Building EcoSan toilets in Blantyre, Malawi
By Mariana Gallo and the Malawi Homeless People’s Federation
The sanitation challenges that Blantyre currently faces are complex with limited affordable options for informal residents to choose from. No sewerage treatment or disposal services, poor access to water, and a lack of space all characterise the cities’ slums.
The Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE) and the Malawian Federation have been supporting informal communities to access Ecological Sanitation (dry composting) toilets since 2005 with approximately 800 toilets serving 14,400 people having been built to date. EcoSan toilets started out as part of the housing process pursued by Federation savings groups but, over time, their provision has become a stand-alone investment in settlement upgrading. Once the first “precedent” toilets were constructed, the benefits were realised by many and demand among the Federation grew. Currently, sanitation is a key aspect of the Blantyre Alliance’s settlement upgrading efforts. Community-led data collection shows the gaps that exist between the number of residents and the number of toilets in a settlement. Profiles indicate that in many of Blantyre’s slum settlements toilets are shared by up to 10 families (approximately 60 people), stressing the urgency for affordable and practical solutions.
The demand for EcoSan sanitation has grown over the years due to a number of advantages in comparison to more traditional approaches to sanitation (e.g. simple or improved pit latrines):
- The capacity to save space/land: Unlike pit latrines, there is no need to build a new toilet once the EcoSan is full, as it can be easily emptied by the user. The challenges of emptying traditional pit latrines (high costs and unavailability of the service) mean that many people have no choice but to cover the latrine when full and dig a new one. This has both negative environmental consequences (e.g. groundwater infiltration) and spatial consequences.
- Saving money: The humanure harvested from the toilets can be used as fertilizer for garden and crops. This saves money for the household, who no longer need to incur the cost of buying fertilizer. On average, the cost of buying fertilizer is around 17.000 Malawian Kwacha (29 USD) for one 50kg bag. Most people would use four bags in one farming season (one year), for one acre of land.
- Generating income: In some cases EcoSan users have been able to sell the harvested humanure to local farmers or companies and generate additional income for the family. The following figures are tentative but a 50kg bag of humanure can be sold for up to 2500 Mk (4 USD). In six months, a household produces a minimum of 300 kg (six bags) of humanure. If all sold, this could provide an income of up to 48 USD in one year. Blantyre EcoSan users have, in the past, sold humanure to the City Council for landscaping initiatives across the city, for example. There is a demand of the product from private buyers and companies that currently remains unmet due to low production and gaps in the market chain. Unfortunately, not all EcoSan toilet users are able to take advantage of this – the estimates show that currently only 20% of EcoSan users using or selling the humanure, a figure that varies on the area and according to the availability of agriculture land or available markets. Further research on the use of humanure is required, as well as further dissemination of information regarding the advantages of this resource. The context is also playing a key role: currently, the national government is cutting subsidies, making it more difficult for the poor to access subsidised fertilizer, which has meant an ongoing increase in households using or selling
- Status symbol and prestige: The smart design of the EcoSan toilet is a source of pride for owners and this status symbol encourages others to invest in the technology. In addition, the toilets are odourless, creating a more pleasant home environment – a further source of pride.
- Durability and safety: EcoSan toilets have proven to be able to withstand disasters as demonstrated during the heavy rains and floods that hit Blantyre in January 2015. Many pit latrines collapsed or were filled with water, however only a single EcoSan toilet was reported to have suffered damage. This incident has further improved the reputation and increased the demand for EcoSan sanitation in the affected areas.
- Water efficient: EcoSan toilets only require a small amount of water for use and maintenance and are therefore sought after in areas with poor water supply (which is the case in most of Blantyre). Many informal residents use water from shallow wells and boreholes and since EcoSan, unlike traditional latrines, cause hardly any groundwater infiltration or pollution they are considered to be safer, more environmentally-friendly options.
Including all community members
At first, toilet loans and technical support were only offered to Federation members – accessed and managed through savings schemes. After a number of years, and subsequent to internal discussions, EcoSan sanitation loans were made available to non-Federation members. This change was motivated by an increased interest in the technology by the wider community and recognition that scaling up must imply working beyond the Federation as the whole community, and not just Federation members, face sanitation challenges. An example of one such challenge was the cholera outbreak of January 2015 that affected entire communities. The toilets built to date have been spread across low-income areas in Blantyre with greater uptake in areas with rocky ground where traditional latrines have been difficult and expensive to build. Using data from enumeration reports, the density of EcoSan provision ranges from between 2 in 10 households in some areas to 6 in 10 households in others.
