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Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by Libby Plumb, Senior Communications Advisor for WaterAid America, who has recently returned from visiting WaterAid’s water, sanitation and hygiene programs in the slums of Kampala, Uganda. 

Rehema and her daughter Mariam carrying water home from the spring in Rubaga, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

Rehema and her daughter Mariam carrying water home from the spring in Rubaga, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

Mariam is the only child of 22-year-old single mom Rehema. On the way to and from the local spring, near the Rubaga slum in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, she toddles behind her mother. It’s a journey they make four times a day to bring home enough water for drinking, cooking and washing.

Even little Mariam carries a jerry can of water: while Mom struggles under the weight of two 22 pound (10-liter) yellow jerry cans, Mariam follows behind carrying a bright red 11 pound (five-liter) jerry can – quite a feat for such a young child.

Rehema knows the quality of the spring water is questionable and could be risky for her daughter’s health. Kampala’s poorly constructed pit latrines and a high water table are a lethal combination as feces can easily contaminate the water supply. It’s not just water quality that is an issue. Accessibility is also a major challenge. With hundreds of people relying on the spring for water, crowds build up, with long waits common in the morning and evening when the heat of the sun is not so fierce. 

Rehema commented: “It’s very difficult to collect water from there. At 8 or 9 p.m. it is so crowded that it can take more than 30 minutes.”

Tensions often flare at the spring. Alongside women and children collecting water for their own domestic use are water vendors, usually men, who come to the spring to fill four or more jerry cans with water that they attach to bicycles and take to customers who pay for delivery service. Women and children are often pushed out of the way by vendors forcing their way to the front of the line. 

The need for safe, affordable, accessible water services in Rubaga is clear, but there are challenges inherent in extending piped water services into low-income neighborhoods. 

In other areas of the city where the National Water and Sewerage Company (NWSC) has granted water connections, it is common for landlords to sell water to their tenants for four to eight times the official rate. Poor families who are unable to afford the inflated rate continue to use polluted springs, even where there’s a tap right next to their home. 

Farahilh Masane collecting water from a prepaid meter in Kawempe, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

Farahilh Masane collecting water from a prepaid meter in Kawempe, Kampala. Credit: WaterAid / Libby Plumb

A pilot program of pre-paid water meters being rolled out by NWSC and donors aims to tackle this problem. The meters are operated by an electronic key, known as a token, that is pre-loaded with credit. Anyone, landlord or tenant, can buy a key and refill it with credit. As water is dispensed, the meter deducts credit from the token at the official rate.  In this way, consumers deal directly with NWSC and there is no scope for middlemen to inflate the price. Consumers benefit from safe, affordable water, while NWSC benefits from knowing that by paying upfront, consumers are unable to default on payment of water bills. 

The system is not perfect. Vandalism has been known to damage meters, causing them to malfunction. Another concern is whether all tenants, particularly newcomers to the area, are in the know about how to buy and use tokens. But it’s a system that shows promise and offers hope to areas like Rubaga that are still unserved with water. 

Farahilh Masane is a resident of the Kawempe Division, where prepaid meters have been installed by Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), with support and funding from the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation and WaterAid. She told us: “I walk across the road to the prepaid meter because it is cheaper there: 100 Shillings [4 US cents] for four jerry cans. There is a private tap right here but it is too expensive for me: 200 Shillings [8 US cents] per jerry can. Before the meter was installed I collected water from a spring, but so many people near it have pit latrines, the water was contaminated.”

Back in Rubaga, Rehema is hopeful that she will be able to benefit from piped water soon too. “It would change my life to have clean water and live in a better environment.” 

Boy, 11, uses Tippy Toppy in Indonesia. Credit: Jim Holmes, Oxfam GB

Boy, 11, uses Tippy Toppy in Indonesia. Credit: Jim Holmes, Oxfam GB

The Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF), a grantmaking fund designed to support organizations in developing new technologies to make humanitarian aid more effective, has launched a new initiative to encourage innovation in emergency water, sanitation and hygiene.

