Streamlining the complexity of urban sanitation with digital solutions

This blog concludes a blog series leading up to World Toilet Day (today!). The first blog of the series focused on highlighting the challenge of sanitation service provision in developing countries, and the potential of mobile-enabled solutions to help bridge the gap. The second blog focused on how mobile tools have enabled Sanergy, a container-based sanitation provider, to scale its operations and impact more than 100,000 people throughout Nairobi. In this final blog, we will share learnings from the sanitation service providers that were supported by the GSMA M4D Utilities Innovation Fund, and we’re very excited to release a video on our grant to the Kampala City Authority, which leverages mobile technology to improve sanitation service delivery in Kampala. Meanwhile, if you’re at the Sanitation Economy Summit hosted by the Toilet Board Coalition in Pune (India), be sure to meet up with Radhika Sarin, our Market Engagement Manager!

Urban population growth continuously outpaces gains in improved sanitation access. More than half of the world’s population is now urban, representing approximately 3.9 billion people, nearly 1 billion of whom live in informal settlements. Providing sewer access to informal settlements is particularly challenging. Between 2000-2015, in 54 out of 120 countries, sewer access growth did not keep pace with urban population growth (see figure below). With urbanisation in Asia and (particularly) Africa poised to accelerate further, extending urban sanitation services to the urban poor will be one of the most crucial public health challenges facing cities in developing countries over the next decades.

Urban population growth versus sewer coverage growth in urban areas, 2000–2015

Source: SDG 6 Synthesis Report 2018 on Water and Sanitation

Poor urban sanitation directly causes a range of negative impacts such as water contamination, environmental degradation and endemic disease, all which have extreme consequences for urban development poor school attendance, and constrain the delivery of other urban services such as and transport and waste-management. Essentially, it will be impossible to attain not only SDG6 but also SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), if there isn’t a radical shift in how we approach, fund, plan, and design urban sanitation service provision.

Primarily, this shift has to be grounded in the realities facing the urban poor. A vast majority of the urban poor rely on non-sewered sanitation, and are willing or already paying for private or unregulated sanitation services. Cities with large informal settlements therefore require innovative approaches to sanitation service provision, “which can complement, or precede the arrival of, traditional sewers and conventional on-site solutions, and thus contribute to the realization of the sanitation-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

Yet these approaches often have a high level of complexity with lots of logistics and communication between different stakeholders (from households to pit emptiers and municipalities), which can lead to problems of accountability and transparency, such as illegal dumping of waste into the environment. Mobile technology can be a key enabler of such approaches by bringing visibility to all actors and streamlined operations:

1) Mobile technology enables urban sanitation service providers to reduce their operational costs and increase customer reach

For private sanitation service providers relying on grants, and outcome-based financing, improving commercial sustainability and reducing operational costs is critical for survival. By increasing the efficiency of stakeholder collaboration along the sanitation value-chain (see below), mobile applications, some of which leverage GIS-based mapping and tracking tools, are critical in reducing operational expenses. Increasingly, mobile payments are also recognised as an avenue to reduce operational costs in the sanitation sector. After incentivising consumers to use mobile money by offering a discount, Loowatt significantly reduced cash collection costs, which previously made up 15 per cent of total revenue. Similarly, in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city, the introduction of mobile payments allowed CBSA member Clean Team Ghana to go from a negative to a +30 per cent gross margin, while also doubling their customer base.

2) Mobile technology enables multi-stakeholder collaboration along the sanitation value-chain which supports vital circular economy revenue-streams in a low-margin business:

Container-based sanitation (CBS), which refers to sanitation systems where toilets collect human excreta in sealable, removable containers that are transported to treatment facilities, is one of the most promising approaches that could complement traditional sewer lines. The scalability of CBS provision hinges on its ability to optimise and coordinate different activities along the sanitation-value chain, while generating revenue from toilet resources through waste-to-fertiliser or waste-to-energy use cases. This is exemplified by Sanergy in Nairobi and its for-profit organic fertiliser business Farmstar, or Sanivation in Navisha, which is converting toilet resources in to clean-burning briquettes.

Through the GSMA M4D Utilities Innovation Fund, the Container-Based Sanitation Alliance, which unites service providers service providers from Ghana (Clean Team), Kenya (Sanivation and Sanergy), Haiti (SOIL), Madagascar (Loowatt), and Peru (X-Runner) received a grant to develop a mobile app and web-based platform to support agent logistics and customer management for household sanitation services across multiple countries. The platform also incentives CBS providers to learn from each other, and collaborate to develop and benefit from economies of scale.

3) Mobile technology provides municipalities and donors with granular data to track and coordinate sanitation services and plan for future growth:

92 per cent of Kampala’s residents are not connected to sewer lines. In this context, pit latrines and septic tanks are often emptied haphazardly by independent pit emptiers who may dump waste illegally into the environment. In 2017, the Kampala City Authority (KCCA) was awarded a grant from the GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities Innovation Fund to improve faecal sludge collection, transportation and disposal services in Kampala. We’re thrilled to release our new video that showcases the KCCA service:

KCCA has now scaled its GIS database and improved their digital platform that connects households with pit-emptying entrepreneurs via the call centre, and provides the pit-emptiers with a mobile app to track the waste from collection to the treatment facility. KCCA has also worked with MTN Uganda to support the entrepreneurs to collect and save their emptying income via mobile money. This has enabled KCCA to enforce safe sanitation services, while building capacity and business opportunities for private entrepreneurs. Over 5000 pit emptying jobs have been completed so far under the grant. Insights from its geo-database and call centre are also vital for future public policy and investment decisions. By geo-tagging over 171,268 sanitation facilities and analysing queries from its customer call centre, KCCA generates crucial insights such as:

– the type of sanitation facilities (pit latrine, shared pit latrine, connection to septic tank, flush toilet etc.);
– pit emptying frequencies across districts with different socio-economic characteristics;
– the distances between pits and various waste-treatment plants.

Given that 30 per cent of all pit latrines in Kampala’s informal settlements are still emptied into the environment, KCCA aims to use this information to target and guide investment planning, allocate resources and regulate service delivery and standards enforcement.

“The grant from GSMA has enabled us to break new grounds in sanitation service delivery”- Dr. Najib B. Lukooya, Deputy Director (Water, Sanitation and Environment), Kampala City Authority

The GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities team, and the wider mobile industry are determined to continue to support innovative sanitation services, which is critical to achieving the wider goal of helping cities become engines of prosperity, and reducing inequalities of opportunity. We look forward to supporting more of the partnerships needed that exploit synergies between municipalities/centralised utilities and decentralised service providers, as well as mobile operators to achieve SDG 6.

The GSMA Mobile for Development (M4D) Utilities programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), USAID as part of its commitment to Scaling Off-Grid Energy Grand Challenge for Development and supported by the GSMA and its members.