From faeces to fuel: how innovative waste management is addressing disease, deforestation and climate change in Kenya

By 14 January, 2019 News

The 19th of November 2018 was World Toilet Day, an official United Nations observance day that intends to inform, engage and encourage people to contribute towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6: Clean Water and Sanitation[1]. Kenya-based social enterprise Sanivation[2] has demonstrated how innovative waste management can help to achieve this goal, and, in the process, mitigate climate change. Indeed, the enterprise has become the solution for three of the country’s seemingly unrelated, but arguably most pressing, socio-economic concerns: sanitation, deforestation and climate change.

Figure 1. A staff member demonstrates how to use Sanivation‘s toilets. Source: Business Insider[3].

Kenya’s sanitation, deforestation, and climate change problems

In Kenya, only 30% of the population has access to improved sanitation[4], which translates to approximately 30 million citizens still using toilets declared unsanitary[5]. Of these 30 million citizens, almost six million still practise open defecation[6]. In addition, 95% of the country’s sewage is untreated before it is released into the environment, usually because it is too expensive and energy-intensive to do so. These sub-standard sanitation practices have serious consequences for human health. For example, it has been reported that approximately 5,000 children in Kenya die every year from diarrhoea and cholera[7]. Most of these outbreaks occur during the wet season when latrines become flooded by heavy rains.

Evidently unrelated to sanitation in Kenya is deforestation and, more broadly, climate change. As with most African countries, more than 75% of Kenya’s population depends on biomass (such as firewood or charcoal) for household uses such as cooking. This dependence provides a constant incentive to cut down trees and degrade forest ecosystems, which, amongst other things, limits the capacity of trees to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In addition, the unsustainable production and consumption of charcoal in the country, using energy-inefficient traditional kilns, contribute to greenhouses gas (GHG) emissions. The demand for charcoal is also increasing, primarily as a result of population growth, urbanisation and industrialisation, compounding the existing pressure on Kenya’s forests[8].

The Sanivation solution

The team at Sanivation[9] recognises the diverse but interlinked consequences of poor sanitation, deforestation and climate change in Kenya. To address these consequences, the enterprise has devised a simple and innovative solution that serves not only human health, but also the environment. Sanivation uses human faeces to create sustainable and odourless sources of fuel, resulting in far-reaching benefits that include: i) direct and immediate improvements in sanitation and human health; ii) decreases in deforestation through the production of alternative fuel sources; iii) increases in the capacity of forest landscapes to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change; and iv) better infiltration of water into soils, which results in less flooding and fewer outbreaks of diarrhoea and cholera. Through these distinct but unified benefits, Sanivation has become the three-staged elixir to Kenya’s sanitation, deforestation and climate change problems, for the reasons described below.

  • Stage 1: solving the sanitation problem. Sanivation issues non-sewered households with container-based toilets (coined ‘The Blue Box’), maintains them for a small monthly fee (US$7) and sends a collection agent to pick them up twice a week. By providing a hygienic place to use the bathroom and removing infectious waste from communities, the enterprise is helping to reduce the incidence of sanitation-related diseases.
  • Stage 2: solving the deforestation problem. Instead of disposing of the collected waste, Sanivation transforms it into a clean burning alternative to charcoal at one of their treatment facilities. Here, a solar concentrator heats the biosolids over 70°C to remove all pathogens. The waste is then further dehydrated in an agglomerator, mixed with sawdust or waste from rose farms, and turned into odourless briquettes. Among local communities, the provision of such an alternative fuel has been welcomed, and has reduced the need for cutting down trees for fuelwood. It has been estimated that burning a single tonne of Sanivation briquettes, as opposed to traditional charcoal, saves 88 trees.
  • Stage 3: solving the climate change problem. A 0.8 kg bag of briquettes sells for US$0.25 and can burn for up to three days, whereas charcoal of a similar weight costs US$0.50 and will last approximately two days. In addition to burning longer and more cheaply, Sanivation briquettes release only 30% of the carbon emissions that conventional charcoal does.