With support from the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the HIF’s WASH initiative aims to foster innovation and finance WASH solutions that will help save lives and reduce suffering during disasters and humanitarian crises.

To this end, the HIF has announced its first challenge: for latrine lighting in emergencies. To address safety concerns for those using latrines in refugee or displaced persons camps at night, the HIF is calling on problem solvers to submit a design for an effective lighting system for communal latrines that is both economical and unlikely to be vandalized or stolen. Applicants must submit their written proposals by March 16 and the winning idea will receive $20,000.

To read regular updates on the HIF’s new WASH initiative and stay informed about upcoming challenges, visit the program’s page on Storify or follow @The_HIF on Twitter.

The HIF is the product of a partnership between Enhancing Learning & Research for Humanitarian Assistance (ELRHA) and ALNAP, with support from DFID, the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and the Canadian International Development Agency.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have partnered to set up a joint trust fund to improve access to sanitation in Asia and the Pacific. Announced at World Water Week, the new Sanitation Financing Partnership Trust Fund will receive a $15 million investment from the Gates Foundation and will leverage more than $28 million in investments from ADB by 2017.

The Trust Fund aims to increase non-sewered sanitation and develop septage management solutions through funding innovative projects and supporting policies for low-income urban communities across Asia. The Trust Fund will be part of ADB’s Water Financing Partnership Facility (WFPF). Over the last seven years, WFPF has invested $2.5 billion in WASH projects. Through initiatives such as Grand Challenges Exploration and Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, the Gates Foundation has funded 85 development and research projects on sanitation.

View the infographic to learn about the Trust Fund’s goals.

Read ADB’s press release for additional details. 

Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by David Winder, CEO of WaterAid America. In it, David discusses WaterAid’s work with communities in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and India to help them improve water and sanitation conditions in innovative and entrepreneurial ways. A version of the story originally appeared here.

Bio gas system in May Ayni, Ethiopia. Credit: WaterAid / Marco Betti

Bio gas system in May Ayni, Ethiopia. Credit: WaterAid / Marco Betti

The ongoing sustainability of the world's water usage is a hot topic. Not a week goes by without headlines announcing water wars, falling water tables or droughts. Water is a commodity in high demand by competing sectors (industry, agriculture and drinking water) and many people are seeking answers to how we might survive with a finite pool of it.

The ten percent of people worldwide who already live without safe drinking water don't need headlines to know that life without water is near impossible — every day they struggle for survival without access to this most basic of human rights. More often than not, they are without basic sanitation facilities, also causing disease and death.

But sparks of entrepreneurial spirit are shining brightly through the doom and gloom surrounding the global water and sanitation crisis, even in the most remote corners of the planet. Some of the world's poorest communities are inspiring us with their willingness and commitment to develop low-cost, innovative solutions to their water and sanitation problems. In many cases, these same solutions are bringing about even wider benefits for the communities involved, including improved health, agricultural and business opportunities.

Human waste can be a massive health risk — without proper sanitation facilities, diarrheal diseases such as typhoid and cholera are prevalent. In fact 2,000 children die every day from water-related diseases. But WaterAid is finding success working with communities willing to experiment with turning their human waste into a source of income and increased crop yields.

Urban slums are notorious for a lack of garbage disposal and sewerage systems, leaving residents vulnerable to poor health. But in the slums just outside of Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, a women's collective is transforming the health and well-being of their community. With a little help and encouragement from WaterAid, this group of enterprising women runs a café, selling food cooked with biogas that is fueled by methane from human and other waste. In addition to offering healthy meals, community members are encouraged to take advantage of the café's toilets and shower facilities, which customers can use for a small fee. The café offers vital sanitation services for the community, and provides the women with a source of income and social standing.

The café has also spurred on other entrepreneurial activity. Twenty-four year-old Tigist started up her own garbage removal service, which has not only cleaned up her area and helps prevent disease, but empowered her to demand wages equal to those paid to men in her community. She's now earning ten times more than she was before, and is hiring four staff to help her collect the garbage. The garbage is then given to the café to use to help produce the biogas to fuel the kitchen.

