Today, 2.1 billion people in urban areas use non-sewered (or on-site) sanitation facilities. While much of the work in rural areas is focused on creating and sustaining open defecation free communities and generating demand for communities to construct toilets, the downstream activities of collecting and transporting fecal sludge present a unique challenge for urban residents. These services are mostly provided by private operators, and are generally uncontrolled and unregulated. The inadequate disposal of fecal sludge in the environment represents a direct threat to public health and negates the positive outcomes from behavioral change and improvements in sanitation access.
The urban population in developing countries, and in particular the poor, rely on fecal sludge collection and transportation services that are often not affordable. In addition, pit emptying is often done by hand, exposing the operators to serious health risks (see figure below). Often mechanical emptiers, using vacuum trucks, charge excessive fees to customers but do not pay taxes or comply with laws and standards due to a general lack of regulation for these services. This makes it a highly profitable business. For example an emptying service provider in Abuja makes US$ 15,000 per month.
To better understand the markets for these services, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a study  that analyzes the fecal sludge management sector and its operating models in 30 cities in Asia and Africa. The cities studied had populations of 100,000 – 5 million.
The study surveyed 13,000 households and 150 fecal sludge emptying and transportation service providers. The population of the 30 cities selected represents over 67 million people or 12 million households, providing a relatively comprehensive picture of urban sanitation services across ten countries.
The baseline information and findings of the study will be shared with sector stakeholders to help build sustainable service provision for sanitation and formulate policy recommendations to improve business sustainability.
The recommendations of the study addressed various issues faced by service providers in FSM and in particular how to improve profitability by proposing a more adequate business model, as well as measures to create an enabling environment for these services (as illustrated in the chart below).
The study also recommends the use of innovative solutions such as using geo tubes to create sludge transfer stations, which will reduce costs and increase the number of trips per day (which creates more profit for the operators and serves additional households). Geo tubes are containers made of permeable textiles used for dewatering sludge and sediment (see picture below). This solution has worked well in Malaysia, where the utility placed geo tubes in several strategic locations, resulting in a reduction of overall operations expenses by 37% and an increase of 35% in revenues.
The study also focused on other issues relating to the sanitation value chain, particularly the safe disposal and treatment of sludge. Wastewater treatment plants – if they exist – are in many cases inadequate for the size of the cities they serve, and fecal sludge treatment sites are scarce or inexistent. Safe re-use of human waste is also a sector that needs to be further developed, as it offers opportunities to create income-generating activities and produce bio energy.
By Pascal B. Garde, Consultant, WASH Policy and Governance, @GardePascal
 Chowdhry, S. and Kone, D., 2012. Business analysis of fecal sludge management : emptying and transportation services in Africa and Asia.
Available at: <http://www.washdoc.info/docsearch/title/179741>
Data on the expenditure on capital maintenance from this study have been used to calculate the cost benchmarks for basic sanitation service levels in the WASHCost project.
Related web site: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – Water, Sanitation & Hygiene