By Mekdim Hailu, Project Communications Manager, PSI Ethiopia; Heston Jackson, Learning and Communications Manager, Athena Infonomics
Low sanitation coverage remains a persistent challenge in Liberia. Open defecation (OD), a practice that is the leading cause of preventable death for children under five, continues to plague the lives of countless Liberians yearning for urgent change. According to the Liberia Sanitation Market Assessment – published in December 2021 by the USAID-funded Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Partnerships and Learning for Sustainability – the prevalence of OD in the country remains high at 35%.
Previous efforts by the government and its partners to reduce open defecation through community-led total sanitation initiatives (CLTS, a community-based approach to achieving open defecation-free communities) have shown promise. Yet, despite significant progress, lingering setbacks remain. Around 43% of communities that were previously certified as open defecation-free have reverted to OD practices. This setback is attributed primarily to the use of non-durable materials in toilet construction, and economic constraints preventing the replacement of worn-out materials. So, what do people do to take care of their bodily needs? They have no choice other than to practice open defecation (OD) in fields, bushes, water bodies, or other open spaces.
To combat this pressing issue, USAID launched the Countywide Sanitation Activity (CWSA) activity in Liberia, a project that aims to permanently eradicate OD by implementing a market-based sanitation approach, behavior change communication initiatives, and strengthen the capacity of local institutions to effectively plan, implement and monitor sanitation activities. The challenge is not so much convincing people to use toilets but creating an environment where they have the tools and support to not only build latrines, but to keep them sustainable for long periods of time.
The project set ambitious targets to provide access to basic sanitation for 1.4 million individuals, residing predominantly in rural areas. Additionally, it aims to support 300 businesses by offering sanitation products and services within five targeted counties – Lofa, Bong, Nimba, Grand Bassa, and rural Montserrado – by selling 103,892 toilets to households in those areas. These efforts hold the potential to significantly improve public health in Liberia, where waterborne diseases, diarrhea, and chronic malnutrition pose significant challenges linked to OD, accounting for approximately 8% of all deaths among children under the age of five.
CWSA’s commitment to addressing gaps and challenges is evident in its problem-led approach. The activity recently initiated door-to-door sales training in the town of Ganta in Nimba County. This training combined sanitation market insights with human-centered design principles to develop innovative toilet products that effectively address the specific needs and preferences of end-users, promoting higher levels of user acceptance and sustained impact. During the training, 58 individuals, including government representatives, community health workers, and sales agents from various businesses in the five districts of Nimba, participated in the program.
“We are here to conduct training for individuals from various categories who will serve as sales agents for sanitation products,” says Mr. J. Leahown Tokpah, the coordinator of the National Public Health Institute of Liberia who joined the CWSA team in Ganta, Nimba. “This initiative is an integral part of the five-year program in Nimba. Our utmost priority as the government is to ensure the well-being of our people through the provision of enhanced sanitation services. By improving accessibility to these vital services and placing a strong emphasis on the health of our citizens, we can create a remarkable transformation in living conditions and foster a healthier environment.”
Participants like Cyrus Nemenkeh Peters, a resident of Nimba County and member of an agricultural cooperative, are excited about being selected as sales agents. Recognizing the importance of private toilets in promoting sanitation and hygiene, Cyrus plans to drive sales among cooperative members, encouraging them to adopt clean and improved sanitation practices instead of open defecation. He also emphasized the affordability of the SATO set, a toilet pan designed with mechanical and water seals to close off pit latrines from the open air priced at $10 to $15. He advocates for increased access to credit to support widespread toilet construction across the country.
The Liberia Countywide Sanitation Activity represents a transformative endeavor that aims to address the persistent challenge of open defecation in Liberia. By leveraging market-based approaches, implementing human-centered designs, and supporting local communities and businesses, the activity holds the promise of significantly improving sanitation outcomes and fostering a healthier future for the Liberian population.
About Countywide Sanitation Activity
The Countywide Sanitation Activity is a USAID-funded project implemented from 2022 to 2027. Its primary goal is to permanently end open defecation and achieve sustainable basic sanitation across five counties, Lofa, Nimba, Bong, Grand Bassa, and rural Montserrado. This comprehensive five-year initiative focuses on four key result areas including improving sanitation governance at the national and sub-national levels; enhancing adoption of key sanitation behaviors; strengthening sanitation markets; and increasing sanitation financing. By combining the Areawide Planning and Market-Based Sanitation approaches with behavior change communication, the project aims to create lasting impacts and enhance the overall sanitation landscape in Liberia.