Omar Salima, farmer, in his fields that he has fertilized with compost from the ecosan latrine, Matamangwe village, near Lichinga, Niassa province, Mozambique. Credit: WaterAid / Thérèse Mahon

Omar Salima, farmer, in his fields that he has fertilized with compost from the ecosan latrine, Matamangwe village, near Lichinga, Niassa province, Mozambique. Credit: WaterAid / Thérèse Mahon

In Niassa province in Mozambique, WaterAid is working with communities to turn their human waste into safe, renewable and highly effective compost. This compost is proving invaluable to otherwise poor farmers, who are now reaping the benefits of more robust harvests — and incomes. Known as ecological sanitation (EcoSan) or composting latrines, each toilet has twin pits. While one is in use, the other is sealed, and the contents, which are mixed with dirt and ash, decompose into rich compost that can then be dug out and used on fields.

Trials have shown that the composting latrines are significantly boosting crop yields. In one district in Niassa, the community saw unusually high rainfall, causing traditionally planted crops to rot. However, crops planted in soil mixed with the contents of EcoSan toilets thrived. The difference was startling. In fact, the maize plants grown with compost from the latrines towered over neighboring plants and fruit trees planted with the compost were the only ones laden with fruit. In another area of the province facing drought, farmers harvested a huge tobacco crop from a field planted with EcoSan compost, while nearby fields failed to sprout.

Similar innovations are revolutionizing poor people's access to water and helping them to earn a living. In India, where many water pumps lie disused due to ill-repair, WaterAid and local partner organizations have helped budding entrepreneurs to start pump and well repair businesses. These businesses ensure the sustainability of water supplies, while at the same time providing jobs to community members.

Handpump mechanic, Ram Rati, with the tools that she uses to repair waterpoints in Mahoba district, India. Credit: Esther Havens for The Adventure Project

Handpump mechanic, Ram Rati, with the tools that she uses to repair waterpoints in Mahoba district, India. Credit: Esther Havens for The Adventure Project

The mechanic training program in the district of Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh is a perfect example of this. In an area where 4,000 water pumps lie broken, WaterAid has worked with local people to set up a storefront and buy tools, bikes and water quality testing equipment. After training people from the community to become mechanics, including seven women, they started repairing pumps for any village willing to pay.

It worked. The mechanics have fixed over 300 pumps: pumps that help prevent disease, and that supply 30,000 people with fresh, clean water. What's more, the female mechanics have earned the respect of community members and feel empowered.

Such entrepreneurship is driving improvements in women's rights, prosperity, health and nutrition. Although small, these innovative water and sanitation projects are inspiring. In the face of adversity, communities are showing that a little creativity and the determined will to work hard to control their own destiny go a long way in helping escape the grips of poverty and providing a more secure future for their children.

Editor’s Note: In this guest post, Wherever the Need, a UK-based charity that develops and builds eco-toilets, discusses its Sanitation First project in Tamil Nadu, India. A version of the piece originally appeared here.

Introducing an innovative sanitation project

Credit: Wherever the Need

Tamil Nadu, on the Southeast coast of India, is considered to be one of the wealthiest states in the country, but behind the economic and industrial growth lies another story — one of acute poverty.

We have started to work with six of the poorest villages in rural Tamil Nadu. Not a single family in these communities has access to a toilet, which means that the local environment and water sources are polluted, spreading illness and disease. Diarrhoea remains one of the biggest killers of children in the region.

Family ecosan toilet in Tamil Nadu, India. Credit: Wherever the Need

Family ecosan toilet in Tamil Nadu, India. Credit: Wherever the Need

So what are we doing?
We are putting Sanitation First, and working to make sure every person in all six villages has access to good sanitation facilities. We are building ecosan (composting) toilets for each and every family within the villages.