The process of including non-Federation members required a focus on the mobilisation of entire communities. In Blantyre, EcoSan toilet provision has taken a central place in slum upgrading strategies. The slum upgrading work is undertaken in close collaboration with traditional leaders, who play an important role in vouching for individuals to receive sanitation loans, managing various meetings and overseeing any issues that arise around repayment. Drawing traditional leaders into the process has proved effective especially when working with non-Federation members and loan repayments rates have improved. Repayment rates have varied between 45% and 87% over time and are often affected by variables such as whether it is a lean period or harvest time. As noted, institutional shifts in the methods deployed by the Federation have also affected repayments (e.g. a 5% commission for loan collectors has recently been introduced. But before this can be implemented more widely, more questions on costs need to be answered). The highest effectiveness was demonstrated when Federation teams worked closely with technical projects teams. However, over time this approach has not been sustained and repayments have dropped.
The current cost of a complete EcoSan toilet (toilet and bathroom) is 150,000 MK (around 272 USD). Families are required to make an initial payment of 10% (15.000MK) and the rest over one year period (with interest). These costs can be unaffordable for many of the poorest residents of informal settlements in Blantyre. In addition, the burden has been on landlords to invest in the toilet, with tenants having to push for the service. In the cases when landlords have invested, in general, rents have not increased as in Malawi it is the landlord’s responsibility to provide a toilet for tenants – a cost incurred whether the investment is EcoSan or a traditional pit latrine.
Some advantages in terms of costs of the EcoSan toilets are:
- A traditional latrine costs about half the price of an EcoSan toilet (75,000 MK or 136 US$) but it needs to be rebuilt after 2-3 years, while an EcoSan toilet can last for as long as 20 years. Thus cumulatively the EcoSan is a cheaper long-term investment.
- As noted earlier in the blog, income can be generated through the sale of humanure.
Understanding that despite the above benefits long-term investments can be prohibitive for the poor, several measures have been put in place to make the toilets affordable. These include:
- A reduction in the initial capital down payment for the toilet
- Encouraging people to source local materials (such as sand and brick) and provide part of the labour required. This can, at most, halve the initial cost of the toilet.
- Encouraging beneficiaries to start planning ahead of construction, sourcing materials little by little, and saving before construction commences.
- The loan system, which comprises a 10% down payment and the rest paid over a year (with 4% monthly interest on the declining balance) helps people afford a sum that they could not otherwise afford. However, it is felt that this is still too high and alternatives models are being explored.
- In order to afford repayments and cut interests costs, several families may take on a loan for a single toilet. Once the toilet is built and loan paid off (normally in 6 months as 3 families are now paying for a single loan) a second family can take a loan and build a toilet with the process repeating itself.
Whilst a lot has been achieved so far, the scale of the problem in Blantyre is huge and further efforts are needed to address improved sanitation for the poor. The construction of household EcoSan toilets is an ongoing process, with a revolving fund financing mechanism that covers the loans provided throughout time, and a demand that continues to grow. Six EcoSan public toilets have been constructed in market places in informal settlements, which look to release the pressure of the lack of sanitation facilities in those areas, and serve about 1,500 people that work and visit each market daily. These toilets are community-managed through a local committee and the small fee paid by customers (of 30mk or 0.05 USD, representing 3.6% of monthly income of someone on minimal wage) aims to ensure their maintenance and sustainability over time. Furthermore, a city-wide sanitation committee has been set up to oversee the functioning of all the public toilets and all local committees (to ensure appropriate management of the facilities). Furthermore, the city-wide committee is expected to engage in other initiatives related to city-wide sanitation in the near future. CCODE, the Federation, the City Council and traditional leaders are represented in the committee, ensuring close partnerships for better sanitation in the city.
Some of the issues delaying the progress in the provision of adequate sanitation are the lack of trained builders in this technology, which depends on the demand – which can be high with as many as 20 toilets on the waiting list. Constructing a toilet takes 1 week, and sometimes families have to wait up to 2 weeks to have their toilet built. Training is on-going to ensure there is a workforce available to address the existing demand. Funds required to finance the toilets as well as to fund further trainings and supervision could also boots the efforts and multiply impact, and these have been secured in the past through organisations such as the African Development Bank (ADB).
The provision of EcoSan is implemented as a joint venture with Blantyre City Council (BCC), deepening the relationship between the BCC and CCODE/Federation. The City Council provided support in terms of programme design, and in some cases it also provided land for public toilets. This has helped scaling up of the efforts in the southern region of the country, and set precedents that are now being implemented in other regions, as an essential component of a number of donor-funded projects. Furthermore, EcoSan toilets have been included in the national sanitation catalogue as an improved sanitation technology, an achievement that will enhance its replication.