Learning from Tanzanian innovators

4 min read

When businesses find ways to meet sanitation challenges, it is not just the owners who benefit. Rémi Kaupp, Urban Sanitation Specialist at WaterAid UK, analyses the success of two Tanzanian entrepreneurs who are changing the way sanitation works in Dar es Salaam.

A couple of months ago, I worked with Tanzanian colleagues on a new phase of a very exciting programme: the business of emptying toilet pits. As my colleague Clare Haule brilliantly presented at the African Water Association (AfWA) congress in Nairobi, Kenya, in February, it has been a long journey to develop solutions for the full toilet pits that plague informal settlements in Dar es Salaam. Large sludge tankers cannot access these areas and are too expensive for their residents, leaving only illegal manual emptiers who work in horrid conditions.

This journey started almost ten years ago with the first tests of the Gulper pump; more recently several small-scale local entrepreneur methods have been trialled, to assess whether pit emptying can provide a viable business. Last year, we shared the lessons we learned together with other NGOs doing similar work. For instance, we tested various financial models, types of entrepreneur groups and ways of reaching customers. Not everything has worked, of course, but we are now better able to say what is promising and what is not.

Two entrepreneurs in particular have been very successful: Mr Millinga of Umawa and Mr Mhando of Numagro. Both have expanded their original garbage collection business and have been able to serve entire wards of the Temeke Municipality with their pit-emptying pumps, at an affordable rate so that poor residents can take advantage of the service. The men have had an impact on sanitation policies, planning and services in Dar es Salaam, because one of the municipalities has since been issuing tenders for this service in new wards. They have also had an effect on lenders, as several local microfinance providers have issued loans so that the entrepreneurs can purchase equipment and further expand.

The crux of their success

Crucially, Millinga and Mhando have been constantly innovating. Innovation for them is not just about trying different sorts of pumps and treatment systems (although this is still important), but also and importantly looking for solutions to improve the business itself. Here are three examples:

  1.  Mr Millinga negotiated contracts with guesthouses and restaurants whereby he offers unlimited emptying for a monthly fee. This provides him with a stable income, contrasting with relying on household customers who provide business mostly in the rainy season.

  2.  Mr Mhando was confronted with the issue of ‘solid waste fishing’ – toilet pits are also used as garbage pits, especially for items people find embarrassing (e.g. condoms, sanitary napkins and nappies) which have to be removed with a hook before a pump can be used. He was losing time and money through this tedious process, until he started offering it as a distinct service. Now people contract his services just to remove the rubbish from the pits.

  3. Mr Millinga has established a ‘centre of excellence’ where other businesspeople and emptiers can learn about the technologies involved. Although training your competitors could seem counter-productive, it has attracted positive attention from authorities and the municipal water company, helping to enshrine improved pit emptying in law and gradually eliminate unsafe emptying.

Both entrepreneurs shared their experience with my colleagues at a workshop in January, during which we made sure we captured lessons from Tanzania and from other countries, and brainstormed ideas for expanding sludge management businesses in other wards. We looked at new emptying and treatment technologies, finance providers, business model ideas and ways to increasingly engage the water company.

For me as an outsider, the key lesson is this: these small businesses are taking the lion’s share of the risks by venturing into the murky business of sludge management, trying out new pumps without a guarantee of success, convincing residents to change their behaviours regarding what is still very much a taboo topic, and more. Our role as an NGO, together with our funders, should therefore be to reduce these risks as much as possible, by taking some upon ourselves. This role will form an important part of our approach in the new phase of this programme.

Ramie Kaupp tweets as @RemKau