Why is this innovative?
What’s new and exciting is that we are providing a sanitation service to maintain the programme. We are employing a care-taking team to empty the toilets and make sure the facilities are well-maintained and clean.

How do we pay for this?
This is the great bit — there is money to be made from poo! We store and compost the waste collected from the toilets, and sell it to generate income. This means that the programme is not just ecologically sustainable, but financially sustainable too.

Using this model we can support a cluster of 5-6 villages in one area. In due course we hope to roll out the programme to new areas and communities.

Initial trials have been so successful that our work has come to the attention of both local and central government in India. The Tamil Nadu State government is so impressed that they are subsidising the programme, providing 35% funding for every family ecosan toilet that we build.

Editor’s Note: This guest blog was authored by Trupthi Basavaraj and Rachel Findlay of the charity think tank and consultancy NPC, which provides strategic support to the Stone Family Foundation and has coordinated the Stone Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water. Here they share some of the key lessons that NPC has learnt from running the Prize. A version of this story also appeared in Alliance magazine.

Chlorine dispensers used by communities in Kenya. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

Chlorine dispensers used by communities in Kenya. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

Prizes have long been successful at inspiring technological innovation, from determining a ship’s longitude to creating a toilet that costs less than five cents per user per day to operate. What is less common is using a prize as a tool to stimulate innovation in service delivery. So when the Stone Family Foundation set up the Prize for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Water, it was all about doing just that.

As a part of our wider strategy to support entrepreneurial initiatives in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector, we launched the £100,000 Stone Prize earlier this year. After an extensive eight-month process of identifying and short-listing candidates, we finally found our Prize winner — Dispensers for Safe Water (DSW) in Kenya — and four other organisations that we hope to support outside of the Prize.     

The Prize came about as a way to identify early stage water initiatives that the Foundation could support, and eventually help scale up. The search was for innovative approaches to delivering safe water in a sustainable and cost-effective manner to those without access in sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. For the Foundation, running the Prize has been an exciting process, and one that has taught us several key lessons, three of which we have highlighted here.

Firstly, to attract the right type of initiatives and ultimately short-list candidates, it was important to set clear criteria — without being overly prescriptive. We identified six criteria for the Prize, but with a particular emphasis on two areas: a) innovation in technology or service delivery, typically in response to a specific need, and b) innovation in financial model, looking to harness the power of the private sector.

Dispenser’s valve releases metered dose of chlorine into jerricans. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

Dispenser’s valve releases metered dose of chlorine into jerricans. Credit: Dispensers for Safe Water

DSW meets both of these requirements. It addresses a clear need in rural Kenya: its water purification technology, a simple dispenser, is filled with chlorine and placed near a communal water source, allowing individuals to treat their water free of cost with the correct dose of chlorine. (To learn more about DSW's work, read this post.) But what makes this initiative truly exciting are two innovative financial models. First, the dispensers generate carbon credits by reducing the demand for boiling water using firewood, which DSW will eventually be able to sell. Second, DSW is able to bundle the dispenser as part of a wider package of agricultural goods sold by its partner, One Acre Fund. If successful, both models offer new ways of making water purification accessible and sustainable for low-income communities. It will also allow DSW to expand the Kenya Chlorine Dispenser System program into other countries.

Secondly, running a prize scheme is not just about funding. It’s also about generating publicity in a way that reactive grants programmes cannot. Getting publicity right is important not only for attracting applicants, but also for promoting the winning candidate and its approach. Our strategy was to identify the right partners and to leverage their extensive networks, reaching out to organisations both within the WASH sector and outside it. At the end of the first round, the Foundation received 179 applications from 39 different countries. We hope the Prize will not only help DSW gain recognition and attract further support from other funders, but also stimulate wider discussion on what innovation means for the water sector.

Finally, we also learnt that it was important to have the right reward in place. The promise of £100,000 for scaling up the winning initiative attracted a pool of strong applications, but as we narrowed down the candidates, it became clear that the level and type of funding offered through the Prize was not necessarily appropriate for all. As a result, the Foundation is now looking at the best way to support four highly commended candidates outside the Prize framework — this could be through providing investment or smaller grants to further test an aspect of the approach, or simply by helping to identify partners to move an initiative from pilot to scale.

