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Within the last two centuries, the population of the world has grown from 1 billion to 7.8 billion people. This reproductive success is chiefly due to our capacity to innovate. We have collectively made huge strides in the fields of medicine, agriculture and communications. However, with this rapid population growth our infrastructure capacity has lagged behind, chiefly in the field of sanitation.
Globally, more than 3 billion people do not have access to safely managed sanitation and 44% of household wastewater is not safely treated. This has in large part been due to the large financial expenditure needed to build and operate sewerage infrastructure and wastewater treatment plants. For toilets that are not connected to sewer networks, significant expenditure is required to collect and transport the wastewater to treatment plants. Yet, according to Sanitation Hygiene Fund, only 25% of the needed funds for sanitation are available each year.
Read more: Profit or Poverty? The democratic imperative for water, sanitation and hygiene for all by Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Although there has been progress made over the past years to decrease rates of open defecation, achieving universal access to safely managed sanitation by 2030 will require a fourfold increase in the current progress rate. Compared to sewer systems, developing decentralised technologies and market-driven approaches could be a cost-effective alternative.
As sanitation innovators in the private sector focus on container-based sanitation using a market-driven approach, at AKYAS we see four advances in decentralised sanitation that can perhaps move the needle on progress in SDG 6.2, especially for households living in poverty.
Regeneration of resources from treated waste and monetisation
In decentralised sanitation, faecal waste can be collected, treated and transformed into various products including biochar, which replaces charcoal as a fuel source, soil amendments that substitute synthetic fertiliser and improve soil health for better agricultural productivity, and protein sources for livestock feed. These waste-to-value products could also be sold to industries in bulk as a revenue stream for sanitation providers.
There is also increasing recognition that providing access to safely managed sanitation has a positive impact on decreasing carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. In the future, carbon offset credits could be another source of revenue.
By monetising recovered resources from human waste, the costs of providing sanitation services can be offset, making sanitation more affordable for all.
By targeting the base-of-the-pyramid population (BoP), which represents a market segment of over 4.5 billion people, sanitation businesses can make money even at a low profit margin when operating at scale. As BoP consumers often earn USD 1.5–8 a day per capita, it can be financially feasible for them only when affordability is at the heart of the sanitation service design. Potential methods to promote affordability include weaving micro-finance mechanisms into sanitation business models.
Participatory approach when implementing sanitation services
While designing and implementing sanitation solutions for the BoP consumers, leveraging all existing systems, networks, supply chains, local intelligence and entrepreneurs will be the key to the success of new sanitation services in this market segment.
Adopting a participatory approach to hear the needs of people and involving them in pioneering and localising new innovative solutions are critical in creating sustainability in the long-term operation.
Supportive ecosystems and collaborations among stakeholders
The sanitation ecosystem has been developing rapidly over the last seven years, involving many organisations from the public, non-profit, non-governmental and private sectors. Through collaborations, resources, knowledge and domain expertise, we can synergise and produce a far greater impact. For example, the Toilet Board Coalition brings together large multinational companies, small and growing businesses, government agencies and global and local NGOs with the objective of bringing speed and scale to achieve universal access to sanitation before 2030. Collaborations also take the form of public-private partnerships, or consortiums of organisations working in specific subject areas within sanitation such as the Container Based Sanitation Alliance.
As an innovator from the private sector, following our commercial pilots in Bangladesh we hope to master the recipe for bringing sustainable decentralised sanitation to all communities, regardless of scale.
With increasing recognition of the untapped market potential of the BoP and greater collaborations among stakeholders at all levels—ranging from the individual household to governments and large multinational organisations—we believe that innovative and sustainable sanitation products and services will accelerate the world’s progress towards achieving SDG 6.2 by 2030, and towards 130 of 169 SDG targets.
Read the 2021 OECD report The role of intermediaries to facilitate water-related investment, which analyses 3 specific sub-sectors: utilities, small scale water and sanitation service providers and nature-based solutions
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