Connecting the unconnected: Slum toilets and a safe circular water economy

A person standing next to flooded homes


Constituting the stakeholder collective to simultaneously turn the faecal matter residing inside informal toilets into usable resources and deliver health benefits to poor urban people through reducing faecal contamination of drinking water.


The Lancaster University-led RECIRCULATE project aims at driving eco-innovation in Africa by building capacity for a safe circular water economy with partners in Ghana, Nigeria and other African countries. Its water for sanitation and health work package (WP2) is deploying novel solutions to the interlinked problem of poor sanitation and unsafe water in Africa’s urban informal communities. Research involved operationalising a stakeholder collective to implement assisted management of faecal waste from informal toilets in two low-income communities in Accra, Ghana – one control and the other for technical and behavioural treatment. The faecal matter was collected and subject to anaerobic digestion. The bio-energy (methane gas) generated was measured and the output digestant (potential fertiliser) was applied to cabbage plots and any enhanced growth measured against controls. A suite of behavioural change initiatives complemented faecal waste removal activities in the treated settlement. This involved nurturing a group of resident youths into change agents, alongside forming a community-based organisation (CBO) to mobilise actions on the ground. Our research demonstrates that a conglomeration of local people, NGOs and CBOs, agencies and enterprises can turn the faecal matter residing inside informal toilets into usable resources. These diverse stakeholders constitute and benefit from our ‘education pathways’ that ensure that the challenge and its solution is ‘made visible’ to ordinary people, and those tasked with water provision.

Results and Outcomes

Tab Content: For Partners and Engagement

Partners have acquired the capacity to implement our multidisciplinary methodology with an exclusive attention to poor urban people. Community youths, especially adolescent girls, who were trained to participate in behaviour change communication have expressed enthusiasm to pursue higher education in science due to their exposure to our research team and laboratories. They followed the sample journey from collection through processing to final analysis. This is a major outcome to have influenced youngsters in low-income settlements. Our NGO partner has added significantly to their knowledge and capabilities in taking on our action research methodology and via South-South knowledge exchange with our broader network of NGOs including WaterAid Bangladesh and Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) India. Finally, our two Ghanaian business partners (Sewerage Systems Ghana Limited, SSGL, and Blue Skies) have come on board to acquire research-based knowledge to expand their value chain, as well as meeting their social responsibilities, to connect the unconnected – Ghana’s informal communities. The informal community members were consulted from the onset and integrated throughout and as a result the interventions they were an integral part of the ‘repair’ teams cleaning and rebuilding, for example, the drains.

Tab Content: For Academics

Academic researchers involved in the project have benefited from our spatially explicit sampling and high frequency data collection in support of visualising the solutions to the problem owners – the stakeholder collective. Yet, is no quick fix permanent solution, but a concerted and sustainable set of actions to capture faecal matter from, and prevent faecal contamination within, informal communities. If successful, this could simultaneously save millions of lives and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions. By regarding this as a kind of social vaccine, we are suggesting that proven actions must be repeated and revitalised – just as with other vaccines. The local communities know where the problems lie, and when we engage them properly – just as we did in RECIRCULATE, they become a powerful force to promote sustainable outcomes.

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