A Toilet Brings Hope and Dignity

In many parts of the world, when nature calls, there is simply nowhere to go. Like most people in her community, Virginie Anagonou knows all too well the  challenges of living without a toilet – and the safety and dignity it offers. The everyday act of relieving oneself becomes a test of will.

“We would wake up early in the morning to go out to the tall grass so that no one would see. It was difficult during the day and even more difficult if we needed to go at night,” laments the mother of two. “I was so troubled by not having a toilet I could not sleep at night.”

Virginie and her family live in the growing neighborhood of Abomey Calavi in Benin. Tenacious and entrepreneurial, she is an informal shopkeeper who sells basic household goods, such as cooking oil and soap, and her husband is a retired school teacher. The family relies on Virginie’s profits and the rent they receive from the two families who share their compound.

As is usually the case in Benin, Virginie’s compound lacked sanitation facilities. As a result, all three families in the compound had to pay to use a neighbor’s toilet. However, after a formal land survey was conducted in the neighborhood, the neighbor soon learned that the toilet was not, in fact, on her land. The actual landowner built a wall around his property, cutting off access for Virginie and her tenants, forcing them to relieve themselves anywhere they could find privacy in the nearby vegetation.

Eventually, without access to a toilet, Virginie’s tenants decided to look for housing elsewhere. Virginie lost the rental income critical to her . She was extremely upset, not only due to the lost income, but also because she lost the sense of pride that came from being a landlord.

Not long after Virginie lost her tenants, a door-to-door sales agent approached her about a hygienic toilet option she could afford. The sales agent was part of the Sanitation Service Delivery (SSD) Project. Led by PSI, this five-year initiative aims to improve sanitation conditions in Benin by increasing access to affordable sanitation options that meet the needs of the consumers.

The double offset pit latrine that the sales agent showed Virginie offers three significant benefits to consumers. First, it comes with a plastic SaTo Pan, a hygienic pan that requires as little as a half liter of water to “flush,” and utilizes a simple water seal to separate users from the sights and smells of the pit below. Second, the latrine pits are offset rather than placed directly underneath the toilet in order to reduce the risk of structural collapse and the user falling into the pit. Finally, there are two pits in order to minimize the frequency of emptying. The system is also designed to prevent groundwater contamination.

Within two weeks, Virginie was able to obtain a loan from a microfinance institution and to purchase the required materials. By the third week, the toilet was installed and fully functional. Virginie now has one year to pay back her loan. She is confident that she will be able to do so given the two new renters now living in her compound.

One month after the toilet’s installation, Virginie suffered a stroke. Unable to walk, she had to be carried everywhere, even to her brand new toilet. She credits the toilet with helping her regain mobility. “I’m not sure how I would have survived without a toilet. I needed to be carried to the toilet, but where would my husband have carried me? Where to? How far? I’m not sure I could have handled that.”

Virginie has been encouraging neighbors and friends to invest in the SSD toilet solution. Given her entrepreneurial spirit, she heads a network of thirteen women’s groups, each with ten members, who support one another in income-generating activities. She is using her leadership role to educate group members who could also benefit from this low cost, high quality toilet.