La­trines are the pits, but Gates Foun­da­tion expo seeks a fix

Business Day - - OPINION -

EN­TER THE FOUN­DA­TION AND THE REIN­VENTED TOI­LET EXPO, A SYM­PO­SIUM ON IN­NO­VA­TIVE SAN­I­TA­TION HELD THIS WEEK

Are you em­bar­rassed by poop? I am. I think ev­ery­body is.

It ’ s one of those things we try to ig­nore, but we all need to poop. We use these eu­phemisms for poop­ing. Peo­ple say they are “go­ing to wash their hands”. The worst is the phrase “I’m just go­ing to pow­der my nose”. The one I like most is “I’m go­ing to talk to a man about a horse”.

What­ever. The truth is that com­fort­able, san­i­tary poop­ing is a real joy. But the me­chan­ics and fi­nances of toi­lets are ex­tremely hard, es­pe­cially in coun­tries like SA where peo­ple live far apart, be­cause the cost of cre­at­ing a grid just ex­plodes.

The re­sult is that SA still has an enor­mous num­ber of pit la­trines. About 14-mil­lion South Africans don’t have ac­cess to flush toi­lets and use pit la­trines, which ev­ery now and then a politi­cian promises to erad­i­cate by a fu­ture date.

In Au­gust it was Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa’s turn, when he launched a plan to im­prove san­i­ta­tion in ru­ral schools and erad­i­cate the pit la­trine sys­tem in the coun­try. The cam­paign fol­lowed the death of a child who fell into a pit la­trine in the Eastern Cape ear­lier in 2018.

What on earth took so long? In 2014, a child died in Lim­popo af­ter fall­ing into a pit toi­let. There are about 4,500 schools in SA with pit toi­lets, out of a to­tal of 26,000. In the Eastern Cape, there are 50 schools with­out any toi­lets at all. The in­ep­ti­tude is bizarre.

When you hear about the ut­ter use­less­ness and sense­less­ness of a demo­cratic gov­ern­ment be­ing in power for 25 years and still some­how un­able to build 4,500 toi­lets, you in­evitably search for al­ter­na­tives.

En­ter the Bill & Melinda Gates Foun­da­tion and the Rein­vented Toi­let Expo, a sym­po­sium on in­no­va­tive san­i­ta­tion held this week in Bei­jing, China. The foun­da­tion is try­ing to do what it does best: ini­ti­ate a start-up process in a way that could prime the pump and de­velop new in­dus­tries. The process is in­spir­ing. The foun­da­tion has pumped about $200m into it so far and plans to spend $200m more. The idea is to find an off-grid san­i­ta­tion sys­tem, and 40 ideas were on dis­play, some of which were tested in Dur­ban.

“This expo show­cases, for the first time, rad­i­cally new, de­cen­tralised san­i­ta­tion tech­nolo­gies and prod­ucts that are busi­ness-ready,” Gates told the con­fer­ence.

The tech­ni­cal chal­lenge is to cre­ate waste treat­ment plants on a very small scale. Build­ing tra­di­tional sewer sys­tems in SA, for ex­am­ple, is just im­pos­si­ble. A sin­gle flush from a tra­di­tional sew­er­age­based toi­let uses up to 13l of wa­ter. That means if all 56.72mil­lion peo­ple in SA flush just once a day, they would use 737-mil­lion litres of wa­ter. The good a new sys­tem could do the world is just in­cred­i­ble. The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion es­ti­mates that 842,000 peo­ple in low- and mid­dle-in­come coun­tries die as a re­sult of in­ad­e­quate wa­ter, san­i­ta­tion and hy­giene each year. They die mostly of di­ar­rhoea, and 842,000 rep­re­sents about 58% of to­tal di­ar­rhoeal deaths. Poor san­i­ta­tion is be­lieved to be the main cause in about 280,000 of these deaths.

The Bos­ton Con­sult­ing Group es­ti­mates that ev­ery dol­lar in­vested in san­i­ta­tion pro­vides, on av­er­age, an eco­nomic re­turn of $5.50.

Some of this seems a bit en­thu­si­as­tic for me, the way do-good­ing events some­times are. Bos­ton claims, for ex­am­ple, that the rein­vented toi­let mar­ket is “con­ser­va­tively es­ti­mated to be­come a $6bn global an­nual rev­enue op­por­tu­nity by 2030”. I won­der about that.

The ad­van­tage of pit la­trines, apart from the fab­u­lous smell of fresh poop, is that they are quick to erect and cheap to op­er­ate, which is why they have been the de­fault toi­let around the world for cen­turies. New op­tions, as wel­come as they are, will have to com­pete with that.

Still, what strikes me when lis­ten­ing to politi­cians in SA talk on the is­sue of pit la­trines, and the Gates Foun­da­tion dis­cussing the same topic, is the huge con­trast in the na­ture of the con­ver­sa­tion.

SA’s politi­cians tend to talk with­out any mean­ing­ful in­ter­ac­tion with the fac­tual dy­nam­ics of the is­sue. Their ef­fort is declar­a­tive, not pro­gram­matic. Their tar­gets are ran­dom, and with­out any sci­en­tific ap­pli­ca­tion. It’s no sur­prise that noth­ing gets done be­cause a tar­get is not a plan. The gov­ern­ment of­ten talks about draw­ing in the pri­vate sec­tor, but what it means by that is that some­one else must pick up the tab.

For all its ro­bust en­thu­si­asm and tech-cen­tred buoy­ancy, you have to say the ap­proach of the foun­da­tion is fab­u­lously re­fresh­ing, even on the sub­ject of poop.

● Co­hen is Busi­ness Day se­nior ed­i­tor.

TIM CO­HEN

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