For the Stone Family Foundation, the Prize has been a successful endeavour. It has enabled us to find some exceptionally strong grantees for the Foundation that we might not otherwise have discovered. It has also given us a sense of the wide range of innovations within the WASH sector, especially in countries such as Kenya, India, and Cambodia where the local environment has led to a growth in entrepreneurial initiatives. Much depends on what a funder is looking for and how a prize is structured, but we feel prizes can be an incredibly powerful tool for identifying and driving innovation.

The Rockefeller FoundationContext Partners, and NextBillion invite you to hear first-hand from NGO leaders about how their organizations leverage networks to build and maintain their capacity to innovate. This webinar is especially salient to WASH sector organizations interested in learning about the best practices of NGOs, like Winrock International, who are paving the way forward with holistic and innovative approaches to water solutions.

Tuesday, October 2nd (1PM – 2PM ET)

The free, hour-long webinar, “Engaging Networks for Systemic Impact,” will include the following panelists:

  • Kippy Joseph, The Rockefeller Foundation, Associate Director, Innovation
  • Erik Hersman, Ushahidi, Co-founder
  • Mary Renwick, Winrock International, Innovation Program Officer
  • Mark Frohardt, Internews Center for Innovation & Learning, Executive Director

The discussion will cover tools and tactics to build and grow your organization's network, approaches to increase on-the-ground impact, and source solutions and resources beyond your staff.

For more information and to register, click here. To participate in the conversation on Twitter, follow the #EngagedNetworks hashtag. 

John Thomas, Fellow, The Rockefeller Foundation

Editor’s Note: Leading up to the U.S. Philanthropy and WASH seminar at World Water Week next Wednesday, August 29th, in Stockholm, we decided to pose three questions to the panel’s esteemed group of foundation and NGO leaders to give you a preview of their conversation. We will post a new interview each day this week so check back daily or sign up for e-mail updates. In this post, John Thomas, fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation, speaks about the role that philanthropic investment can play in cultivating innovative WASH solutions. In yesterday’s post, Braimah Apambire discussed the importance of advocacy for the WASH sector.

1. Describe what your organization does and what your role is.

I’m currently a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation, where I conduct research and work with our partners and grantees to support the strategic development of various initiatives ranging from climate smart agriculture to fisheries management to water service delivery for poor or vulnerable populations.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s mission to promote the well-being of people throughout the world has remained unchanged since its founding in 1913. Today, that mission is applied to an era of rapid globalization. Our vision is that this century will be one in which globalization’s benefits are more widely shared and its challenges are more easily weathered.

To realize this vision, the Foundation seeks to achieve two fundamental goals in our work. First, we seek to build resilience that enhances individual, community and institutional capacity to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of acute crises and chronic stresses. Second, we seek to promote growth with equity in which the poor and vulnerable have more access to opportunities that improve their lives. In order to achieve these goals, the Foundation constructs its work into time-bound initiatives that have defined objectives and strategies for impact. These initiatives address challenges that lie either within or at the intersections of five issue areas: basic survival safeguards, global health, environment and climate change, urbanization, and social and economic security. For more information, please visit our web site.

2. Tell us one provocative question or issue you hope to tackle on the U.S. Philanthropy and WASH panel, and why.

One theme of the U.S. Philanthropy and WASH panel is innovation, which is perhaps one of the most over-used words in the English language. While philanthropic funds are often viewed as ‘risk capital’ and in theory foundations should have greater latitude to support ideas, organizations, and people that are pushing the boundaries of accepted practice, in reality foundations often choose the sure bets over the promising new idea, resulting in a critical gap.

I’m excited to chat with Rockefeller Foundation’s partner, Mary Renwick from Winrock International, about her experience as an innovator in the field of water and sanitation, and to really push the foundation community to be clear about what it is we mean by innovation, and how we support innovation in the water, health, and sanitation field.

