In 1994, the South African government declared that basic water and sanitation must be provided for free to all citizens. This was akin to a “Man on the Moon” pledge. It was both an ambitious goal and was sure to produce a lot of new, interesting technology. We recently visited Durban and Cape Town to understand the effect of such a bold commitment and to learn how we can bring the bright successes to Kenya.

The Search for Quality Sanitation in South Africa

Cape Town has about 3.5m people sprawled over 2,000km2. Approximately 25% of the residents live in informal settlements, primarily in the peri-urban areas. We visited three areas where the government not only provides toilets, but also pays for toilet paper and waste collection. Each area was testing different sanitation solutions such as dry toilets for each household, ventilated improved pit latrines (VIPs) shared across a few households, and even shipping containers converted into an ablution block with 12 stalls for 100 households.

Ablution Block made from a Cargo Container

Durban has 4.5m people across an even more massive area of 2,300km2 with 1m people living in townships. The municipality has taken the approach of VIP toilets in peri-urban unsewered areas and urine-diverting dry toilets (UDDTs) in more rural unsewered areas. In these rural areas, the municipality has built more than 75,000 UDDTs over the past 5 years and they seem to be used regularly. Clearly, progress is being made.

We walked away from our trip to South Africa will a couple of key learnings. True, credible commitment from the government can spawn a vibrant private sector seeking to lower manufacturing costs and tailor solutions to the target community. That is to say, we saw a really competitive market for the production of very simple, effective sanitation facilities. Similarly, such commitment motivates universities to fund research for new production and operation methods.

As we grow, we look forward to continuing to learn from the work of these many sanitation experts – and to sharing our own learning with them.