A Bit of Fresh Air Does Cote d’Ivoire Well

By Franck Olivier Konan, Learning and Communication Manager, SSD West Africa

Andokoi smells. Badly. The odor has been haunting the restaurants and businesses of this neighborhood, driving away customers. “We don’t eat where we shit,” as the Ivorian saying goes.

Chief Loba, leader of Andokoi in the suburb of Yopougon, Cote d’Ivoire, knows where the smell is coming from.

Chief Loba. ©SSD West Africa

During the 45 years Chief Loba has lived in Andokoi, the neighborhood has had huge sanitation issues. Landlords across the city have not made their tenants’ sanitary needs a priority. There is often only one shower and one toilet for a compound of over 40 people. Septic tanks meant to hold toilet waste are also being used to capture shower water – a practice that causes the tanks to overflow and leak sewage into the courtyard of the compound where adults conduct daily chores and children play. Sewage ultimately leaks into the streets and spreads throughout neighborhood.

Chief Loba has been vocal about this issue. The septuagenarian is known for his welcoming nature and quick smile, qualities that have earned him both respect and clout in the community. He also has influence with chiefs in adjoining neighborhoods, and never hesitates to use his loud voice (both literally and figuratively) to serve the common good. He’s often found walking the streets of Andokoi with his megaphone. In a culture where these traditional communication channels are the most trusted sources of information, Chief Loba knows how to get a message heard loud and clear.

“If the chief speaks, it’s because what he has to say is important and true,” is a statement frequently heard in Cote d’Ivoire.

PSI’s urban sanitation project, Sanitation Service Delivery (SSD), took note of the profound influence chiefs like Loba have in their communities. Financed by USAID, SSD works in Benin, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana to catalyze the sanitation market as well as improve access to and increase demand for sanitation products and services. The project focuses specifically on vulnerable populations that live in underserved neighborhoods like Andokoi. Modern sanitation is not widespread in Cote d’Ivoire; only 23% of the population has access to hygienic sanitation facilities.

SSD recognized the necessity of engaging with community leaders and created informative meetings and trainings on sanitation issues. They invited Chief Loba to attend one of these sessions. During the meeting, a scared parent explained the dangers of poor sanitation. “My child would play in the  courtyard of the compound all day, not far from the sewage that spilled out into the street. It wasn’t long before she developed diarrhea and boils due to the poor sanitation.”

The chief was convinced. The health and safety of his community required that they act quickly to solve their sanitation problems.

With his influence throughout the communities of Yopougon, Chief Loba was a natural fit to help change attitudes about sanitation and persuade community members to invest in more effective sanitation products and services. The chief’s enthusiasm for the issue spread quickly, and it wasn’t long before other chiefs were on board to promote sanitation products and services in their respective communities with the goal of giving every family access to safely managed sanitation needs.

The chiefs have become liaisons between the private sector sanitation sales agents and landlords, as well as an extension of public leadership for sanitation improvements. In creating awareness about the risks of poor sanitation and spreading the news about the benefits of improved sanitation, leaders are creating demand for quality sanitation products and services and are a driving force behind social behavior change.

A landlord in the neighborhood of Gesco, Monsieur Bla Bli, was visited by one of these sanitation agents. In his compound of seven households, M. Bla Bli had a pit latrine that was constantly overflowing with a mixture of toilet and shower sewage and waste water. He thought he had a septic tank, but in fact he was wrong: a septic tank, by definition, can only contain toilet sewage. The sanitation agent explained to M. Bla Bli that he could install a soak pit to separate waste water from toilet sewage and remove excess liquid from the tank so that it wouldn’t fill so quickly. Three weeks later, he came back to the agent with funds to install the soak pit. He explained that after the visit from the sanitation agent, he clearly understood that savings made from less frequent emptying services, once a year instead of once every quarter, pays back the cost of the soak pit after only one year.

“Good hygiene has brought happiness back to my compound,” Bla Bli says. “They’ve rediscovered the joy of sitting in our courtyard and watching the children play.”

Chief Loba and landlord Bla Bli, and many others like them, are keeping families healthier. They’ve brought fresh air back to Yopougon.

Translated and Edited by Maria Dieter, PSI

Banner Photo: © Population Services International / Photographer: Benjamin Schilling