Solving the Sanitation Challenge in Malawi, One Toilet at a Time

Editors Note: In this post, Jonathan Evans, Mariana Gallo, and Alivia Knol of the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE), discusses how the EcoSan toilet system has helped to combat Malawi's sanitation crisis. 

With implications in areas as diverse as nutrition, education, and health, the lack of proper sanitation and hygiene is considered one of the greatest barriers to global development. In Southern Africa, Malawi is all too familiar with these far-reaching consequences. Diarrheal disease is currently the fifth cause of death in Malawi and it is estimated that poor sanitation costs the country approximately US$57 million each year.

Malawi’s sanitation crisis is perhaps most evident in the nation’s capital city of Lilongwe, and the industrial center of Blantyre. A combination of factors including a lack of a sewage treatment system, poor access to water, and a lack of space result in a complex sanitation challenge for the cities’ slums.

Currently, the most widespread model of sanitation toilet in these informal settlements is the pit latrine. Pit latrines are often smelly, fragile structures that are unsafe for children and are subject to overflow during the rainy season. Once a pit latrine becomes full, it is common for a completely new pit to be dug, making the system unsustainable. Open defecation is also commonly practiced in urban Malawian slums, with terrible health consequences.

Ecosan toilets1

The Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE), in partnership with the Federation of the Rural and Urban Poor of Malawi, has been installing an alternative system called the Ecological Sanitation (EcoSan) toilet in Malawi since 2005. EcoSan toilets are dry-composting latrines, where the human waste is mixed with soil or sawdust to decompose in anaerobic conditions, producing as a result a compost that is odorless and safe to handle. Though there is a reasonable investment of training, and money required at the installation of an EcoSan toilet, the numerous long-term benefits of this system result in overall savings. This is in sharp contrast to pit latrines, which are quite cheap in the short run, but very costly in the long run. When maintained properly, EcoSan toilets can function with minimal water supply, and will produce a dry compost final product that is not unpleasant or difficult to empty.

When dirt and soot are periodically added to the collection chamber, the EcoSan toilet can turn human waste into manure that is used as fertilizer in gardens and farms. This fertilizer can be used by EcoSan owners in their own fields, or can be sold to other farmers. This capability is not only environmentally friendly, but is a source of great monetary savings (sometimes even earnings) for the EcoSan owner.

One unforeseen benefit that has emerged in the implementation is that the EcoSan toilet has become a status symbol in the community. The sturdy, odor-free design is something that EcoSan owners take great pride in, which in turn motivates their neighbors to seek out a similar toilet for their house.

The primary drawback of the EcoSan system is the cost. The current cost of a unit is around of US $215, which includes materials and labor. This is a significant sum of money for most households in the slum areas of Lilongwe and Blantyre. To overcome this obstacle, CCODE and the Federation work to provide loans to access them, and support village savings and loan groups as a way to increase investment capacity. Other solutions have come from the beneficiaries themselves: some groups have agreed to pool their money together to pay for a toilet to be installed in one house with the understanding that everyone who contributed money will be able to use the toilet. Once they’ve saved enough money, they will pay for a toilet to be installed for the next family, and so on. This solution is not ideal, but it’s nevertheless a way to increase access for a population that would normally never be able to afford such a toilet.

Another challenge with EcoSan toilets is that they are not maintenance-free. When the toilets are not properly taken care of, they can start to smell, get clogged up, or attract flies. These issues are all completely avoidable, but the owner must be committed to the necessary upkeep.  CCODE and the Federation ensure that each and every household that gets an EcoSan toilet also receive the necessary information and training to use and maintain it properly.

Despite these challenges, the EcoSan toilet is proving to be the most adequate solution to the sanitation and hygiene crisis in Malawi. Not only does it save space and money in the long term, but it also contributes to the achievement of one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals of Ensuring Environmental Sustainability. However, without adequate financing for impoverished households to install EcoSan toilets, they wouldn’t be accessible to the people that need them the most.

With the help of local savings and loans programs like the Federation of the Rural and Urban Poor, and the work of numerous NGOs throughout Malawi, access to improved sanitation will continue to expand, if not as quickly as perhaps it could. Nevertheless, every single toilet that is installed means less danger for children, less exposure to disease, and less damage to the environment. There is certainly a long way to go, but progress is being made every day.