When Joyce Kisiangani was a little girl, there was one thing she used to dread about going to school.
Every day, with more than 1,500 other girls, she would have to line up to use the school’s only five pit latrines. The wait could be long, and the stench unbearable.
“The latrines were so filthy that we were too scared to use them,” she recalls with a shudder. “It was terrible.”
Now, years later, Joyce is part of a team that is working to improve water and sanitation in the developing world, from providing safe drinking water to improving pit latrines.
Quick to laugh and always quick with facts and figures, Joyce studied microbiology at university but decided that lab life wasn’t for her. She wanted to work in a way that merges science and practical solutions that have life-changing impacts on the communities that need them most.
Aquaya, the organization Joyce works with in Kenya, is a perfect fit: A non-profit research and consulting organization, they work with local partners to combine innovations in science and technology with on-the-ground programs to improve water and sanitation.
One of their projects, in partnership with the World Bank, is investigating the health impacts and practicalities of adopting washable plastic latrine slabs. Although the plastic slabs make sense in theory — they can easily be washed and they come with a lid — do they work in practice? Would people want to buy them? And how much would they be willing to spend?
That’s where Joyce comes in. Through qualitative research, her job is to evaluate whether solutions developed in a lab will work in the real world. Her feedback then helps partner organizations develop the most appropriate responses to water and sanitation problems in various settings.
“For latrines to be considered improved [to meet the standards of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals], they must have a washable surface, be ventilated, and the pit itself must be covered,” says Joyce. “But most people in rural areas can’t afford that, and they just dig a shallow pit.”
“The plastic slabs are a good option, but our research found that they were too expensive for most people.”
A report Joyce is developing will help develop new strategies to ensure that more people can access improved sanitation. But latrines are by far not the only problem faced by low-income communities.
“In urban Kenya, only about 48 percent of people have access to piped water. The rest depend on boreholes and water delivery, which might not be clean,” says Joyce. “But in developing countries, there are concerns with piped water, too. Infrastructure is old, and there are pipe leakages and contamination, which can lead to diseases like typhoid and cholera.”
This is one of the worries that Eric Wanjala has been living with for years. A few meters away from the iron sheet house he shares with his wife, Vivian, and their two young daughters in Kawangware, Nairobi, is a deep canal filled to the brim with plastic bags, bottles, and grimy, putrid water.
“The sewage smells so bad,” he says. “When it rains, it goes everywhere and makes us sick.”
He buys water from a local borehole, but, unsure of its cleanliness, he still treats it with chlorine, which costs money — money his family can’t spare.
But improving sanitation and sewage infrastructure will also require significant investment. One option that Joyce and her team are investigating is for wealthier people who are already connected to sewage and water pipes to pay a small surcharge on top of their bill.
“That money will then be invested in funding projects in slums, like communal toilets and cleaning up the environment,” says Joyce. “In our research so far, 75 percent of people have said they would pay a bit more.”
Back in Kawangware, Eric is testing his new latrine slab. He’ll be taking it to his rural home, several hours away from Nairobi, where the only toilet is a shallow pit dug in soil. “The lid is good because it will prevent flies from coming out, and it’s safer for children to use,” says Eric. “It will also help with the smell.”
But outside, just beyond his doorstep, the bigger problem of open sewage remains.
“We need a big improvement,” he says.
Joyce knows that it will be a long while before anything changes in places like Kawangware. But she’s optimistic: “If people are willing, these are the kinds of places we can change.”