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Reinventing the toilet

Traditional flush toilets aren’t an option in many parts of the world, but neither is leaving people with unsafe and unhygenic choices. Now, one company is piloting a new loo that's waterless, off-grid and able to charge your phone. Lina Zeldovich travels to Madagascar to witness the start of a lavatorial revolution.

Eleonore Rartjarasoaniony – a 47-year-old mother, daughter and small-shop owner in Madagascar’s capital Antananarivo – stands in the middle of her yard, watching two young men in colourful overalls and rubber boots service her new waterless Loowatt toilet, which replaced her pit latrine a few months ago. At her feet, two lean, long-legged chickens, flocked by a bunch of fluffy chicks, peck at anything remotely resembling food, including my shoes.

Inside a wooden shack behind her, Rartjarasoaniony’s elderly mother greets customers through a small window that overlooks the narrow, unpaved neighbourhood street. That’s Rartjarasoaniony’s shop, in which she sells a bit of everything – kitchen sponges, eggs laid by her hens and freshly brewed coffee, which she hands out to customers in small metal cups, rinsed in a bucket of water from a communal pump.

As she describes her new toilet in the soft Malagasy language – and Loowatt’s manager Anselme Andriamahavita translates – I discern the word tsara in the string of unfamiliar sounds. By now I’ve learned that tsara means ‘well’, as in wellbeing and healthy. Rartjarasoaniony switched to the new toilet because it’s cleaner and safer than her outhouse. “My family of four uses it, and so do my three tenants who rent the next house over – it’s included in the rent,” she says. “Even my son can use it,” she adds, echoing worries of all Malagasy mothers, terrified that their young children may one day fall into a pit and literally drown in shit.

Like most Madagascan residents, Rartjarasoaniony and her tenants don’t have modern sanitation systems in their homes, which are built with bricks hand-made from red Madagascan mud. While cellphones are ubiquitous in Antananarivo, flush toilets are not. Most people use ‘Malagasy toilets’, meaning outhouses. Out in the country, some villagers don’t even have those – when nature calls, they head to the bushes or into the fields. The more sophisticated Malagasies who do own latrines call it ‘going au natural’.

But latrines aren’t a hygienic solution either, and not only because they smell and are hard to keep clean. Madagascar has so much groundwater that many Antananarivo residents grow rice in their yards. When torrential rains hit, everything floods. The waste from latrines rises and floats into the yards, houses, shops and streets. The threat is very real. In a neighbour’s latrine across the street, the sordid grey goo almost reaches the pit’s surface, a clear menace come the next storm. “When we used the pit latrine before, and it rained, sometimes the water would come out,” Rartjarasoaniony tells me. “And we were afraid of getting sick because of the filth.”

2.4 billion people lack access to basic toilet facilities, and nearly 1bn can’t even do their business in private

Lack of toilets is not a problem unique to Madagascar. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 2.4 billion people lack access to basic toilet facilities, and nearly 1bn can’t even do their business in private, practising so-called ‘open defecation’, resorting to fields, street gutters or creeks. Many countries, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, face similar sanitation challenges, says Francis de los Reyes at North Carolina State University, who designs sanitation management solutions for developing counties.

In many places building a flushing toilet system, as we know it, is nearly impossible. Some places simply don’t have enough water. Some have too much, which complicates water treatment processes because of floods and overflows. Others don’t have the means to build the water-based infrastructure. That’s why Loowatt, a London-based startup, came up with a radically different flushing solution – one that doesn’t use water at all.

In Loowatt’s waterless flush design, the waste is sealed into a biodegradable bag underneath the toilet with not a drop of water being spilled. Once full, the bag is replaced by a service team, and the waste is brought (yes, hand-delivered) to Loowatt’s pilot waste-processing facility, where it’s converted to fertiliser and biogas.

This very manual setup sounds very archaic compared to the slick and convenient arrangements of the Western world. But sanitation experts think that in the era of climate change, when droughts and floods are becoming increasingly common, the West may have something to learn from the little waterless loos piloted in penniless Madagascan neighbourhoods. With the world’s population ever-increasing, places that historically relied on water for sanitation may have to reconsider how they flush.

A whole new loo

Loowatt’s London-based founder and CEO Virginia Gardiner never thought she’d end up designing 21st-century toilets. When she graduated from Stanford University in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature, she couldn’t have been further removed from the engineering challenges of processing human waste. But then she went to work as a reporter for an architecture and design magazine, Dwell, covering industry events. “I was the youngest on the edit team. Nobody else wanted to go to the kitchen and bath industry shows, so I did,” she recalls. One of the things that struck her was that architectural concepts evolved constantly, except for toilets, which seemed to remain the same for ever.

“The first article I wrote for the magazine was about toilets – about the fact that they don’t change,” she says. She came to see the overall ‘bath culture’ as wasteful and decided toilets were due for an upgrade.

When Gardiner did her Master’s thesis at the Royal College of Art in London, she chose to focus it on a waterless toilet system. In 2010, she founded Loowatt and ran a money-raising campaign based around turning “shit” into a commodity. When in 2011 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation issued the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge to devise sustainable sanitation technologies to handle the number one (and, well, the number two) of humankind’s basic necessities, the requirements matched Gardiner’s waterless design. She applied for the grant and got it.

