Sanitation, a nice business

« Sanitation as a business in Malawi – the poor will have to wait ». Article and comment

Florence Higuet, IERPE, Belgium
Published: 8 years, 2 months ago (05/02/2013)
Updated: 2 years, 7 months ago (12/21/2018)


« Sanitation as a business in Malawi – the poor will have to wait », WASH News Africa, 28 mars 2013,, consulté le 17-04-2013.

Providing toilets to the poorest may be “dear to the hearts of many non-profits, aid agencies and governments” but if you want to involve business you have to start with the better-off families first. So says business woman and sanitation entrepreneur Towera Jalakari who runs a pit emptying service in Blantyre, Malawi.

We will get to Everyone in Blantyre one day, but the only way to make sure Blantyre actually solves its sanitation problems is to recognize that the market must function.  [...]  As we get better, as we scale city-wide, then costs will come down, services will improve, and pressure will build for all people to have a toilet.  We will get to the poorest, but they are not our first targets.  [...] If we rush too fast [...] then the poor will not have lasting services but rather a lot of useless toilets and nowhere to go to the bathroom.

Malawi is one the countries in Water for Sanitation as a Business program (2010-2014), which is funded by a US$ 5.6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Water for People has contracted Tools for Enterprise & Education Consultants (TEECs) to support pit emptying businesses in Lilongwe and Blantyre.

The pits are emptied with Gulpers– portable desludging pumps which can negotiate the narrow streets and lanes in peri-urban areas. The sludge is transferred to drums and transported by pickup to a disposal site. Households in Malawi are willing to pay US$ 10-12 per drum, so with six drums on the pickup, a business could earn approximately US$ 60 per load. Water for People estimates that a business can generate a net annual profit (before interest and tax) of about 65% of the expenditure.

Up till now only 10 of 21 low-income areas in Blantyre and four out of 16 in Lilongwe have been reached by pit-emptying businesses.  To encourage more businesses to enter the market, TEECs is targeting owners of pickup trucks.
Water For People and
Captiva Africa Ltd, Uganda, are developing a Business In Sanitation (BIS) marketing kit.

According to Water for People’s
John Sauer, “the ideal sanitation market would see local businesses taking the primary role of providing ongoing sanitation services”.

So is the Sanitation as a Business model the key to achieving universal and sustainable access to sanitation? In virtually all countries with full coverage, sanitation delivery is a public service. If pit emptying  services become too lucrative, political capture (see the
toilet wars in Ghana), may occur.

A second consideration is technology choice and the related costs. In some cases alternative systems that greatly reduce or eliminate the need for pit emptying, like toilets with alternating pits (
Fossa Alterna, Double VIP and Twin Pit Pour Flush) and simplified sewerage will be cheaper for users


This article is an opportunity to remember how important sanitation is in our daily lifes.

A few weeks ago, we published a
news on the campaign « Strike with me » led by Matt Damon, co-founder of, to protest against the fact that 2,5 billion people do not have access to proper basic sanitation services.
The principal campaign donators were PespiCo Foundation, The Caterpillar Foundation and
Levi Strauss & Co...All three are self huge water consumers at the world level.

Again, we find here an example of how an association financed directly by private funds or societies, especially working in the infrastructure sector, as Water for People, adress the sanitation issue by providing portable desludging pumps called Gulpers and drums for a certain price. 

The idea is to develop with the help of Tools for Enterprise & Education Consultants the local business in the sector so that they will take over the primary role to provide sanitation services.

In all this scheme, we are wondering where are the public authorities. Is is not contradictory for a human right to become a commercial business ? Why and for what should profit be made when you care for a human right ? If we focus on better-off families, what will happen to the poorest ?

Sometimes it is hard to say if we are really talking of a universal human right that everyone deserves or a resource that can generate profit.