The Neighborhood Toilet Champion

By Annie Davies, Chief of Staff, PSI

“The waste water was always coming out of my compound and into the street!” exclaims Monsieur Theodore Danho, a landlord in the crowded capital city of Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire.  Danho was frustrated.

Like most compounds in Abidjan, Danho’s tenants live in separate family units but share certain facilities, like septic tanks. In Danho’s compound, the septic tank is shared between 5 households, or 35 individuals, and was always overflowing. The original septic tank that Danho constructed didn’t meet the appropriate standards for the large number of individual it serviced- it was made out of brick, only had one compartment and lacked a soak pit. After a few years of operation and overuse, the pit began to overflow frequently and Danho was forced to have it emptied twice a month. At a cost of CFA 20,000 (USD $34) per emptying trip, and with Danho’s tenants refusing to pay the high monthly emptying dues, the tank frequently went unemptied.

Danho knew this was a problem, but he didn’t know what to do. So when the head of the neighborhood asked for a volunteer to attend a presentation on new sanitation technologies at the local health center, Danho jumped at the chance. He agreed to represent his community at the meeting and report back on what he learned.

Danho remembers the March afternoon when he entered the local health center and joined the room full of landlords from different neighborhoods of Yopougon, one of the 10 boroughs that makeup Abidjan. He watched a video that demonstrated the magnitude of the sewage problem in the area, and was presented with a solution to the septic tank problem that had been plaguing him.

“We learned about a new [septic tank] technology called “ t” that is cheaper than what others in the community are doing with brick and concrete,” Danho explains., “And [with the improved design] the septic tank only needs to be emptied once every two years.”

The video and presentation was given by sales agents of the Sanitation Service Delivery (SSD) project, funded by USAID. The SSD project aims to improve access to safely managed sanitation in Abidjan by targeting compound landlords, like Danho, who provide 55% of housing options in Abidjan. In such compounds, the shared septic facilities are often outdated and poorly maintained, resulting in sewage overflowing into living areas. The waste soon returns to the environment, often contaminating nearby water sources and causing the spread of deadly diseases. With increased safe disposal of this fecal waste, the project could reach 500,000 new consumers with basic sanitation.

Recognizing the importance of compound sanitation, PSI has developed potential business models to respond to the needs and preferences of landlords, and ultimately households, living in compound settings. In Cote d’Ivoire, PSI is testing a model among landlords based on prefabricated septic tanks, which can be installed quickly and easily, and sized according to the number of users within a compound.

The product that Danho learned about and decided to purchase was one of these prefabricated septic tanks with a soak pit that could be installed quickly and easily.

“The sales agents demonstrated that the product was a good deal,” Danho explains enthusiastically. “I was given time to gather funds and now I have a septic tank with the latest technology.”

Danho’s tenants and neighbors are grateful for his initiative too.

“My tenants are happy because they no longer see waste water inside the compound,” Danho says, “and my neighbors are interested and continue to ask for the cost and size.”

Today, Danho chases down the sales agents when he hears they are in the neighborhood so he can join them for the door to door calls. He encourages others to install their own septic tanks and soak pits by sharing his own story and inviting them into his compound to see the new system.