Sanitation as a business – the poor will have to wait

Malawian sanitation entrepreneur Martius using

Malawian sanitation entrepreneur Martius using “The Gulper” to empty a pit latrine. Photo: Water for People

Providing toilets to the poorest may be “dear to the hearts of many non-profits, aid agencies and governments” but if you want to involve business you have to start with the better-off families first. So says business woman and sanitation entrepreneur Towera Jalakari who runs a pit emptying service in Blantyre, Malawi.

“We will get to Everyone in Blantyre one day, but the only way to make sure Blantyre actually solves its sanitation problems is to recognize that the market must function.  […]  As we get better, as we scale city-wide, then costs will come down, services will improve, and pressure will build for all people to have a toilet.  We will get to the poorest, but they are not our first targets.  […] If we rush too fast […] then the poor will not have lasting services but rather a lot of useless toilets and nowhere to go to the bathroom.”

Malawi is one the countries in Water for People’s Sanitation as a Business program (2010-2014), which is funded by a US$ 5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Water for People has contracted Tools for Enterprise & Education Consultants (TEECs) to support pit emptying businesses in Lilongwe and Blantyre.

The pits are emptied with Gulpers – portable desludging pumps which can negotiate the narrow streets and lanes in peri-urban areas. The sludge is transferred to drums and transported by pickup to a disposal site. Households in Malawi are willing to pay US$ 10-12 per drum, so with six drums on the pickup, a business could earn approximately US$ 60 per load. Water for People estimates that a business can generate a net annual profit (before interest and tax) of about 65% of the expenditure.

Up till now only 10 of 21 low-income areas in Blantyre and four out of 16 in Lilongwe have been reached by pit-emptying businesses.  To encourage more businesses to enter the market, TEECs is targeting owners of pickup trucks.

Water For People and Captiva Africa Ltd, Uganda, are developing a Business In Sanitation (BIS) marketing kit.

According to Water for People’s John Sauer, “the ideal sanitation market would see local businesses taking the primary role of providing ongoing sanitation services”.

So is the Sanitation as a Business model the key to achieving universal and sustainable access to sanitation? In virtually all countries with full coverage, sanitation delivery is a public service. If pit emptying  services become too lucrative, political capture (see the toilet wars in Ghana), may occur.

A second consideration is technology choice and the related costs. In some cases   alternative systems that greatly reduce or eliminate the need for pit emptying, like toilets with alternating pits (Fossa Alterna, Double VIP and Twin Pit Pour Flush) and simplified sewerage will be cheaper for users.

Related web sites:

Related news:

  • Business analysis of fecal sludge management, E-Source, 3 Dec 2012
  • The business of the honey-suckers in Bengaluru (India), E-Source, 27 Sep 2012


  • Ned Breslin, Sanitation as a Business in Malawi, Water for People,  Mar 2013
  • John Sauer, Program Highlight: Sanitation as a Business in Malawi, Water for PeopleJan 2013 
  • John Sauer, The Debating Chamber – Why markets – not NGOs – are key to solving the sanitation crisis, AlertNet, 18 Nov 2012

One response to “Sanitation as a business – the poor will have to wait

  1. Pingback: Solving the Global Sanitation Crisis Discussion Panel – CGI U 2013 | Washlink

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