/cleaning expenses covered by individuals that utilize latrine areas as miniature storefronts for the sale of chewing gum, soap, cleaning supplies, and other simple products.

DuraSan Latrines

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Old five-stance latrine at Mulindwa Primary School in Kampala. Three or more of the latrine pits were filled at the time SSG began construction on a new DuraSan two-stance latrine.

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The completed two-stance DuraSan latrine at Mulindwa Primary School. As you can see, this latrine was built with metal doors – our second-ever to feature metal doors. Most of the previous latrines we constructed had wooden doors which caused several unexpected issues including theft of doors, as wood is quite expensive in Uganda. Additionally, it is difficult to find quality wood that has been properly treated/prepared, which resulted in warped and cracked doors. Metal doors are more secure, are less attractive to thieves, can be installed faster, and can be pre-painted by our metal fabricator for a nicer look.

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New model for East Africa. Martin, the man on the right, and two of his colleagues are packing soil around a column of rings that are the direct-lined pit for a two-stance latrine. At the time this picture was taken, Martin was working for SSG on a trial/training basis but has since been hired on as a full-time employee, and is now leading a team of DuraSan latrine installers. This was the first DuraSan construction project where SSG used concrete rings for a pit instead of rectangular concrete blocks. Though concrete rings are quite common in latrines found in Southeast Asia and some other parts of the world, they are not common in East Africa but have proven to be practical and worth using. We produced a custom metal mold in order to produce these rings and will scale-up production as supply chain and logistics issues are sorted out.

Flooding: a concern for new pit latrine installation

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Flooded land next to a two-stance DuraSan latrine constructed in Nndeba. Uganda has two rainy seasons, during which it can be especially difficult to predict weather conditions and to complete construction jobs. Pit-digging can be a nightmare, requiring a generator and electric water pump. Though Kampala is 1,900 meters (3,900 feet) above sea level, it also sits next to Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world. Proximity to Lake Victoria means Kampala has a high water table, requiring us to use septic tanks rather than lined pits for certain sites, driving up construction costs.

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A two-stance DuraSan latrine constructed in Nndeba. The floor slabs of the latrine had to be elevated above flood level to keep rain water from rendering the latrine unusable. Poorly constructed latrines can have a high cost of ownership because their pits easily fill during the rainy seasons requiring owners to empty them prematurely.

Tiger Worms: a natural way to improve pit latrines

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Steve Sugden and Osbert Atwijukye of W4P, as well as Eve Mbabazi of the Appropriate Technology Center (ATC) inspect a tiger worm-equipped offset pit (an offset pit is next to rather than under a latrine, allowing easy access for emptying and other benefits). Tiger worms are earthworms similar to night crawlers and are quite efficient composters. Each tiger worm can consume three times its mass in fecal matter each day, converting it to vermicompost. Tiger worm populations multiply by 10 each week after properly adjusting to a new environment. SSG plans to commercialize the use of tiger worms in latrine pits after more testing has been completed and if/when a sizable population of tiger worms is raised. A properly functioning and maintained tiger worm pit latrine could potentially be used without being emptied for 5-10 years, and even then, the vermicompost produced by worms could safely be reused in a garden or dumped without health or environmental concerns.

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A healthy tiger worm-equipped offset latrine pit. Live worms and vermicompost are signs of a healthy tiger worm pit. You will notice that aside from the recently deposited lighter colored fecal matter in the center that the rest of the pit is covered in vermicompost.

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A failed tiger worm pit. The surface is almost completely covered in a frothy fecal matter that moves and sways as if alive, due to a large population of maggots swimming directly below the surface. It is not always obvious why worm populations fail to thrive. Worm pits sometimes fail due to too many latrine users (worms drown), use of harsh cleaning supplies/chemicals that kill worms, worms drowning during flooding, improper effluent drainage, worms not adjusting well to their pit, and dumping of acidic organic materials such as pineapple and other citrus fruits.

 

New ways to empty pit latrines

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The Rammer (aka Gulper II), a manually operated fecal sludge pump for emptying pit latrines. SSG sells Rammers along with safety gear and sludge barrels, to pit emptying entrepreneurs. Pit emptying entrepreneurs operate their own businesses and receive business management training, fecal sludge treatment training, and marketing support from SSG. A pit emptying entrepreneur can make a better living than some white collar workers if they run their business wisely. Manual pit emptying is a necessity in Kampala, because many densely populated areas cannot be accessed by septic vacuum trucks, leaving latrine owners with few options for latrine emptying. A latrine owner can choose to empty a small portion of their pit, or up to 3m (10ft) at one time, the depth reach of the Rammer, making the service more wallet-friendly than vacuum truck service.

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Piki piki, tuk tuk, bajaj. SSG purchased this tricycyle (aka piki piki, tuk tuk, and bajaj) to pilot a new business model, where we lease a tricycle and pit emptying kit (Rammer, safety gear, barrels, etc.) to entrepreneurs for a fixed monthly fee. The pilot has been positive and we are planning to procure extra tricycles to scale up. Prior to leasing tricycles, pit emptying entrepreneurs needed to pay hefty hourly fees for use of pickup trucks, greatly reducing their profit margins. Transportation costs are one of the biggest challenges in fecal sludge treatment, as sludge is quite heavy, and moving it great distances quickly eats up profits. Our sanitation entrepreneurs dump their sludge at the single municipal treatment plant (the two other plants were closed in 2014) in Kampala. SSG plans to pilot a mobile collection service, involving parking a septic vacuum truck or similar vehicle near pit emptiers, in order to ease their transportation burden.

As SSG grows and develops more partnerships with other stakeholders in the WASH sector, we are hoping to add one or more re-use business models to our portfolio, possibly including production and distribution of vermicompost and biocoal. As the SSG brand becomes more recognized, we believe we can help to reduce some of the stigma around working in sanitation and show entrepreneurs they can make a good living in sanitation while improving the lives of Ugandans. It won’t be easy, and it won’t come quickly, but we are optimistic we can have a sustainable impact.

Feature photo credit to wikimedia.org

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