What It Takes to Get Sanitation Solutions to Market

By Monte Achenbach, Transform WASH Chief of Party, PSI Ethiopia

Sparking growth in the sanitation market in Ethiopia has proven to be quite a roller coaster ride, full of twists, turns, and surprises.  In 2017, the USAID Transform WASH project, led by PSI, set out to reach tens of thousands of Ethiopian households with improved toilets in five years.  What we thought would be an easy formula for getting started — launching inexpensive, plastic, self-sealing toilet pans and, alternatively, plastic latrine slabs through small construction businesses — required more adaptation and innovation than expected.  And good evidence to guide us.

Initially, the Transform WASH team quickly identified the “low-hanging fruit” in the sanitation market; there were thousands of unimproved latrines across the country without hole covers.  If we could introduce an affordable way to cover open pits, which would reduce the awful smell and numerous flies that go in and out of the toilets, we could make fast progress to expand the sanitation product and service market.  For those who already had toilets installed with cement slabs, the self-sealing plastic SATO pan could affordably upgrade these previously unimproved toilets to “basic,” or improved, status. Manufactured by the Lixil Corporation and sold to consumers for 150 Ethiopian birr (about US$5.00), the SATO pan could be just the ticket for a cheap but effective solution.

But what we didn’t anticipate was that many households would buy SATO pans directly from retailers or sales agents and try to install them on their own without proper instructions, materials, or know how.  To understand this, we conducted a research study in the SNNP region, located in southwest Ethiopia, and we found several problems with improper installation. The first key finding was that six months after purchase, only 90 households out of 120 had installed their SATO pan.  Households cited various issues that kept them from installing the pan, such as full pits and/or plans for new construction, while others claimed the SATO pan could not be retrofitted to their existing latrine, and they needed support.

Of the 90 customers who installed the pan, the response was overwhelmingly positive. One of the key benefits was reduced odor and fewer flies inside and around the toilet. 88 percent of customers also reported that the pan was either cheap or affordable, which supported UNICEF’s user acceptance study, which found that there’s big demand for this kind of product in Ethiopia.  But many households opted to save money by self-installing within mud on wooden platforms, which produced relatively poor quality that often failed the “cleanability” requirement of basic sanitation. This was understandable since a concrete slab costs an additional 450 birr (three times the price of the SATO pan) and weighs over 100kg, thus difficult to transport.  These rudimentary latrines are responsible for the drop in open defecation in Ethiopia from 90 percent to 29 percent since 2000, but basic sanitation still hovers at only six percent.

So how can we harness the market to address these quality issues?  One solution is to design a SATO pan that is already embedded in a larger plastic slab with foot rests.  These are products that Lixil has already designed and will soon start manufacturing.  But our business partners in Ethiopia helped us innovate and come up with local solutions as well.  With these business partners we’ve created product packages that have expanded our business models to smaller scale entrepreneurs, who can address the large number of latrines that have been installed but still lack a concrete slab. Consumers who aren’t ready to make major new sanitation investments, but who are willing to put some hard-earned money toward lower cost upgrades, now have a range of low-cost options to consider, thanks to our local business partners:

  • Cement skirting installed around SATO pans
  • Pre-cast mini-slabs with embedded SATO pans
  • Retrofitting existing cement platforms to insert SATO pans

These options require significantly fewer construction materials. Importantly, none of them need reinforcement bar, which is made of increasingly expensive imported iron.  They can also be installed onsite, and for pre-cast SATO mini-slabs, you don’t need very much space to produce them in large numbers.  These sanitation solutions involve low transportation costs, making them a perfect fit for budding masons who want to launch a new business.

So far, Transform WASH business advisors have trained 233 business partners in the technical skills that they’ll need to add these products to their portfolios or to start fresh with door-to-door installation services.  We are also training local vocational college instructors on the range of product options and installation techniques so they can pass these skills on to an even larger group of soon-to-be entrepreneurs.

Even though we’ve addressed the SATO pan installation question, the sanitation roller coaster hasn’t come to a complete stop.  Next on our list: how do we keep the supply chain for sanitation products, some of which still need to be imported, humming in the Ethiopian market?

Banner Image: ©PSI

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