In Livingstone, south of Zambia, and Malindi, on the Kenyan coast, unsafe pit emptying services create public health risks for both workers and the community. The TRANSFORM project, implemented by WSUP and Sanivation, with support from Unilever, EY and UK Aid, offered legal, reliable and healthy pit emptying alternatives in low-income areas, with pilot projects tested in both Zambia and Kenya.
Winnie Chongwe has been a resident of the are Zecco, in Livingstone, for over 10 years. As part of her household sanitation, she used to travel to the capital, Lusaka, to purchase a chemical that she would pour into her home’s pit latrine. The chemical would reduce the amount of sludge, without however emptying the latrine completely.
At 64, she became a customer of the new Pit Emptying service by Southern Water & Sanitation Company (SWSC), as part of the TRANSFORM project, which was implemented between 2019 and 2022. “I was very impressed with the work done by the pit emptiers” Ms Chongwe says. “They were orderly, tidy and very clean. The area did not smell as they worked, and when they were done they cleaned the area well.”
Her routine before the pity-emptying service was introduced was challenging. First, she could not travel to Lusaka as often as she used to. Also, purchasing the necessary chemical and pouring it into the pit latrine was an expensive task that was not as effective as having the pit latrine emptied by professionals.
“We are very grateful for the pit emptying service that has been introduced.” Ms Chongwe said she would definitely call on the service again and even recommended it to her neighbours, even though it was only a pilot, whose future would depend on its long-term approval and adoption.
A leap forward for utilities
The TRANSFORM Utilities Sanitation Challenge was launched in 2019, in Kenya and Zambia, to “test market-based solutions to provide sanitation to low-income communities”. It asked local utilities interested in implementing those services to apply. Over one hundred applications were received, with Malindi Water and Sewerage Company (MAWASCO), from Malindi, Kenya, and the Southern Water and Sanitation Company (SWSC) from Livingstone, Zambia, chosen for the pilots.
The two organisations had an ambitious, but essential, goal: to launch their first sanitation services for low-income households, helping to formalise and professionalise the practice of manual pit latrine emptying. This kind of service has been usually provided informally in those areas, with high risks for both workers and residents and low levels of quality and effectiveness.
The pilots used the UNILEVER 5 levers of change model to identify who need to be targetted and how to make safe pit emptying services easy, habitual, rewarding, desirable and understandable. The teams identified low-income customers, and current informal pit emptiers were priority groups for change. Prototypes were developed and iterated based on feedback from these groups.
Those actions represented various challenges, which the pilots helped identify and overcome, although the establishment of long-term permanent services would require solutions in a much broader and deeper level, for utilities, authorities and communities.
“It was embarrassing and dangerous”
The need for a professional pit emptying service is clear amongst low-income residents in Livingstone. Rachel Chuuno, who is 20 years old, and Alice Tembo, 41, have lived in the area of Libuyu for two years. They first heard about the new pit emptying service from SWSC employees, who were advertising it. It was excellent news, as their personal situation had reached a very difficult point.
Their pit latrine had got completely full, so they closed it off. Their plan was to raise money to get a vacuum tanker to come and empty their pit latrine, but their neighbours came to a temporary rescue.
“We were initially stuck between burying the old latrine, building a new one or raising money to hire a vacuum tanker”, said Alice. “As we waited to make a decision, our neighbours were kind enough to allow us to use theirs.”
Having now heard of the new pit emptying service and with more information about it, they decided it was the best option for them: it was affordable and would allow them to reuse the old latrine as opposed to building a new one. Also, they felt that using their neigbours’ facilities was embarrassing.
“Not only was it embarrassing, but at night it was dangerous for us to leave our house to go use the neighbours’ pit latrine. As women we feared getting attacked and risking our lives”, said Rachel.
They were happy with how the emptying was done, saying the pit emptiers were clean and orderly, and the place did not smell. Neighbours came to see what was happening and showed interest in using the service as well.
From illegals to professionals
The pit emptiers responsible for the service in Livingstone benefitted from the safety and respect they did not have when previously working as informal illegal providers. Having been identified by SWSC, they were asked whether they would like to undergo training and become part of the SWSC team for a new legalised service. The pit emptiers accepted the offer and received a one-week training, which provided them with a Certificate of Completion.
“I was a pit emptier before, and the difference now is that I have Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)”, said 27-year-old Donald Munyenyembe. “During the training I was taught how to do the job better than I used to, and now I understand the benefit of doing the job well. Also, before I would wait long until getting a pit emptying job, but now the jobs are regular.” He also added that he now understands safety and also the diseases that come when the job is not done properly.
Donald’s colleagues agree. “We used to just empty the latrine and find somewhere to bury the sludge. But now we have learnt the effects that has on the environment”, said Peter Tembo, 22. “Training has also taught me about safety, and now I also wear PPE. I am thankful for the training and for learning more.”
Leo Lumbo, 29, is also proud of the improvements in his work. “I enjoy my job more now. It fills me with pride to wear a work suit with a SWSC logo on it, it makes me feel respected.”
Challenges for the future
The TRANSFORM initiative, which faced the extra hurdle of two years of Covid-19 pandemic, offered a financial model, based on partial payments by residents, that sustained a professional, albeit temporary, pit emptying service. With the end of the project, in June 2022, the establishment of a permanent structure would require additional measures and internal adaptations, as the final TRANSFORM report concluded: “[…] Creating truly sustainable and effective alternatives to the solutions that low-income residents currently rely on will take time, investment and periods of unfavourable interim compromises”.
Services of fecal sludge management (FSM) also bring new requirements, of investment, expertise and organisation that many utilities still need to be better prepared to embrace.
As the TRANSFORM report explains: “The transition from a high input, grant funded, project to a mainstream utility operation is recognised as a high risk step. Developing a business line in FSM, managing outsourced contracts and regulating MPE activity requires a significantly different set of skills to managing networked water supply services. Both utility partners featured in this programme have plans in place for scaling up human resources as part of the strategy to reach Citywide sanitation.”
Both utilities involved, in Zambia and Kenya, are already taking the learnings from the project as starting points for progress in their operations. “The lessons learnt will enable the company to scale up the business to other towns with appropriate considerations to sustain the service long term, while fulfilling SDG-6 [UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6] of increasing access to clean water and sanitation for all”, said Eustakia Milimo Hamuchenje, Community Relations Officer at Zambia’s Southern Water & Sanitation Company (SWSC).
“TRANSFORM has been a great stepping stone and we’ll be talking about this project for a long time to come”, said Priscillah Githinji-Oluoch, Head of Sanitation & Programs at Kenya’s Malindi Water & Sewerage Company (MAWASCO). “Due to the success story, our partners WSUP and Sanivation are continuously connecting us with potential funders to support upscale of the good work we have begun.”
All Livingstone interviews by Chisha Mwewa
Top image: Pit emptiers Donald Munyenyembe, Peter Tembo and Leo Lumbo (Photo: Chicha Mwewa)