Today, communities in Africa grapple with a lack of access to clean and hygienic sanitation facilities. To date, about 9.2 million Ugandans—about 77% of the population—is without access to toilets or latrines, which compares poorly to what it was in 1960 when it stood at 90%. This widespread lack of access to proper sanitation is attributed to recent population growth and legislative shortcomings, and has become a major contributor to the 1.5 million children who die each year in Uganda due to waterborne diseases. Most people in rural and urban slum areas still use rudimentary sanitation facilities that often give in to adverse weather conditions, causing people to practice open defecation. These poor conditions expose users, especially women, children and people with disabilities, to infection and disease such as candida and urinary tract infections.
As it stands, communities are not proud of their toilets, and embracing toilet innovations and encouraging innovations to consider differing types of soil, the effects of climate change on sanitation infrastructure, and risk of flooding and high water tables will not only save people from the continual cost of constructing temporary solutions but will eventually lead to reduced contamination of water by fecal sludge.
In response to this bleak reality, I set up Sanitation Africa Limited, a company designed to provide innovative toilet technologies and to scale up sanitation access by adopting a business model where toilets are traded like any other consumer commodity. Modelling my organization after a business instead of a non-profit has allowed for communities to take greater ownership over their toilets, both literally and figuratively. And this sense of ownership has led to more sustainable impact and healthier lives by bringing affordable and inclusive sanitation solutions to communities that would normally have access to proper sanitation.
One of the key challenges we face is geological challenges, such as collapsible soils and a high water table. These greatly impact the structural integrity of pit latrines and make access to sanitation difficult, especially for resource-constrained communities in landing sites, slums and in rural areas. Furthermore, the quality of multi-family sanitation facilities is difficult to maintain in terms of comfort, hygiene and health. We also face insufficient funding and support by local and national government, which has led to poor supervision and management of water and sanitation projects with sporadic short-term interventions that tend to start and stop before achieving their intended purpose.
Despite these challenges, our market-based approach has allowed us to foster an interest among young people in employment opportunities in the sanitation sector—young people have become interested in working as masons, artisans, emptying operators, transporters, supervisors, research engineers, monitoring and evaluation officers and sales and marketing associates. Additionally, we’ve achieved a remarkable increase in school attendance in areas where we constructed SmartSan toilets thanks to easier access to proper sanitation. One of the key practices we promote to cut fecal-oral transmission is regular hand washing with soap because we believe that when children are free of water-borne diseases, they’ll have better opportunity for a brighter future as they’ll be able to attend school regularly and get better grades. Girls will also be able to attend school more regularly when they have access to decent toilets that help ensure menstrual hygiene.
We in the private sector do not aim to compete with government and development organizations, but rather work with them to play a pivotal role in ensuring sustainable access to sanitation infrastructure countrywide. To accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), public-private partnerships need to be strengthened so that private sector actors can fill the gaps in public industrial framework and make sanitation products sustainable and scalable for everyone.
Samuel Malinga is a Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals and Founder of Sanitation Africa.