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Reflections from East Africa – the challenge of FSM

Returning from a recent trip to East Africa we wanted to share some thoughts on the challenge of faecal sludge management in cities. 

“Those? They’ve never even been used I don’t think”

So came the response from the operations manager at Bugolobi waste water treatment plant in Kampala as we passed ten or so mini-vacuum tankers (right) designed to empty pit latrines in hard to reach urban settlements.

When asked what will happen to them now, the response was “Nothing. They will sit there and rot in the sun.”

The key issue? The tanks and engines were too small to be economically viable for the operator and the unit too low to the ground to really deal with the problem at hand.

We have just returned from a whirlwind trip to East Africa, the majority of which was spent discussing the challenge of urban sanitation in several booming capital cities. We visited Nairobi, Kampala and Kigali, spending time with enterprises we support through our focus on market based solutions in water and sanitation.

Here at the Foundation, we have been reflecting on manual pit emptying over the last few months and our recent trip confirmed a common set of challenging barriers we see across our portfolio and which are increasingly better understood in the sector.

Pit emptying it is a hard, tough job and not a particularly attractive career. Finding and retaining business minded people interested in running an operation is challenging.

The margins are tight and key drivers of financial viability are the efficiency of the actual emptying (i.e. how quickly and easily can you empty the pit) and distance to the dump site (fuel is the largest cost in most operations).

Low emptying efficiency is driven by poorly designed pits (they are hard to empty), the often-solid nature of the waste and the high volumes of rubbish found in pits (which makes devices like the gulper ineffective – a selection of manual tools is then needed).

This is compounded by basic and inefficient equipment; attempts to mechanise pumping and improve the efficiency of how pits are being emptied have struggled to respond to the solid waste found.

To round it off, most cities in Africa lack appropriate, functioning disposal facilities that can handle sludge from pit latrines.

Like many others in the sector, we are committed to working through these issues through our support to a number of enterprises across Africa and Asia.  No one has cracked the solution yet but it feels like some progress is being made…albeit slowly.

We spent time with Sanitation Solutions Group in Kampala (left), a growing enterprise providing manual emptying services.

What struck us is how professionally managed the enterprise is and how focused they are on delivering a high quality, customer focused service to their customers.

We also spent time with the pit emptying operations of Pivot Works – Pit Vedura – in Kigali. They use a vacuum pump to increase the volumes of waste extracted from very deep pits, transporting it to their waste to resource factory on the outskirts of the city.

We will continue to focus on such enterprises, supporting them to refine their operations and financial models, to understand what role they play in addressing the ever growing sanitation challenge in urban areas.