What Africa must learn to solve its sanitation crisis

5 min read
The two functional toilets at Yiraber Health Centre, used daily by around 40 patients, 29 staff, and many local people, in Jabi Tehnan, West Gojjam, Ethiopia, December 2018.
Image: WaterAid/ Genaye Eshetu

This year, African governments cannot afford to not invest in solving the sanitation crisis, says Chilufya Chileshe. Ahead of AfricaSan and FSM5, she highlights what leaders can learn from India to accelerate progress on sanitation.

Despite the democratic reversals and stagnating economic growth we are witnessing, it is an exciting time to be African. Across the continent, active citizens are showing their willingness to drive progress, through protest and participation.

Governments have shown some progress recently too. In 2018 alone, the African Minister’s Council on Water:

  • commissioned work to develop sanitation policy guidelines
  • concluded monitoring of the Ngor commitments for sanitation and hygiene and held five sub-regional workshops held to interrogate and validate the findings
  • brought countries together at Africa Water Week to continue learning and sharing how to accelerate progress on access to water, sanitation and hygiene.

Unfortunately, the daily reality of most Africans begs that greater attention be paid to sanitation, especially in rural areas and unplanned urban settlements where most poor people live. This is increasingly urgent – the World Bank predicts that 50% of Africans will live in urban areas by 2030.

The State of Hygiene in Southern Africa – WaterAid’s assessment of ten countries’ policies and strategies – shows that hygienic sanitation is the best represented of the hygiene behaviours in objectives and targets of national policies and strategies. But it is a long way from being adequately addressed.

India’s four Ps for progress

It’s worth sharing some inspiration from Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) – a nationwide campaign led by the Indian Government. Despite its challenges, SBM offers worthy insights for African governments to test, emulate and implement to scale up progress on sanitation. Here are four points essential to accelerating progress, which were aptly summed up as the 4Ps at the closing session of the Mahatma Ghandi International Sanitation Convention last September:

  1. Political will and leadership is a vital first step in setting ambitious targets and timeframes. African leaders need to be more audacious and create a sense of urgency to capture attention, and build and sustain momentum. This must be accompanied by commitment to foster mechanisms for learning, innovation, adaptation and progressive reforms. Presidents of Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa have made pronouncements to signal their commitment to sanitation. What remains is to move beyond words by marshalling financing and other political capital necessary to drive change.
  2. Public financing must follow political will. That the financing available for sanitation is limited is almost always at the top of every list of bottlenecks to progress. Efforts to develop or reform sanitation polices are underway in some countries (Eswatini, Zambia, Nigeria). Unfortunately, without the funds to ensure they can be implemented, these will be wasted efforts. Governments must mobilise public funds – not just aid – to cater for public sanitation infrastructure, target poor and vulnerable communities and catalyse innovation along the sanitation chain. Governments must not only commit resources at realistic levels to have meaningful impact, but disburse them and, more importantly, use them for their intended purposes, guided by carefully set targets.
  3. Partnerships that are well coordinated across various stakeholders are essential to the successful elimination of open defection and requisite progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal ambition of safely managed sanitation by 2030. Multi-stakeholder partnerships must aid careful targeting of poor and marginalised people to tailor solutions to their particular areas of need. This should include support in planning for and responding to population growth and increasing urbanisation.
  4. Participation by active citizens who own the cause is indispensable to sustaining progress. Mechanisms for people to participate must be created at various levels of decision making, implementation, demand creation and, crucially, hygiene behaviour change. Strategic and extensive use of all forms of media for public awareness raising must be central to catalysing participation. SBM taught us that creating momentum should be anchored on a “people’s movement”, by making sanitation a national aspiration and citizen duty rather than mere government enterprise. Women in particular must be engaged in empowering ways as decision makers and agents of change.

Persistence and a reliable private sector

Most faecal sludge, especially in urban areas, is only being contained, because of inadequate investment in emptying, transportation and treatment. For instance, less than 10% of the faecal waste in cities like Kampala and Lusaka is safely managed. This compels me to add two more of my own Ps:

  • Persistence, because sustaining any gains on sanitation will depend hugely on hygiene behaviour change. Behaviour change takes time and is triggered by aspects of contextual importance and relevance. Consistent investment and communication with inspirational and aspirational messaging, as opposed to one of interventions is required.
  • A private sector that is socially conscious and can be relied on to deliver affordable services that adhere to minimum set standards is required. Small and emerging sanitation businesses working in unserved areas must be helped to access financing for start-up and innovation, so they can begin and grow their businesses. First, governments must ensure the right environment for business exists; second, lending institutions, and even aid, should be channelled to such innovators. Many have the potential to lead innovation and scale up adoption of appropriate toilet technologies, especially in complex urban areas and growth centres. To do so they must be enabled to consistently develop their capacity to meet the demand that increased toilet use creates. They will need to understand and serve people in different circumstances, as well as the needs of specific groups such as people with disabilities, women, children and elderly people.

Governments at AfricaSan cannot afford to not invest in solving the sanitation crisis

The loudest message for African governments at the Africa Sanitation Conference in Cape Town in February should be that they cannot afford to not invest in solving the sanitation crisis. Pockets of hope are visible across the continent – from South Africa pledging to eliminate unsafe latrines in public schools, to Nigeria declaring a state of emergency on sanitation.

With the right level of effort, we can eliminate open defecation and get closer to safely managed sanitation for everyone by 2030. We need countries that will trail blaze for Africa by ensuring multi-sectoral coordination at national, district and village levels; constantly monitoring, making results public; and allowing space for course correction.


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