Creating a Market for Better Sanitation Services in Abidjan

By Krisila Benson

In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s largest city, an estimated 720,000 have poor quality septic tanks that overflow at least twice per year, exposing residents to dangerous pathogens that cause a variety of diseases. Moreover, when a septic tank reaches its capacity, the connected toilets can no longer be used, thus forcing residents to find another place to relieve themselves.

Why do the septic tanks overflow?

  1. Most septic tanks in Abidjan have been installed without a soak pit, so septic tanks quickly fill with wastewater that has no exit. A quality septic tank is designed with two enclosed chambers and an open-bottomed soak pit which allows liquids – water from washing, cooking and toilet flushing- to seep into the ground. The wastewater is treated as it infiltrates the ground – small particles are filtered out by the soil, and organic waste is digested by microorganisms.
  1. Septic tanks are emptied using vacuum trucks. Unfortunately, many of the vacuum trucks in operation in Abidjan lack the required horse power to empty the solids from a septic tank and can only remove the liquids on top. Eventually, a septic tank completely fills up with solids and overflows – even if it has a soak pit. Tank emptying costs an average of more than $90, leading many consumers who are unaware of this limitation to mistrust vacuum truck operators who provide the service. Moreover, the high cost means that many people delay emptying the tank, thus leaving dangerous waste in their compounds and running through the streets.

What can be done?

The Sanitation Service Delivery (SSD) Project, a project funded by USAID and implemented by PSI, PATH and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor is promoting two solutions for overflowing septic tanks.

The first is the installation of high-quality soak pits. SSD is training concrete manufacturers to produce the concrete rings used to line the soak pit, training masons to correctly install and connect soak pits to existing septic tanks, and creating demand among consumers through marketing campaigns and door-to-door sales.

The second is the promotion of the higher horse power vacuum trucks capable of removing solids, which are available but more expensive. In order to increase use of these more capable vacuum trucks, SSD is building customer awareness of the limitations of the low horse power trucks and the advantages of the more powerful truck. The higher the horse power the higher the cost —in the short term, as they  save money in the long-term due to the reduced frequency with which the tank needs to be emptied. PSI is launching a call center that will connect consumers with vacuum truck operators who have agreed to adhere to quality and safety standards established by the project and by the government, and to a discounted pricing structure. The call center will enable customers to access lower cost, higher quality, and more transparent services, and the call center promotion activities will enable vacuum truck operators to increase their clientele — a win-win.

Helping consumers find a solution for frequently overflowing septic tanks has an additional benefit. Most families in the lower income neighborhoods of Abidjan live in homes attached to a shared courtyard. It is common for multiple households to share a single toilet. SSD is working to increase the number of families that have their own toilet but has found that people are not willing to invest in additional toilets while they are spending so much on emptying their septic tank multiple times per year. Resolving the critical problem of frequently overflowing septic tanks paves the way to increasing access to individual, household toilets.

Banner photo: © Population Services International / Banner Photo by: Emily Carter