The BRAC WASH programme in Bangladesh is to conduct detailed planning to convert faecal matter from pit latrines into commercially viable fertiliser, biogas and electricity. The aim is to complete the sanitation chain by making material from millions of pit latrines safe and economically productive.
Babar Kabir, Senior Director of the BRAC WASH programme, says that there is a sound business case for investment in bio-energy units that could generate electricity on a large scale, but believes that investors must be in this for the long-term and that the most important payback will be improved health and sanitation.
Speaking in the lead up to World Toilet Day (19 November), Dr Kabir warned that Bangladesh’s sanitation successes will be put at risk if they fail to meet the challenge of emptying pit latrines safely and allow contaminated sludge to pollute ground water .
As of June 2013 the BRAC Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Programme has supported 28.6 million people to achieve safe sanitation and is engaging in hygiene education with 63.5 million. In its first five years BRAC WASH supported communities to achieve five million new or improved toilets.
Preventing the cycle of contamination
Speaking at the International Water Week in Amsterdam, Babar Kabir said that the main motivation for starting the business was not profit but the social impact in terms of health and sanitation.
“We are using a very simple technology which is pit latrines so we have reached a point where the pits are filling up and we have just deferred the problem if we can’t handle the disposal safely. If they empty the pits and dump it into a water body … the whole cycle of contaminations starts again.”
The programme is commissioning a feasibility study looking at the cost of production, levels of investment, potential returns and the health benefits. A pre-feasibility study found that the proposal “provides a commercially viable solution for the sustainable and safe emptying of pit latrines”.
Large-scale solutions needed
In an interview after appearing as a panelist at a keynote meeting on the business case for sanitation, Dr Kabir said: “We are trying to build up a business case for micro- and macro-level faecal sludge management. There is going to be compost; there is going to be biogas which can be then used to generate electricity and if we are smart enough we can capture the heat from the generator and build a cold storage for food preservation.”
BRAC proposals are on a far larger scale than other innovative case studies presented in Amsterdam. The plan in Bangladesh is to convert 6,000 tons a year of faecal sludge, 4,000 tons of corn and maize agricultural residue, and chicken litter to generate power and fertiliser.
The Amsterdam meeting showed that all such schemes need long-term support. Four other innovative cases were presented at a workshop “Making Sustainable Business out of Sanitation”, including SANERGY, which won the prestigious Sarphati award for its franchise toilet system in the slums of Nairobi. Yet none of the four yet breaks even on the waste material side of its business and all acknowledged that there was still some way to go.
Dr Kabir said: “You have to understand that the business case is not as simple as a normal investment where you would expect a return in five to seven years. This is going to take longer because there is a social impact involved with it so your internal rate of return is going be slightly longer. So any investor in the sanitation business would require to have a little bit of patience before we can hit the break-even point.”
Peter McIntyre, 18 Nov 2013
See also: Is there a sustainable business case for sanitation?, E-Source, 11 Nov 2013
This article has been republished from E-Source, 18 Nov 2013