Will residents in informal settlements pay for sanitation services? | Infrastructure news

The answer is yes, some will pay – provided it is a reliable, quality service. This has been proven through an unprecedented pilot project at four informal settlements in Durban, KwaZulu Natal where there are currently over 100 paying households  

Nick Alcock, managing member, Khanyisa Project

After a feasibility study, the Kalula toilet hire service was rolled out by Loowatt and Khanyisa Projects and funded by the Water Research Commission (WRC) and Unilever’s Transform programme as a pilot project. Kalula is the trading name for Loowatt in South Africa.  

Right from the outset, a key aim for the pilot project was commercialisation. Many projects within the sanitation sector fail once grant funding in no longer available. In an effort to build a commercially viable business in South Africa, Loowatt is in advanced talks to locally manufacture/assemble toilets, which will be critically important when scaling the business.  

Other aims of the pilot project were to investigate the social and political acceptability, financial viability (servicing and delivery costs) as well as the willingness and ability of people to pay for a sanitation service in informal settlements.  

“The results so far have taken the local sanitation industry by surprise. It is a completely new approach, showing a willingness of households in informal settlements to pay up to R350/month for toilet rental and servicing, even in parallel to government-provided free basic communal services,” explains Nick Alcock, managing member, Khanyisa Projects.  

Need for household toilets 

Residents in informal settlements typically suffer from a lack of sanitation service delivery, with little space for toilets and waste management facilities. When provided, toilets are communal and are often placed on the periphery of a settlement, causing residents to walk long distances. Users of these toilets can be exposed to danger and violent crimes on their way to or at the actual toilets themselves. Furthermore, these toilets are often locked at night, causing people to use buckets to store their waste, which they then need to get rid of in the morning.  

“Rapid urbanisation and the high cost of providing and maintaining these sanitation services adds further pressure on municipalities. People residing in informal settlements generally lack the ability to choose the sanitation services they receive. Due to the lack of space and infrastructure, their options are limited,” adds Alcock. 

There is a strong demand for household sanitation in informal settlements for reasons of accessibility, convenience, safety, privacy and dignity. 

Loowatt toilet 

The Loowatt toilet technology was chosen for the project. Designed for low income, urban settings where electricity and water are scarce, the Loowatt (Kalula) toilet uses a waterless flush system to seal faeces, urine and toilet paper inside a polymer film. It prevents users from seeing or smelling the stored waste and is a good technical solution for informal settlements. 

After an initial feasibility study to test user acceptance of the Loowatt, it was found that the technology compared favourably to flush toilets.  

“As a container-based system, the Loowatt is a toilet that is placed outside a person’s house. Although there has been little interest in placing the toilet inside people’s houses, primarily because of the small size of the houses, the project does plan to test this option,” states Alcock.  

Work is being done to reduce the cost of the toilet and the top structure, while still manufacturing a product that is durable, light and easy to transport.  

Servicing and commercial viability 

The toilets are serviced weekly, and all the pilot users are happy to have the toilet installed on a permanent basis, as long as the servicing is reliable.  

Different service delivery models are being trialled, partnering with local service providers that are either large sanitation companies or small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs).  

“We have found that all of these businesses work within a business-to-business environment where they typically receive a large contract from a municipality to service a large number of toilets at an informal settlement. It is now important to provide capacity building in business-to-customer (B2C) operations where there are many contracts with different households. The shift to a B2C based business is a significant one and highlights the importance of a project of this nature which de-risks the entry for service providers into a new area of sanitation business,” maintains Alcock. 

He adds that community dynamics necessitate hiring staff from every community that Kalula is operating in, however this is inefficient and costly. “Toilet servicing costs are dependent on the level of customer densification and terrain.” 

The waste is taken to a small processing plant that is set up on municipal land. The polymer film is separated from the organic waste. Separated polymer material can be used for recycling once there are sufficient quantities. Furthermore, because the organics stream is not contaminated with chemicals, cover material or heavily diluted with water, it can be fed directly into wastewater treatment works or anaerobically digested for production of biogas and fertilizer. 

Payment and social acceptance 

Before any marketing or roll out of the toilets, significant engagement took place with the municipality as well as community leaders and organisations. 

There has been immediate consumer take-up of the paid, privatised service in the initial period after the launch of the service, at R350/month for toilet rental and servicing. Payment is made up front, on a monthly basis and prepaid vouchers can be bought at the local spaza shops and other more established retailers like Pep and Shoprite. 

A grace period is given if there is non-payment, reasons for non-payment are recorded and if non-payment continues then the toilet is removed.  

Take-up levels vary dramatically between communities: 16 customers signed up for the paid service within a month of the service launch in their communities, while there were no customers after four months of marketing in another community. These differences may be due to space constraints, steep slopes as well as the condition of alternative sanitation options and community dynamics. 

The sensitivity of sanitation issues in South Africa means that take-up is not based solely on customer demand, but relies on having the support of local community leadership first. There have been significant challenges in obtaining the necessary buy-in to launch the service in various communities. 

In one community, the local leadership rejected the idea, however, once toilets were placed in surrounding areas, the community then pressured leadership to allow the Kalula toilet service in their area.  

Key data  

Sales to date  115   
Active users  105   
Deactivated users   10  Reasons for deactivation: 

  • Customer’s tenants moved 
  • Death 
  • Cannot afford service (customer requested deactivation) 
  • Repeated non-payment (Kalula initiated deactivation) 
Average payment collection rate  95%+  Since Kaulua is a prepaid service, customers cannot get into debt 
Female contract signatories  62%   
Average household size  7 people   
Electricity services present  99%   
Smartphone owners  56%   
Waste collections  1700   
Jobs created  8   
 

Next steps 

It has been found that the Kalula toilet is commercially viable at R350/month, provided it is implemented at scale. The idea is to test the user-paid concept with 500 households to provide sufficient confidence to roll out such services at a commercially viable scale, without grant funding.  

Work is being done with the WRC to duplicate this project in other municipalities with a particular focus on marketing and roll out. 

“This project has initiated a new way of looking at service delivery within South Africa, which includes a recognition that not everybody in the informal settlement space is indigent. We have demonstrated that a user-paid model can work in informal settlement contexts in South Africa, opening the door to a significant shift in the way that services can be delivered. In the bigger picture, the project may encourage movement from tax-based repayment for large infrastructure projects to a service-based revenue collection model. The project also opens up circular economy opportunities by establishing a reliable supply of trash-free, fresh faecal sludge for beneficial reuse. We just need scale. With more numbers and density,  user-paid sanitation services at informal settlements is possible,” concludes Alcock. 

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