Manual Emptiers – Unsung Sanitation Heroes

Africa’s population is young, vibrant, and fast-growing – over 70% of the continent’s residents are under 35 years. Africa’s population quickly outpaces corresponding growth in supportive infrastructure despite fertility rates have dropped from 6.6 children per woman in 1980 to 4.5 children per woman presently. And sanitation is most hardest hit.
Ideally, a country should invest at least 3.5% of GDP in infrastructure (including wastewater infrastructure) to keep up with capacity demand. In reality, most African cities have not made any significant investments in wastewater infrastructure in the last three decades.
Sanitation takes a rather dark twist for the 40%-50% of urban populations living in informal settlements. Majority of the structures put up lack adequate sanitation facilities – some resort to pit toilets and cess pits that require periodical emptying. However, in crowded informal settlements, the mechanized 10 – 20 tonne exhauster trucks cannot navigate through the crowded alleyways. This is where manual emptiers come in.

Recognizing Micro-sanipreneurs

Every day, these little recognized sanitation entrepreneurs (sanipreneurs) empty cess pits, latrines, and septic tanks across African cities handling an estimated 14,000 tonnes of fecal sludge.
Manual emptiers are so far down the sanitation “food chain’ that information on them is scanty at best; despite the majority of the formal sanitation surveys recognizing their existence, no baseline or definitive studies have been undertaken on manual emptiers. GSEP’s data on manual emptiers comes from our numerous interactions, workshops, and training sessions held with manual emptiers. In Mukuru Kwa Reuben, an informal settlement South East of Nairobi, we have worked with up to 100 manual emptiers during PPE workshops in the area.
It is sad that despite the important “last mile” link manual emptiers provide for fecal sludge, they are not recognized or acknowledged by the communities they serve or their respective governments. Contrary to popular belief, their services are not confined to informal settlements alone.
In Kenya, 98% of built environments are not connected to sewer lines and resort to containment or in-house treatment of wastewater using off-grid systems like septic tanks, cess pits, and latrines. These systems undergo periodical failure, especially when sludge builds up – where mechanized emptiers and septic aerators fail, manual emptiers get the job done!

..And its about to get worse!

According to the World Bank, at least half of Africans will leave in urban centers by 2050 – the situation will be further worsened by the estimated 86 million Africans will be forced to migrate within their respective countries (most likely to urban settlements) due to climate change.
Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, makes do with a sewer system originally designed to serve less than a fifth of its current population (estimated at 4.5m – 6.5m). The city’s sewer network is constantly being expanded, which is commendable but serves a fraction of existing (let alone growing) demand.

The Sanitation Value Chain (ironically) grows in the shadow of African Governments grappling with a mixed bag of dwindling resources in the face of a rapidly growing population.
Manual emptiers are, essentially, gig workers in the Sanitation Valuation, offering Sanitation as a Service despite the social stigma and health hazards associated with their trade – this is an opportunity for African governments to (a) create jobs and (b) ease the sanitation crises facing African urban centers.

Dignity in Manual Emptying

At GSEP, we believe training, equipping, and instilling best practices among manual emptiers will both create viable enterprises and income-generating opportunities.
We need to formalize micro-sanitation enterprises as a crucial link in the Sanitation Value Chain to effectively face the deluge of fecal sludge that will follow rapid urbanization.
GSEP conducts feasibility studies to better understand the best fit for manual emptiers in the Sanitation Value Chain. We have made significant gains, most notably a meeting between former Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) in the Ministry of Water and Sanitation, Winnie Guchu, and a delegation of manual emptiers from Mukuru Kwa Reuben – subsequent meetings and workshops thereafter bore interesting fruit such as the establishment of strategically located sewer connected discharge points (where emptiers unload collected fecal sludge) around Nairobi City.