We recently announced a Challenge with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) to improve sanitary conditions for more than a billion people in the world using pit latrines. We asked the Director of Sanitation Ventures, run by LSHTM, to provide a bit of background on the problem at the heart of this Challenge. [Ed note: A press release of the Challenge announcement can be found here.]
Hi Walter. Can you tell us a bit about Sanitation Ventures and how you’re connected to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine?
Good sanitation is one of the greatest advances in public health, yet it remains unavailable to billions of poor people in developing countries. Around 1.7 billion people worldwide still use one of the most basic forms of on-site (non-piped) sanitation, the pit latrine. And they face a recurring problem: the contents don’t decompose fast enough or fully, and the pits fill up. This seriously undermines people’s health and quality of life.
Sanitation Ventures is a three-year project to tackle these problems, run by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I was involved in developing the proposal with LSHTM and the UK development agency Oxfam. We’re a diverse team of business professionals, scientists, academic researchers and innovation specialists, who want a world where safe, sustainable sanitation is accessible to everyone.
Our approach is based on two core beliefs:
- Many recent scientific advances, particularly in biotechnology, can be readily applied to improving sanitation in sustainable, affordable ways
- Market-led approaches are the best way to provide novel, sustainable interventions to address key development challenges.
Building on the latest advances in science and technology, we’re generating new knowledge about pit latrines and developing innovations in on-site sanitation that will offer longer-lasting, affordable sanitation for low-income users. The BSF larvae approach is just one of several we’re exploring. We’ll then help make sure these solutions are successfully brought to market, where they can have sustainable impact on users’ lives.
Your Challenge is essentially seeking a way to keep pit latrines from overfilling, using black soldier fly (BSF) larvae. How did this idea of using BSF come about and has it been proven to work elsewhere?
As part of the project we conducted a landscaping study to see what technology was available which could extend the lifetime of latrines by enhancing decomposition of their contents. An entomology research student at LSHTM heard about this and passed on a paper which described the ability of BSF larvae to degrade manure. We got talking and did more research into what else had been done and discovered that the ability of BSF larvae to degrade organic waste was quite well established, but no-one had shown this on human faecal waste. That was the point at which our own lab work started and our interest really took off.
What will you do to advance the solution you choose to award? What needs to happen next in the process of solving this bigger problem?
We will review the winning solutions with our internal team and discuss how they can be taken forward to a proof of concept stage. This will allow us to map out a work programme to evaluate the solution more fully. Depending on the timing and complexity, we may need to seek additional funding to progress the idea as part of the next phase of Sanitation Ventures.
Inherent in your Challenge is the idea that there should be an economic opportunity for communities to resell the BSF larvae after they’ve done their job. How does this work and who might benefit?
BSF larvae have high potential value. Harvested at their prepupae stage, they can readily and efficiently be processed to produce high-protein animal feed and oil/ biodiesel and soil conditioner. Demand is rising for all of these in developing countries. So there are multiple revenue streams possible. We think these will benefit not just the entrepreneurs running such businesses but also the latrine user, who may receive a small fee for the use of their latrine. We haven’t fully explored all the possible models – a business could be run on a community basis, or on a service provision basis, or on an individual household basis.
This topic is one that may make some people a bit squeamish. How do you help people get past this initial reaction so that they are motivated to work on the problem?
We understand that – it’s a perfectly natural reaction! The motivation comes from knowing that we can make a real difference to people’s daily lives by making their sanitation more dignified. We’ve visited many communities in the course of our research where people suffer on a daily basis from living with pit latrines that need emptying. Often this means stark financial choices. In Tanzania, Amina, a mother with minimal income, told us the cost of emptying her latrine was the same as two years’ school fees for one of her children. Seventeen people use her latrine, which is full – but she can’t afford to have it emptied.
Ultimately, this is a problem about people’s quality of life – whether parents are healthy enough to work and earn an income for their families, and children are well enough to go to school and learn, so they can have a decent future. It’s incredibly unpleasant for people to have to live with inadequate sanitation in their homes, and causes real worry, embarrassment and expense.
If you live with good sanitation, it’s easy to take for granted. You don’t really give it a second thought, because it removes waste so effectively. But imagine trying to keep your home clean and your family healthy without it. So the Challenge is really about improving poor people’s health and livelihoods across the world – in a sustainable and environmentally safe way. This will reduce their exposure to disease and free up income that can be used to support their families.
Will the solution to this Challenge be applicable to other issues in the developing world?
There’s a real shortage of protein for animal feed at the moment so potentially this approach could really help in that respect.
Is there anything else you’d like our Solvers to know about the Challenge or about your organization?
The site also has details of other on-site sanitation concepts we’re exploring (including Tiger worms and enzymes), as well as our scientific research and how to contact us. We’re very open to any ideas people have on those too, so please get in touch with your comments.
Our success depends on bringing together people and ideas from many different backgrounds, so we’re especially grateful to InnoCentive and the Solver Community for making this Challenge possible.
Fantastic - thank you so much for talking with us - good luck with your Challenge!