Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Kiva Innovations: Sanitation, and Kiva’s elegant solution to an inelegant problem

In last week’s blog post, I discussed innovative programs that finance water access for the poor. This week we’ll turn our attention to sanitation.

I have chosen to focus on water and sanitation separately because the two are often combined and muddled by the development community. The challenge of delivering usable water revolves primarily around sustainable and clean access. Sanitation, however, is altogether more involved. Access is only one strand in a complex web of behavioral and social traditions that influence how people use sanitation.

Build it and they will poop

To paraphrase the movie Field of Dreams, sanitation is not as simple as creating “access points.” Supply-side approaches to improving sanitation have been successful in some countries but disastrous in others.

There are stories of well-intentioned nonprofits that have used grant money to build toilets in areas where it’s impossible to find parts to fix them, or composting latrines that have been used as chicken coops. Rare successes with this model have been achieved in countries with already low levels of open defecation, immense political will for improving sanitation or entrenched cultural notions of privacy and cleanliness. More often than not, however, supply-side interventions have proven unsustainable.

Where do people go to the bathroom now?

The disparities between urban and rural communities are even more pronounced in sanitation than in drinking water supply. In all, 79% of the world’s urban population uses an “improved” sanitation facility compared to only 47% of the rural population. Most urban households use toilets connected to either sewers or septic tanks, which are operated by public utilities or private companies managed by the government. Families with these facilities pay a small wastewater surcharge as a supplement to their water bills.

In many smaller towns or urban slums, sewer extension and drainage projects sit idle as funding has slowed or stopped altogether, and households have little ability to redress financial shortfalls. As a result, residents discharge untreated waste directly into waterways or onto the open ground. Heavy rains, particularly during monsoon season in Southeast Asia, exacerbate this problem by plugging functioning systems, contaminating clean water resources and posing serious health risks.

As yet, no plans exist to extend sewers to rural villages in many developing countries. In Senegal, the government has acknowledged as much, confirming it would be unrealistic to suggest expansion beyond the capital of Dakar. In place of toilets, villagers use latrines sometimes connected to septic tanks, but most often with deep pits. These facilities are subsidized by international donors and built by local nonprofits. Individual costs for latrine construction are well beyond the financial reach of most rural households, with well-ventilated pit latrines costing upwards of USD$500. Lack of financial mechanisms to address this cost means households can become dependent on subsidies.

As a result, 28% of the world’s population -- or nearly 1 billion people -- use fields, streams or other open places to go about their daily routine. Open defecation, as the practice is named, pollutes ground water, contaminates agricultural produce and helps spread diseases like diarrhea and cholera (more on this in a previous blog).

Changing behavior

Open defecation is a serious threat to human health and economic development -- but it’s just too convenient. Since the mid-2000s, the international community has sought to overcome early failures by focusing less on hardware and more on software. By creating demand for better hygiene through education, governments are hoping to overcome traditions and eliminate open defecation. These community-led total sanitation initiatives (CLTS) attempt to trigger the desire for change and galvanize communities to find local solutions to improve sanitation.

In some cases, CLTS has been successful at generating demand. Still, financing does not exist for small projects to exist at scale. Consumers with the motivation still lack the ability to purchase technology that suits their needs. In response, Kiva is working with our partners to create loan products specifically-tailored to support these families.

In the meantime, one potential Kiva partner is working hard to scale up in the slums of Kenya. Using pre-fabricated Ecosan toilets, the group hires local entrepreneurs to sell low-cost sanitation facilities to households. Each day, an employee comes to collect waste that is deposited in airtight containers that are then processed into biogas. The biogas is burned to generate electricity, which can be sold to the public utility. It’s an elegant solution to processing an inelegant product -- and one that will ultimately allow the company to offer facilities at a discounted rate.

At, Kiva we are constantly searching for innovative and responsible ways to provide financing to low income households at the local level. In sanitation, that journey is fraught with complications. But the calls for better sanitation are growing louder by the day, and we plan to answer them.

Ian Matthews is an intern on Kiva’s Strategic Initiatives team, looking for new partners and loan products to extend opportunities and access to even more people around the world. Ian has an MSc in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and has previously done field work in Honduras. Send him your feedback on this blog series at blog@kiva.org .

This is part of a larger series on Kiva’s strategic initiatives and innovative loan products, which are designed to expand opportunities for more borrowers. Kiva is excited to partner with companies and organizations innovating to support communities improve their sanitation. 

photos courtesy of Gates Foundation, Overseas Development Institute, Sustainable Sanitation, Nestle