A lab reactor for biogas production from sludge or human waste, using low-cost nanoparticles
A lab reactor for biogas production from sludge or human waste, using low-cost nanoparticles. Photo: Universitat Aut​ònoma de Barcelona.

Some 2.5 billion people in developing countries – 40% of the world population – lack adequate sanitation facilities, and another 2.1 billion in urban areas use facilities that do not safely dispose of human waste. Poor sanitation is a major health threat, contributing to an estimated 1.5 million child deaths from diarrhea each year.

Convinced that improving sanitation is essential to a healthy and sustainable future, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made it a priority to support projects that to enable universal access to sustainable sanitation services by developing “radically new sanitation technologies” and building markets for new sanitation products and services. Eighty-three projects have been funded since 2010.

In late 2012, the Gates Foundation formed a partnership with SEI and the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) to promote active discussion of the projects funded by its grants among sanitation experts, practitioners and others. The platform for this discussion is the online SuSanA Forum, which was set up in June 2011 to enables easy and efficient exchanges of information, experiences and practical problem-solving ideas.

Hosted by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the forum now has more than 2,500 registered members, who participate in discussions organized around four themes and three catch-all categories:

•  Hygiene, health, schools and training/education;
•  Sanitation systems;
•  Innovative sanitation science and technology;
•  Agricultural reuse;
•  Miscellaneous topics, announcements, and SuSanA working group and forum-related discussions.

The SEI and SuSanA teams began reaching out to the Gates-funded projects in January 2013, and already, more than 50 grantees and their colleagues have presented their projects and results on the SuSanA discussion forum and engaged in discussions with the community. Outreach is to continue until April 2014.

Observations after the first six months of activity
The discussions so far have highlighted many promising ideas and the value of a forum like this, the community moderators say, but they have also highlighted some challenges. Key insights include:

•  The grants are full of creative and innovative solutions in order to attempt to meet the criteria of toilets with no water and sewer pipe connection, no power grid connection and a combined capital and operational cost of 5 cents per user per day (criteria stipulated for the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge grants). Photo to the right shows award-winning toilet from EOOS and EAWAG Visit Website.

•  Many of the grants have shown promise and have already been provided funding for a second phase while others have not been as successful. A number of publications in peer-reviewed journals have resulted from the research efforts, and some patents are now under development. Also, the research has translated into a number of PhD and MSc theses on these sanitation-related topics.

•  Critical questions as well as encouraging comments from other grantees and SuSanA members have helped the grantees to rethink their approaches to and get new ideas for improvements.

•  Learning from both the successes and failures in research and development is extremely important. Nevertheless, talking about failures is still difficult and almost a taboo, even on this discussion forum, for obvious reasons (such as fear of not getting future grants).

•  Some grantees are not yet ready to engage in this sharing process on the discussion forum, because it is still too early into their research, there are patent considerations, they have a preference for peer-reviewed journal publications or simply because they are not used to sharing in this more informal way.

Visit the SuSanA Forum »

An EOOS toilet prototype is delivered to a town in Uganda for user testing.
An EOOS toilet prototype is delivered to a town in Uganda for user testing. Learn more on the SuSanA Forum

An EOOS toilet prototype is delivered to a town in Uganda for user testing. Learn more on the SuSanA Forum