African Innovators Rethink the Toilet

Esther Munyiva, a landlady in Nairobi’s Mukuru Kwa Reuben informal settlement, installed her first Fresh Life toilet in 2012. “Before Fresh Life, my neighborhood was so bad,” she says. Plastic bags of feces littered rooftops, trenches and pathways and the air reeked of excrement. Even the rivers flowed brown. The waste collected by Fresh Life toilets is turned into fertilizers and animal feed by the company which services them. Munyiva now has four such toilets which provide more than 20 rental households with safe sanitation, day and night.

Munviya is one of millions of Africans benefiting from a quiet revolution in approaches to sanitation. Disruptors at universities, non-profits and companies across the continent are increasingly rethinking every aspect of the toilet value chain. In Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Zambia and Uganda, simple but elegant alternatives are helping fight disease and environmental degradation while also saving water — and extracting monetary value from bodily waste.


A resident walks past Fresh Life toilets in the Mukuru slums in Nairobi.

Source SIMON MAINA/AFP via Getty

The developed world is “locked into” using waterborne sewer systems, explains Jos van der Ent, research and development manager at Dutch social enterprise Safi Sana. But sewers are expensive and time-consuming to build. And by mixing feces, urine and greywater and then diluting this with drinking water (what a waste!), they make it much harder for processing facilities to extract value from this excreta cocktail. In Western cities, wastewater is seen as an “end-of-pipe cost,” says Cape Town-based bioprocess engineer Dr Sue Harrison, but — if handled correctly — it can actually generate “plenty of value.”

[Toilet models that] extract value from the chain are the future.

Jos Van der Ent

That’s what Safi Sana is doing in Accra, Ghana, where its factory turns 25 tons of fecal sludge (and 15 tons of organic waste) into both electricity and organic fertilizer every day. The sludge comes from public toilets where waste is collected in cesspits (holding tanks) that are emptied by privately owned vacuum trucks. Safi Sana hopes to also provide irrigation water to local farmers.

Meanwhile, Dyllan Randall of the University of Cape Town is plotting how to earn profits from bricks and fertilizers he’s building out of urine that he gets from waterless urinals. And back in Nairobi, 3000 Fresh Life toilets across 11 slums are now providing clean sanitation for 130,000 people daily. For Munyiva, they also mean a boost to her rental business. And her experiences offer valuable lessons for a range of developing economies from India to Mexico, which are also grappling with sanitation challenges.

“I used to have high turnover, but now my house units are always full,” Munyiva says.

Manufactured by Nairobi-headquartered firm Sanergy, the Fresh Life toilets are managed by people like Munyiva on a franchise model. The toilets separate feces and urine as soon as they hit the pan and store these in separate tanks. Sanergy staff transport the waste to a processing facility. There, the fecal component is used to rear black soldier flies, explains Sharon Kibuthu, the firm’s external relations manager. These flies become high-protein content animal feed. The residue they leave behind is further decomposed into organic fertilizer. The urine is currently disposed of, but Sanergy is researching ways to turn this into a useful product too.

Fresh Life toilets, manufactured in-house at $500 each, are rented out to people like Munyiva at $8.50 a month — an amount they can recoup easily from their businesses, which gain from having access to these toilets. Across Africa, more than 700 million people don’t have access to proper sanitation facilities. On the other side of the equation, Sanergy is able to sell its organic fertilizer at $0.35/kg and its animal feed at $1/kg, but has yet to break even.

Over in Accra, the Safi Sana factory is set to cover its operational costs this year. It gets its revenue from drivers who typically pay a $6 dumping fee — cheaper than most nearby facilities — and from the sale of electricity and fertilizer.

Randall, in parched Cape Town, is still drawing up blueprints of his route toward profitability. In a lab stacked with toilet pans and jars of dubious looking liquids he takes me through the process of extracting urea from urine and then using this to “grow” bio-bricks. Because Randall is targeting middle class urinators who already have access to hygienic waterborne sanitation, he has to ensure that his urinals look, smell and act just like their conventional counterparts. To make switching worthwhile for potential clients — he envisages banks of his urinals in shopping malls and cinema complexes — he also has to pay especially close attention to the bottom line. Instead of making simple house bricks from pee, he hopes to manufacture more high-end products. The concentrated urine fertilizer he is trying to make could also fetch as much as $12 per liter, if sold as a niche fertilizer with specialty applications.

Meanwhile, Sanergy is expanding. The firm has just signed a preliminary deal with Kenya’s third-largest city, Kisumu, and hopes to install its first toilets there this year. They have also launched a consulting arm through which they hope to share their learning with cities across the continent by “assessing, advising and even implementing” non-sewered sanitation solutions.

The journey isn’t easy for these firms. The streets in some Nairobi neighborhoods are so narrow that sewage is collected in handcarts. Van der Ent and Safi Sana have also walked “a rough road” since they first started developing their concept in 2010. Their biggest challenge has been competing against a mainstream treatment model that involves “doing nothing.” Still Van der Ent is confident in Safi Sana’s model. The company is now exploring partnerships with municipalities in Mali and Uganda too, and — in conjunction with another organization that’s focused on the toilet experience in Kumasi, Ghana’s second-largest city — are trialing a project that will also improve waste management in that city. 

Models that “extract value from the chain are the future,” says Van der Ent, who notes that there is also a growing appetite for public-private partnerships that are more adaptable than traditional systems. For the world to move away from centuries of using the flush toilet, it will need that flexibility. Africa is showing the way.

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