Food security and access to decent sanitation and hygiene services are fundamental to healthy and productive lives; but far too many people in low- and middle-income countries lack both. In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) a quarter of the population were undernourished in 2011-2013, 80% have no electricity access, and a staggering 70% – 640 million people – still use substandard sanitation systems or none at all, despite marked improvements in recent years.

All of these are urgent challenges, particularly with the population growth and rapid urbanization projected for the region in the coming decades. But as diverse as the challenges are, they do not always need separate solutions. In particular, filling the region’s huge sanitation gap would not only vastly improve the health and living standards of that 640 million people, but in the process it could make a significant contribution to improving food security and meeting a range of other sustainable development targets.

Crucial to achieving this would be large-scale implementation of so-called productive sanitation systems – systems that make productive (and safe) use of nutrients, organic matter and water content of human excreta and wastewater for crop and energy production. The nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in one person’s human excreta can boost yields by around 50 kg of cereals per year, on a conservative estimate, much more cheaply than commercial synthetic fertilizers. Productive sanitation can also strengthen local livelihoods and increase resilience to external pressures such as rising fertilizer prices and climate events.

Productive sanitation can take many forms, from household dry toilets or decentralized community-level systems right up to municipal scale. It is most immediately and obviously relevant to rural communities, and particularly smallholder farmers, who too often neglect to consider recycling human excreta even as they carefully manage local natural resources to ensure sustained crop production. It can also reduce pollution and degradation of local water resources. However, there is also vast potential in SSA’s fast-growing urban centres, where existing sewerage networks and sewage treatment systems often meet only a fraction of even today’s demand.

Looking back and looking ahead

Productive sanitation has proved its value in smaller, local projects. The question is how to take it to scale, and do so sustainably. Productive sanitation has to contend with all of the barriers and difficulties inherent in implementing conventional “disposal-oriented” sanitation in areas of low coverage – for example, the upfront investments, ensuring that the governance arrangements, technical capacity and financing models are in place to keep the systems working – and more on top. For example, productive sanitation demands long-term planning and cooperation between several government sectors: water, agriculture, energy, health and others. At the same time, people need to be convinced and supported to safely handle and reuse human excreta, and to trust foods fertilized with humanure.

One of the central aims of the new SEI Initiative on Sustainable Sanitation is to see what we can learn from experiences with implementing productive sanitation and, in particular, to cast a fresh eye over some of the ostensible success stories of the past. Are they still working a few years after the final project evaluation? Which aspects of the system have changed and which have stood the test of time? And what can we learn from that about what is needed to sustain productive sanitation?

A side event hosted by SEI at AfricaSan 4, in Dakar, Senegal, on Monday 25 May will be a chance to do just that. The side event, titled Productive Sanitation, Food Security and Resilient Livelihoods, will start by looking back and learning. Among the presentations, Savadogo Karim, of CEFAME/SNV, will talk about experiences with taking ecological sanitation (ecosan) to scale in Burkina Faso. Kailou Hamadou of the Niger Ministry of Hydraulics and Sanitation will reflect on the legacy of a productive sanitation project in Aguié, Niger, five years on. Dr Sudhir Pillay of the Water Research Commission will talk about experiences in South Africa. (For a full list of presentations download the session programme in English or French.)

The second part of the session will look ahead. To be implemented in a sustainable way, productive sanitation systems need to be socially acceptable, economically viable, and technically and institutionally appropriate. An expert panel will guide discussions on how to overcome the barriers to scale and sustainability.

The side event will be chaired by Hon. Dr François Lompo, Minister of Agriculture, Burkina Faso. It starts at 17:40.

Read more about the session and the SEI experts who will be present.