More funding followed, including from Innovate UK, the GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities Programme and, more recently, a RELX Group Environmental Challenge award. Serendipitously, a Canadian expat living in Madagascar learned about Gardiner’s project from her online video and became Loowatt’s first investor. That was the reason Loowatt launched its first single-toilet pilot and a small waste-processing facility in an impoverished Antananarivo neighbourhood.

The project killed two birds with one stone – giving people a toilet, and converting their waste to biogas, generating enough electricity to charge cellphones. When that proof of concept worked, Loowatt scaled up to its current size – 100 toilets serving about 800 customers.

In their basic appearance, Loowatt toilets don’t look much different from our Western johns, with their plastic seats and flushing handles, which come in the form of a pedal or a rope you pull. But instead of releasing a swirl of water into the basin, this move activates the white biodegradable film that envelopes and seals the waste, pushing it into a collector underneath the toilet, all odour-free. Loowatt’s service team replaces the biodegradable bag once a week, or more often if it fills up sooner.

Equipped with a small pushcart and collection bins, a two-person team conducts daily walks through the neighbourhood, gathering waste bags and doing repairs. The residents can also request service by text message when the bag fills up or if something breaks.

The Loowatt setup isn’t free – residents pay about £12 as a deposit for a toilet (which remains Loowatt’s property) and about £3 a month for service. For Madagascar, where some families exist on £1 a day, this isn’t cheap. But Rartjarasoaniony tells me she finds it acceptable. Maintaining a latrine costs more. “We have to empty it every six months, and it is really expensive,” she explains, not to mention the unsightly mess it creates. The manual process is done by ‘informal emptiers’ – usually men who show up with buckets to chug the goo into containers, dropping splotches of repugnant gunk around the yard for her egg-laying hens to peck at.

Standing behind Loowatt’s technician Edonal Razanadrakoto, I watch him tinker with Rartjarasoaniony’s toilet flushing mechanism. “In the older version of the toilet you had to push a pedal to make the bag seal the waste,” he explains, pointing at the plastic cogs and wheels. That mechanism ultimately relied on an internal rope, which often jammed and tore, so Loowatt switched to a sturdier, hand-pulled device, and now the toilets have to be upgraded. While Razanadrakoto changes the part, his coworker stashes the waste bag from underneath the toilet into a white bin on his pushcart and taps on the phone to update Loowatt’s online monitoring system: bag removed.

As we leave, Andriamahavita, the Loowatt manager, says that another neighbour also wants to talk. “She was about to go to work, but heard we were in the neighbourhood, so she waited,” he explains.

Sporting a white shirt and long braided hair, 43-year-old Gloria Razafindeamiza greets us in front of her house, next to her Loowatt toilet cabin, which is woven from recycled plastic. Only a few steps away on the ground a pressure cooker atop a charcoal burner simmers vary – rice, which locals eat three times a day. As Razafindeamiza explains her ordeals with the Malagasy way of using the toilet, a range of expressions crosses her face, from embarrassment to disgust. She works for the Ministry of Health, Andriamahavita explains, and really hates the unsanitary side of it all. A renter who moved here recently, she had to share an outhouse with several neighbours, some of whom didn’t clean up after themselves, leaving it unusable.

It was also too far from her house, which made things difficult. “If diarrhoea comes up at night, I’m afraid to go there,” she says. “Sometimes you would go there and it would be really dirty and you’d have to clean it before you could use it.” Electricity isn’t always available in Antananarivo either, so imagine doing all that in the dark. “With this toilet I feel safe and secure,” she adds.

As we leave her yard, I steal a glance at Razafindeamiza’s living room through the window, which, like many other houses here, doesn’t have glass in the panes. The room looks nice, with teak furniture, a TV and pictures of Santa Claus and Dora the Explorer on the walls. But at the gates, we hop over a ditch that carries wastewater out of the house and into the gutters on the street. The ditch is full of a stagnant greyish fluid that stinks of rotten food and probably of faeces too. By now I am so immune to these smells that I can’t tell if it’s just muddy water or a recent overflow from a latrine. As de los Reyes, who studies faecal sludge management, once said: “In the developing world, people are surrounded by shit, often unbeknownst to them.”

Later, as Andriamahavita is driving us from Loowatt’s pilot neighbourhood to the main office, I can’t help but ask: “Gloria works for the Ministry of Health, and her house looks rather nice, so why can’t she afford a home with a better toilet?”

“A government job doesn’t necessarily pay a lot of money,” Andriamahavita explains, but the biggest problem is the infrastructure. “We don’t really have a sewage system like in the Occident.” Middle-class Malagasies can afford certain life perks, like a TV, a stereo system, a smartphone, even a second-hand car. But a flush toilet isn’t something an individual’s money can buy.

A flush toilet needs a sophisticated set of underground pipes linking it to a facility that can digest its output – a sewage plant that cleans the water, releasing it back into the rivers and oceans, and re-processes the so-called biosolids into fertiliser safe to put onto fields.

It takes the entirety of society to make sanitation work ­– an individual cannot master that challenge alone. Canadian epidemiologist David Waltner-Toews, author of The Origin of Feces, says it’s because humans have a very complicated relationship with their own waste.