Future Initiatives: Piloting conversion of pit latrines to Fresh Life Toilets

In Kenya, the sanitation problem is big; 8 million slum residents lack access to adequate sanitation! As urban populations continue to expand, this problem will persist and become more difficult to address.

Sanergy addresses this challenge through a systems-based approach where we not only provide access to hygienic Fresh Life Toilets but we also ensure safe waste collection, treatment, conversion, and reuse.

Sanergy teammates Joseph from Logistics (c) and Emma from Future Initiatives (r) with Mukuru resident Anet Amunze in front of an FLT built on top of a backfilled pit latrine.

While our approach has recorded great successes so far, our network of 800 Fresh Life Toilets only serves a segment of the population and only captures a portion of the waste produced in the communities we serve. A majority of the waste is still in a broken sanitation value chain, rife with waste leakages, harmful to the communities and the environment. To be able to capture more of this waste and provide alternative sanitation solutions for our target customers, our team is setting out to test innovative ways that can address these leakages and ultimately achieve a working, all-inclusive sanitation system.

One of the solutions we are trialing is pit conversions: exhaustion and backfilling of existing pit latrines for conversion to Fresh Life Toilets.

The majority of residents in Nairobi’s informal settlements use unimproved pit latrines as their main source of sanitation. Unimproved pit latrines are typically unlined, which means that pathogens present in fecal matter can leach into and contaminate the aquifer. During the rainy season, persistent flooding in these areas requires frequent emptying, which costs pit latrine owners an average of $180 a year on emptying services.

Currently, there are a number of mechanical pit emptying methods in Nairobi. One of them is the use of exhausters – trucks that sip out waste from pit latrines and transport it to a disposal site. This is a costly option that is usually difficult to implement due to the high population density and narrow pathways found in slums. Another option is burying off of full pits and digging a new pit nearby. However, space constraints in the informal settlements make this solution untenable.

We worked with a team of exhausters to determine the cost and time needed to empty and backfill a pit latrine.

Due to these challenges, residents with pit latrines have turned to manual exhaustion as the primary solution for waste extraction, which is a highly dangerous and unsanitary option. Most of this waste is unsafely disposed of in rivers and streams causing environmental pollution and increasing the risk of hygiene-related illnesses in these neighborhoods.

Mukuru Kwa Njenga, one of our operational areas, has a high concentration of pit latrines. While anecdotal evidence suggests that pit latrine owners may be open to investing in improved sanitation, the high costs involved may be a significant barrier to converting their pit latrines to Fresh Life Toilets.

This past June, Sanergy conducted a pilot project in Mukuru Kwa Njenga to better understand pit latrine conversion. The pilot had three objectives:

  1. To understand the manual exhaustion industry and identify opportunities for professionalization;
  2. To test new technologies for waste removal; and
  3. To assess the financial and technical feasibility of converting pit latrines to Fresh Life Toilets.

The project aimed to determine best practices for pit latrine conversion that could be used to scale up the offering following the pilot.

The project involved demolishing the existing latrine superstructure, completely emptying the pit of waste, and backfilling the structure to construct a Fresh Life Toilet.

Pit latrine before emptying

Two pit latrines in Mukuru Kwa Njenga were used and have provided valuable insights into the process of conversion and also highlighted several challenges. We have found that, while exhausters are willing to adapt to changes in their processes and procedures, sustained behavior change especially in the safe disposal of waste collected from pits will require long-term engagement. We also determined that the largest driver of conversion costs is the size of the pit latrine. The difference in the cost of conversion between a small and a large pit latrine could be as much as $500, but it is often difficult to estimate the size of the pit latrine prior to exhaustion.

During the pilot, one of the biggest challenges we faced was the need to make tradeoffs between customer satisfaction and evidence generation. Because we were working with clients, we did not have the luxury of a longer timeline for conversion, meaning that we had to be selective about what we wanted to test. For example, we were initially interested in testing the gulper, a manual hand pump for exhausting pit latrines designed by WaterAid. However, concerned about the negative perception associated with bringing in external exhausters, we decided against the idea.

Pit latrine after emptying and backfilling

We gleaned additional information by conducting a series of interviews with key stakeholders in order to better understand our target customer and inform our sales strategy for pit latrine conversions. We interviewed landlords who had either previously converted to a Fresh Life Toilet or were interested in converting their pit latrine emptying methods such as the use of manual waste exhausters. We asked them about challenges associated with pit latrine ownership and their primary reasons for converting. We found that the average cost of exhaustion was approximately $40 per visit (range: $10-$100), and the amount of waste exhausted each time ranged from 1,000 liters at minimum to the full contents of the pit. In general, landlords preferred to exhaust small amounts of waste more frequently due to the large expense associated with full exhaustion. They also overwhelmingly ranked bad odor as the most annoying problem during emptying.

Many respondents alluded to Sanergy’s good reputation and reliable service as one of the main considerations for conversion, while others noted the unhygienic qualities of pit latrines. Several respondents noted that they would save money by investing in a Fresh Life Toilet, as they would no longer need to pay for exhaustion services.

This pilot has provided valuable insights into the process of manual exhaustion and customer preferences. However, our team will be conducting more research to generate additional evidence to help us determine the feasibility of developing a pit to Fresh Life Toilet conversion service as one of our pipeline projects.

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