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