Two billion people around the world—more than the populations of India, the USA and Brazil combined—do not have access to toilets, latrines and other basic sanitation, according to the World Health Organisation.
Of these, 673 million (almost the entire population of Europe) still defecate in the open—in street gutters, behind bushes or into open bodies of water.
This leads to huge healthcare problems, including the widespread transmission of diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery and hepatitis A.
But, it also has serious impacts on personal and societal well-being. As Jyoti Shukla, former senior manager of the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), told the BBC: “Sanitation lies at the root of many other development challenges, as poor sanitation impacts public health, education, and the environment.”
A social enterprise in Kenya has found a way of tackling all of these challenges at the same time.
Sanivation installs container-based toilets for free in homes in Naivasha and Kakuma, two regions in Kenya that are also home to a UNHCR refugee camp.
Sanivation co-founders, Andrew Foote and Emily Woods. Photo on Medium
It then charges a small fee (around $7) to take away the waste once a week. And here’s the crucial part: It then takes this waste and transforms it, at a specially constructed, solar-powered sanitation plant, into small, odourless briquettes.
The waste is heated at temperatures of over 70 degrees C for many hours, deactivating any pathogens. It is then mixed with biomass dust made from risk husks, corn cobs and flowers steams to make the fuel.
These charcoal alternatives are sold back to the community, with all profits covering the cost of operations.
This technique has been used at Kakuma in Northern Kenya, which has 186,000 refugees and where pit latrines either filled up or leaked in the rain.
Sanivation has now installed 500 toilets in the camp. Overall, it has improved sanitation services for 20,000 people, treating 150 tonnes of infectious waste—leading to a 47 percent reduction in diarrheal diseases.
“Simply to achieve universal sanitation, toilets will have to mimic the adoption rates of cell phones,” Andrew Foote, co-founder of Sanivation alongside Emily Woods, told the BBC. “One of my favourite parts of my job is thinking: How do I make toilets as cool as cell phones?”