3. What are you most looking forward to about Stockholm and/or World Water Week?

While there certainly are an incredible array of panels, seminars, and speakers to hear, I’m most excited for the chance encounters in the hallway after the seminars, or the coffee shop conversations where I can learn about interesting new work, and meet people who I haven’t met before, to learn in an unfiltered and informal way about the state of the field.

Editor’s Note: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation issued a press release announcing the winners of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Over the course of a year, eight finalists were chosen and Bill Gates announced the winning team yesterday at the two-day Toilet Fair at the Foundation’s headquarters in Seattle. Big congratulations to the winning team and to everyone who participated in this creative challenge.

Bill Gates presenting the first prize award to California Institute of Technology at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle on August 14, 2012. Photo Credit: ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation / Michael Hanson

Bill Gates presenting the first prize award to California Institute of Technology at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle on August 14, 2012. Photo Credit: ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation / Michael Hanson

Yesterday Bill Gates announced the winners of the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge in Seattle — an effort to develop “next-generation” toilets that will deliver safe and sustainable sanitation to the 2.5 billion people worldwide who don’t have it. The awards recognize researchers from leading universities who are developing innovative ways to manage human waste, which will help improve the health and lives of people around the world.

California Institute of Technology in the United States received the $100,000 first prize for designing a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity. Loughborough University in the United Kingdom won the $60,000 second place prize for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water. University of Toronto in Canada won the third place prize of $40,000 for a toilet that sanitizes feces and urine and recovers resources and clean water. Special recognition and $40,000 went to Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) and EOOS for their outstanding design of a toilet user interface.

One year ago, the foundation issued a challenge to universities to design toilets that can capture and process human waste without piped water, sewer or electrical connections, and transform human waste into useful resources, such as energy and water, at an affordable price.

The first, second, and third place winning prototypes were recognized for most closely matching the criteria presented in the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.

Bill Gates with a researcher from California Institute of Technology at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle on August 14, 2012. Photo Credit: ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation / Michael Hanson

Bill Gates with a researcher from California Institute of Technology at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle on August 14, 2012. Photo Credit: ©Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation / Michael Hanson

Teams have been showcasing their prototypes and projects at a two-day event held at the foundation’s headquarters in Seattle on August 14 and 15. The Reinvent the Toilet Fair is bringing together participants from 29 countries, including researchers, designers, investors, advocates, and representatives of the communities who will ultimately adopt these new inventions.

“Innovative solutions change people’s lives for the better,” said foundation Co-chair Bill Gates. “If we apply creative thinking to everyday challenges, such as dealing with human waste, we can fix some of the world’s toughest problems.”

Unsafe methods to capture and treat human waste result in serious health problems and death. Food and water tainted with fecal matter result in 1.5 million child deaths every year. Most of these deaths could be prevented with the introduction of proper sanitation, along with safe drinking water and improved hygiene. 

Improving access to sanitation can also bring substantial economic benefits. According to the World Health Organization, improved sanitation delivers up to $9 in social and economic benefits for every $1 invested because it increases productivity, reduces healthcare costs, and prevents illness, disability, and early death.

Other projects featured at the fair include better ways to empty latrines, user-centered designs for public toilet facilities, and insect-based latrines that decompose feces faster.

“Imagine what’s possible if we continue to collaborate, stimulate new investment in this sector, and apply our ingenuity in the years ahead,” said Gates. “Many of these innovations will not only revolutionize sanitation in the developing world, but also help transform our dependence on traditional flush toilets in wealthy nations.”

Gates added: “All the participants are united by a common desire to create a better world — a world where no child dies needlessly from a lack of safe sanitation and where all people can live healthy, dignified lives.”

The Water, Sanitation & Hygiene initiative is part of the foundation’s Global Development Program, which addresses issues such as agricultural development and financial services — problems that affect the world’s poorest people but do not receive adequate attention. The initiative has committed more than $370 million to this area, with a focus on developing sustainable sanitation services that work for everyone, including the poor.