The waste-to-resource process described above has been refined over several years. The result of this iterative process is a product that does not look, smell or burn like faeces, and that is both safe and environmentally sustainable. Through the process, Sanivation has already generated benefits for lives and livelihoods in Kenya. Firstly, by providing people with personal toilets, the enterprise brings cleanliness, dignity and privacy to individuals and communities in parts of Kenya. Secondly, by providing an alternative and sustainable source of fuel, the enterprise maintains the healthy functioning of the country’s ecosystems, as well as the livelihoods that depend on them. And lastly, by offering multinational companies and grassroots entrepreneurs a cheap, effective and sustainable fuel, the enterprise has helped to create reliable supply chains while also improving health and living standards in local communities.

Sanivation now and moving forward

Sanivation’s first treatment facility opened in 2015 at Sanctuary Farm in Naivasha, Kenya. A year later, a revamped and expanded treatment system was introduced that boosted the facility’s capacity by 300%. To honour World Toilet Day, the enterprise opened another factory in Naivasha (the Naivasha Treatment Plant) on the 19th of November 2018. Through the treatment plant, the enterprise has committed to serving an additional 5,000 people, processing an additional 1,000 tonnes of waste, and creating 1,000 additional tonnes of briquettes each month. With a factory in Kakuma Refugee Camp serving as a model, the initiative also hopes to establish treatment facilities in other East African refugee camps.

As it continues to expand, Sanivation aims to service a million homes in Kenya by 2020. To achieve this aim, the initiative is looking to upscale its operations, becoming both a major sanitation provider as well as a competitive charcoal vendor. Sanivation’s co-founder Andrew Foote argues that faeces-based charcoal has the potential to meet 50% of the country’s 2.5 million-tonne annual charcoal demand. Ultimately, the minds behind the initiative aim to effect a paradigm shift from backwards waste processing systems towards a more circular[10] resource recovery approach. Lessons can be learned from such innovation. By shifting the paradigm to see faeces not as waste, but rather as a valuable resource, Sanivation can and should inspire policymakers, multinational corporations and laypeople alike to actively contribute towards solving the world’s sanitation, deforestation and climate change problems.

[1] UN Water, 2018. World Toilet Day. Available at: http://www.worldtoiletday.info/wtd2018/. Accessed on 25 November 2018.

[2] Sanivation is a sanitation startup founded by Andrew Foote and Emily Woods that installs free modern container-based toilets in low-income homes in Kenya.

[3] Martin, E. 2016. This sanitation startup in Kenya turns poop into a sustainable source of fuel. Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/kenya-startup-turns-poop-into-fuel-2016-6?IR=T. Accessed on 24 November.

[4] Improved sanitation is classified as sanitation facilities that hygienically separate excreta from human contact.

[5] Ndungu, P.W., 2018. Why Kenya’s sanitation challenge requires urgent attention. World Bank – Africa Can End Poverty. Available at: http://blogs.worldbank.org/africacan/why-kenyas-sanitation-challenge-requires-urgent-attention. Accessed on 25 November 2018.

[6] Open defecation is the human practice of defecating outside (in the open environment) rather than into a toilet. People may choose fields, bushes, forests, ditches, streets, canals or other open spaces for defecation.

[7] Gicobi, M., 2018. How waste-to-fuel project is changing lives in Kenyan slum. The East African. Available at: https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/scienceandhealth/How-waste-to-fuel-project-is-changing-lives-in-Kenyan-slum/3073694-4540912-ct8rbtz/index.html. Accessed on 24 November 2018.

[8] Kenya’s Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) for the Charcoal Industry, 2016. Available at: http://wpowerhub.org/nationally-appropriate-mitigation-actions-nama-for-the-charcoal-sector-in-kenya/. Accessed on 25 November 2018.

[9] Sanivation – Sanitation as a service, 2018. Available at: http://www.sanivation.com/. Accessed on 24 November 2018.

[10] The circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design. It replaces the ‘taking, making, wasting’ concept with restoration, shifting towards the use of renewable energy, eliminating the use of toxic chemicals, and aiming for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems, and, within this, business models’. The overall objective is to enable effective flows of materials, energy, labour and information so that natural and social capital can be rebuilt.