Tackling challenges of pit latrine emptying in urban slums – lessons from Sanergy’s Mtaa Fresh project

Louise Couder (Director, External Relations) and Sheila Kibuthu (Assistant Manager, Communications) at Sanergy, a sanitation service provider in Kenya, reflect on the results and drivers of success of a new pit emptying project, aimed at ensuring the safe disposal of waste from urban communities.

Kenya’s cities are growing rapidly. In Nairobi, more than half of the population – over 2 million people – live in urban slums with limited access to basic services including safe sanitation. As a result of this, 66% of all fecal waste generated in Nairobi ends up untreated back in the ecosystem, polluting the environment and harming public health.     

Since 2011, Sanergy – a Stone Family Foundation grantee since 2013 – has provided safe sanitation services to residents living in urban, non-sewered slums of Kenya. Using a full-value chain approach, Sanergy operates a network of 3,300 container-based sanitation units called Fresh Life Toilets, which serve 130,000 residents every single day and safely removes over 9,000 tons of fecal waste annually.

Fresh Life Toilets serve 22% of Sanergy’s service areas and in our mission to reach everyone, everywhere with safe sanitation, we are now developing complementary innovative solutions that work to ensure all fecal waste is safely managed.

One of these solutions, Mtaa Fresh, addresses some of the challenges posed by pit latrines in urban areas, and provides a practical and legal place for manual pit emptiers to safely dispose of waste collected from pit latrines.

Pit latrines are the most commonly used form of on-site sanitation and make up for nearly 80% of all existing sanitation facilities in slums. They require regular waste management services – however due to the dense nature of slums, the majority of facilities are inaccessible by exhauster trucks. Without enough space to dig up new pit latrines, residents turn to manual pit emptiers; community members that remove waste from pit latrines using buckets and transport it out of the community via drums on wheels. 

These emptiers do not necessarily have designated areas to discharge the waste they remove, or the designated area is prohibitively far away. With limited options the waste is often disposed of illegally in open drainages and waterways, and becomes a significant health and environmental hazard.

Through Mtaa Fresh, launched in mid-2017, Sanergy provides a central collection center where manual emptiers can safely empty waste removed from communities, and also offers expert support to manual pit emptiers in formalising their activities for better coordination and regulation of their work within the community.

The waste transfer station when it opened – providing a safe disposal point for manual pit emptiers

Over the last two years, Sanergy has helped 22 manual pit emptiers formalise into one community-based organisation responsible for emptying the pits within Mukuru Kwa Njenga slum. Cumulatively, this group has safely managed over 4.5 million liters of fecal sludge.

As we look to expand this work, we believe two key insights have been at the core of its success:

Manual pit emptiers provide an essential service within the sanitation value chain

Manual pit emptiers remove the majority of sanitation waste existing in urban slums. In Mukuru Kwa Njenga alone, manual emptiers remove an average of 8,000 liters of pit sludge (equivalent to 1 exhauster truck) every single day.

However, their work is inhibited by a myriad of challenges: community stigmatisation, illnesses caused by direct exposure to human waste, and regular harassment from local authorities and youth groups due to unsafe dumping of waste.

Through creation of a licensed community-based organisation recognised by the government and respected by the community, manual pit emptiers have been able to formalise their operations and further provide better services to urban residents.

It has also inspired behavior change where manual pit emptiers adhere to safety protocols for themselves, their communities and the environment. As a result, manual pit emptiers now ensure safe disposal of 99% of all pit waste generated in Mukuru Kwa Njenga.

The manual pit emptiers group, Sanergy’s transfer centre team and government officials were involved in the project

Government and community buy-in is critical for scale of innovative sanitation solutions

The prevalence of pit latrines in urban slums indicate that manual pit emptying is a critical service required by urban residents, and that collaboration with government can play an important role.

During the implementation of Mtaa Fresh, Sanergy worked closely with the local authorities of Mukuru Kwa Njenga and government officials, who are familiar with the harmful impact of pit waste that is improperly disposed of into the local environment.

Due to the positive relationship built between Sanergy and the local government, the government provided critical operations support services to Sanergy and manual pit emptiers. This included spearheading community mobilisation activities that enhanced community buy-in, and helping formalise manual pit emptier groups to legitimise the work that they do.

The results of this work in Mukuru Kwa Njenga are promising. It shows an improvement in the quality of sanitation services to low-income urban residents, whilst also creating livelihoods and reducing the risks of environmental and health impact caused by improper pit waste dumping.

Sanergy is now preparing to replicate and scale the waste management solution to other urban slums of Nairobi, in partnership with the Kenyan government. It is a huge step in helping formalise pit waste management and bringing proper oversight to a difficult but prevalent challenge.

Whilst continued efforts are needed to make the case for prioritising safe sanitation in urban slums and non-sewered areas, Sanergy and the Kenyan government are demonstrating positive progress towards adoption of innovative solutions and partnerships, and collaborative ways of delivering citywide inclusive sanitation.