The foundation also announced a second round of Reinvent the Toilet Challenge grants totaling nearly $3.4 million. The grants were awarded to: Cranfield University (United Kingdom); Eram Scientific Solutions Private Limited (India); Research Triangle Institute (United States); and the University of Colorado Boulder (United States).

Editor’s Note: This post was authored by Diane Scott, senior communications officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and originally appeared on their blog, Impatient Optimists. Last year, the Gates Foundation issued a challenge to create a toilet without piped-in water, a sewer connection, or outside electricity for less than 5 cents per user a day. At this year’s Reinvent the Toilet Fair on August 14-15, eight finalists will display working prototypes and full scale models, and Bill Gates will announce the winners.

A pit latrine used by members of the community in the Kibera slum, in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A pit latrine used by members of the community in the Kibera slum, in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

I’d like to think I’m beyond giggling when I see “Synthetic Feces Update” on a meeting agenda. But let’s face it, I’m not. At the foundation’s main campus in Seattle, Washington, we’re talking about “fake poop” quite a bit these days as we get ready to host the Reinvent the Toilet Fair on August 14 and 15. We’ll be featuring toilet prototypes created over the last year by our grantees, some of which will be vying for the coveted “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge Award.” 

The reinvented toilet is the brainchild of our Water, Sanitation & Hygiene program that aims to bring sanitation (i.e. toilets) to those who don’t have it and must resort to extremely unsanitary means (open defecation — as in doing it out in the open) to relieve themselves. And, to give these newfangled toilet prototypes a test drive while at the fair, we need synthetic feces. About 50 gallons of it.

Why do we even need to reinvent the toilet? First, there hasn’t been much serious innovation in the flush toilet for nearly 200 years. In public health terms, the flush toilet has improved health immensely; it has done a phenomenal job saving lives by helping safely dispose of urine, feces and nasty pathogens. But, it uses a lot of water, and isn’t a realistic solution for people in the developing world, where pipes aren’t already under neighborhoods to carry away the water and sewage, and there isn’t the money and electricity needed to treat sewage properly. Too many people still do not have access to a toilet. How many people? We’re talking about 2.5 billion people.

Here’s the theory behind the “reinvent the toilet” initiative: Innovation in science and technology has done amazing things to help people lead better lives from  the introduction of vaccines to prevent against deadly diseases,  to the increasingly widespread use of mobile phones in remote areas of the world to share information, transfer money and even pay bills.

Why can’t that same creative thinking be used to solve the problem of dealing with human waste? We believe it can.

Imagine a toilet that isn’t connected to the sewer or electricity — one that takes waste and converts it to energy, is affordable for people in the developing world and is so fabulous that everyone will want to use it. These are the ideas the Reinvent the Toilet Fair is looking to highlight.  

But I digress from the topic of synthetic feces (and yes, I did just write that without snickering). Researchers from around the globe are bringing their reinvented toilet prototypes to the fair, and we need synthetic feces for the demonstrations. (And no, we can’t use real feces). Figuring out how much to order is just one part. The other piece of the puzzle is answering questions from exhibitors who need to know all about the “fake poop”: What’s the density? What’s the recipe? What stool size will you be giving us? Does it contain the right amount of energy? (I’m not really sure what that means, but it’s somehow important.) And, finally, will it have an odor?

We know that these “commode creators” are hard at work right now. We’ll be writing blog posts at Impatient Optimists and at partner publications around the web over the next few weeks about the reinvented toilet to get the perspectives on this fascinating issue from environmentalists, social good-doers, technologists and others, so stay tuned.

And, for those inquiring minds, what are synthetic feces made of? The recipe for the fair is simply soybean paste and rice — there’s a more complex recipe for hard-core research and development work. Finally, no, the synthetic feces won’t be scented — even my great recommendation for rose-scented fake poop didn’t fly!

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