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How Do You Compete With a Flying Toilet?

by Mark Hay

August 20, 2014
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

According to both the African Innovation Foundation and Forbes, one of last year’s most exciting inventions for the future growth and development of Africa was…a toilet. Dubbed “Savvyloo” by its South African inventor, Dr. Dudley Jackson, the low-cost, waterless, off-the-grid crapper was certainly clever. But sized up against other African innovations in 2013—personal water filters, bladeless wind energy systems, nutrient recycling programs, harnessing flies to make animal feed—a cheap and easy way to pop a squat might have sounded a bit inconsequential by comparison. Even Dr. Jackson’s pitch seemed like a weird stilted infomercial. Savvyloo deserved its recognition, though. It wasn’t the sexiest project of 2013, but it had the power to combat one of the world’s most widespread and crippling problems: lack of sewage infrastructure.            

Like many infrastructure issues, poor sanitation is not an immediately visible problem. But in places like Kibera, a slum of (depending on who you ask) between a quarter million and one million people in Nairobi, Kenya, the absence of toilets can really smack you in the face—literally. Kibera is famous for its residents’ rampant usage of “flying toilets,” bags filled with feces and chucked out the window, for lack of access to reliable facilities. These slums are extreme examples though, where there are often 300 people to one toilet and the use of flying toilets is prevalent enough that, according to Rift Valley Railways, in 2009 a track was reduced to a stinking swamp, derailing an entire train. Around the world, up to 2.6 billion people lack basic sanitation, many of them living in extremely poor conditions where waste-born diseases run rampant. These diseases lead to crippling public health crises, stifling the human potential and future of entire communities. By 2020, slum populations may reach 1.4 billion.      

Savvyloo Infomercial
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Unfortunately, not many people are addressing this. In the case of Kibera, the government refuses to acknowledge the slum’s existence, abdicating its responsibility to provide basic services. At the local level, slumlords often eschew sanitation-related costs, spending the same money they’d lose building a toilet to erect a new income-generating shack.          

In most settlements like Kibera, there have been longstanding “stop flying toilets” campaigns, which tout maintaining blocks of public latrines as a means to wean people off the habit. Some communal toilet programs are quite clever, like Sanergy, which sells basic commercial bathroom facilities to local residents to operate and maintain. These locals can then charge $0.03 to $0.05 per use, and the waste is turned into fertilizer to be sold by local entrepreneurs. The toilets simultaneously create jobs and provide sanitation. But people still use flying toilets far more often than you’d think, even when better choices are available.         

Part of the struggle in getting people to choose more sanitary options is asking them to walk a good distance to a crowded facility, and pay for something they can do for free in a bag. But the tougher, scarier part of it is that communal toilets, in slums that lack policing, have become endemic hotspots for robbery and rape, an issue reported as far back as 2010 by Amnesty International. The world’s sanitation crisis requires not just toilets, but secure and accessible toilets, which often means sustainable, in-home facilities.          

In 2010, Swedish inventors decided not to even fight the flying toilet, inventing the Peepoo bag—a major, at-home, off-the-grid sanitation solution for cramped slum quarters. The biodegradable sacks consist of an inner layer with a long tube to keep hands clean during handling, and an outer layer to seal up the waste and lock in odors. They contain five grams of urea, an organic compound that breaks feces down into fertilizer, creating jobs for collectors and entrepreneurs. In recent years, inventors have developed the Kiti, a lightweight, durable sitting surface to use with the bags, and the Yizi, a privacy curtain. Their products have caught on in Kibera as well as slums in Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Africa, and refugee camps in Haiti, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Syria. But they still cost money—sometimes as much as access to a latrine block—and must be replenished on a regular basis.          

Which brings us back to the Savvyloo toilet. The self-contained home-use facility uses an internal separation system to separate liquids from solids. The device then desiccates the waste with sunlight and air passed through a ventilation system, creating fertilizer. As a single purchase, it’s a more expensive solution than the Peepoo, but it’s a long-term fix, and within the budgets of the local governments and aid organizations to whom its inventor, Dr. Jackson has targeted the product.       

Jackson’s invention is a small but vital improvement that creates an affordable, long-term, revenue-generating personal sanitation solution for vulnerable populations. And it’s one of those brilliant devices that strike at the heart of a problem: It eliminates waste contamination and creates clear incentives to adopt the technology. Savvyloo might not be the cheap, sustainable personal pot that solves the sanitation crisis, but it’s a heartening step forward and a reminder of the world-changing potential of the porcelain throne.

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