A Cheap, Environmentally Friendly Toilet in Ghana Reduces Cholera and Provides Manure

When three students at Ashesi University College converted a waste dumping site into a safe play ground for the kids in the community of Berekuso, waste collection in the town improved.

Leaders of the Ahote Sanitation Project, Justice Joy Nyamadi, Abraham Addy, and Kwabena Adu-Darkwa wanted to contribute to improving the health of their local community. After raising funds and awareness, their school managed to purchase a large metallic container to discard waste.

Yet, while the youth put the community on the path to better waste collection, it did not solve one of the community’s biggest challenges: open defecation.

For marginalized communities who live near the playground, a lack of access to safe, clean, and dignified toilets is a daily reality that can result in outbreaks of cholera, dysentery, and other deadly diseases. Worldwide, 2.4 million people have no access to toilets; in Ghana, 67 percent of the 28 million population lacks access to toilets.

When the Ahote Sanitation Project developed the play ground, the community resorted to defecating in the bushes around it. This prompted the team to research why open defecation was high in this rural area. Their research demonstrated an important finding: most homes lacked proper toilet facilities.

“Only 18 percent of the households in Berekuso Town own toilets, meaning that residents of the 82 percent remaining households in the community are forced to defecate in the open fields, the community public toilet, or in bushes,” said Abraham Addy, 27, from Odumase Krobo in Ghana’s Eastern Region.

“Imagine an eight-year-old girl who wakes up every morning and has to walk into a nearby bush to relieve herself. She faces an elevated risk of being bitten by a snake. And what if she must go at midnight? She is left to relieve herself in a plastic bag, discarded by throwing the bag into the backyard of a neighbour. This threatens the health of people — in Ghana, 70 percent of diseases are caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation. It’s a national crisis that we want to help address,” said Addy.

Justice Joy Nyamadi, Abraham Addy, and Kwabena Adu-Darkwa formed ECO Sanitation, or ECOSaS, an initiative that will provide environmentally friendly and affordable micro-flush toilets to low-income earners, supporting them with a flexible payment system.

The ECOSaS team won the Resolution Social Venture Challenge at the Mastercard Foundation Baobab Summit in Johannesburg in 2017, a competition that rewards compelling leadership and promising social ventures led by youth. These young leaders earned a fellowship that includes seed funding, mentorship, and access to a network of young global change-makers to pursue impactful projects in their communities. A collaboration between the Mastercard Foundation and The Resolution Project, the Resolution Social Venture Challenge provides a pathway to action for socially responsible young leaders who want to create change that matters in their communities.

“We received training for the design of an environmentally friendly toilet from Dr. Stephen Mecca, a professor at Providence College in the United States. He came to Ghana as part of a larger initiative to provide training on how to build the toilet, and also how to convert the waste into manure. We decided to export the idea to the community,” said Kwabena Adu-Darkwa.

The micro-flush toilet has a built-in digester containing earthworms, which feed on waste, converting it into manure.

“Earthworms that feed on human waste produce a sand-like substance that is odourless, so it doesn’t attract flies, and can be used as manure by locals,” explained Justice Joy Nyamadi.

“The toilet can serve a household for up to two years before it gets full. One just needs to scoop out the manure when the storage tank becomes full,” explained Addy.

“It’s easy. The user interface is right on top of the digester, so when you use it, waste goes straight into the digester. There’s a back slab with a handle, so you just move the back slab and then you scoop out the manure and then the digester is empty again. Once you build it, you can maintain it yourself.”

ECOSaS proposes an innovative funding model. Unlike other latrines or toilets where the waste is collected in a septic tank, requiring a sewage collection truck to come and empty it at a fee when full, these toilets not only eliminate fees, but also provide farmers with manure for their crops.

The first batch of the toilets has been delivered – a seven unit block was built for the Berekuso Basic School through a collaboration with Ashesi University.

ECOSaS is targeting 15 families in the first six months of its operations and expects to double that number by the end of 2018, expanding into two more communities by 2019.

A single toilet costs about US$300 to build, but ECOSaS is focused on reaching out to low-income families who might not be able to purchase these toilets in a single payment. ECOSaS will set up special loans and easy payment schemes for these families.

“The idea is to ensure that the toilet is accessible and affordable to all. Clients put in a modest down payment, and we lend the rest. Then we get masons to build the toilet. Families pay back the loan over six to eight months, with very low interest,” said Addy.

Although the ECOSaS team agrees that persuading local authorities in Ghana to accept the toilets’ manure as a safe by-product to use on food crops may be difficult, the initiative has a back-up plan: collect the manure, package it, and sell it to horticultural companies.

The ECOSaS team is optimistic that their project can save lives, especially those of vulnerable children, by providing them with affordable and environmentally safe toilets.

“In 2014, there was a major cholera outbreak in Ghana, killing nearly 250 people,” explained Addy. “We want to put an end to these needless deaths and provide people with an alternative to a lack of access to safe, clean, and dignified toilets.”

Pius Sawa is a freelance journalist based in Kenya. His stories have appeared in Reuters, Farm Radio International, and Inter Press Service. This article originally appeared in The Business and Financial Times of Ghana.