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Opinions of Friday, 6 November 2015

Columnist: Emmanuel Addai

Household toilets: The undiscovered gold?

Opinion Opinion

“To you it may be shit. To us it is MONEY,” is the inscription on a truck of a young man engaged in the business of faecal waste management. This inscription connotes our disgust at faeces due to its rather potently offensive odour.

So, naturally, most people do not even want to be associated with this matter, generated by our honourable selves. Those of you who grew up in the era of “bucket latrines” will recall that the men who engaged in that business were shunned, because some of them were perpetually covered in an aroma of “faecal perfume.”

It was one of the most debased businesses anybody could engage in those days. They took the buckets with their bare hands, carried it on their heads and dumped the contents anywhere, anyhow. But it was not an issue then as most houses did not have toilet facilities, a situation which escalated open defecation, popularly known as ‘free range,’ with their attendant environmental pollution and health hazards.

Thanks to modern discoveries and technological advancement, faecal waste, the management of which is now problematic, can be turned into a viable business venture just like the practice of alchemy through which baser elements were turned into gold in the middle ages and Renaissance. Consequently, the prediction is that provision of household toilet facilities and services in both rural and urban areas is the future business for the next couple of decades in Ghana.

It is gratifying to observe that, gradually, entrepreneurs like the man with that inscription on his truck have sensed the business prospects in faecal waste and, through their ingenuity, are developing and selling solutions.

The most recent statistics from the UN indicates that only 15% of Ghanaians use improved household toilets.

This means that there are more than 20 million Ghanaians who will need an improved toilet facility at home. A recent survey conducted by the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development (MLGRD), with support from UNICEF in 10 districts across five regions, equally revealed a picture of massive lack of household toilets in parts of the country. In fact, starting from an impressive 6%, it was discovered that up to 91% of households in some districts lacked access to household toilets.

The high open defecation rate in Ghana provides clear evidence that people really are in need of household toilets. Open defecation is common in all major cities and urban centres throughout the country, and reports indicate that it is even higher in rural communities. On the average, it is official that one of every five people living in Ghana defecates in the open.

According to the MLGRD survey, most households without toilets interviewed would like to have one at home while most of those that had wished they could improve on their physical conditions. And this is where the business opportunity lies. Interestingly, there are laws/bye-laws in Ghana that prohibit open defecation, so it is high time these laws were invoked to compel people to rush for toilets with some strategic facilitation by state agencies.

To this end, the ministry is working with partners to change people’s open defecation behaviour through the Community-led Total Sanitation programme. The purpose is to generate demand for household toilets in the project districts.

District assemblies mostly have opted for the provision of communal latrines following on from our traditions, which has helped to some extent. But it is widely believed to have also worsened the problem of open defection. This is because of factors such as distance from the house, the need to respond to nature’s call at night and the usual poor hygienic conditions of communal toilets

There are a number of challenges to the quest of ensuring total sanitation through the provision of household toilet facilities. The challenges include low incomes and poor attitude of financial institutions towards investing in household sanitation; lack of space especially in houses in some urban slums; poor soil structures and communities sited too close to water bodies. However, these challenges also serve as opportunities that Ghanaian entrepreneurs could turn into money-making ventures.

The Environmental Health and Sanitation Directorate (EHSD) of the MLGRD is of the view that every Metropolitan, Municipal or District Chief Executive is capable of creating a business atmosphere around the issue of lack of household toilets in the communities under their jurisdiction.

The assemblies could initiate dialogues with potential investors in household toilet businesses, which could help mobilise micro-finance companies, artisans and landlords around this issue. The EHSD wants to see them develop innovative and attractive packages around investment in basic sanitation for households.

Such a scheme, successfully implemented, will significantly improve people’s access to safe toilet facilities and enhance sanitary conditions in their environments.

(The author works with the Environmental Health and Sanitation Directorate as a Communications Consultant of the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development)

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