Holy fecal sludge, we're live!

Four months after starting construction of the Pivot Works plant at the Nduba Landfill in Kigali, fecal sludge is flowing. Last week we received the first load of sludge into our inlet basin and this week we began commissioning our processes – beginning with dewatering.

fecal sludge received

fecal sludge received

Starting up the dewatering machine

Starting up the dewatering machine

Over the next couple of months we’ll be working to optimize production, with a focus on maximizing solids recovery, accelerating drying time in the greenhouse, and experimenting with various wastes as fuel for our thermal dryer.

To pull all of this off, we’ve been fast expanding the Pivot team.  Over the past month we’ve welcomed five security guards, five site crew, a foreman, and a quality control and data technician as permanent members of Pivot.

Stay tuned.  This sanitation revolution will be publicized. 

Blue skies over Pivot

It’s the rainy season in Kigali. At any hour of the day black clouds and wind can roll in with a vengeance, producing downpours that one has a hard time talking over – downpours that flood the streets and send city dwellers running for shelter.  The month of April typically registers 18 days of rain and as of April 21st we’ve already hit that number. 

But despite the weather, it’s blue skies over Pivot.  A few rainy day setbacks aside, we’re making steady progress on the construction of our demonstration plant at Nduba in Kigali.  Earthworks are nearly complete, our containers of equipment have arrived, the foundation of our office and toilet block is complete, and our fecal sludge and water tanks and being built.

We’re currently on track to soft commission the plant in June and to begin producing Pivot Fuel in July.  Just in time to welcome the blue skies back to Kigali.

Earthworks underway for the greenhouse pad.

Earthworks underway for the greenhouse pad.

Offloading the containers of equipment.

Offloading the containers of equipment.

Foundation for office/changing/toilet block.

Foundation for office/changing/toilet block.

Water tanks under construction.

Water tanks under construction.

Hello, Kigali

Here we are in Kigali, pleased to introduce Pivot in Rwanda. We've entered into a partnership with the City of Kigali and are fast preparing to commence construction on a Pivot Works factory to manage the city’s fecal sludge.

Kigali is an exciting place to be. It's a city that appears to be embracing innovation, technology, and the environment in both word and deed. President Paul Kagame recently said that “we are not making a choice between environment and prosperity; we are rather looking at how to combine both.” This is, after all, the country that banned plastic bags way back in 2008 and committed to low-carbon development by adopting a Green Growth and Climate Resilience Strategy at the UNFCCC’s COP17 in Durban. Coffee shops are planted next to startup incubators, and the bureaucracy continues to justify its standout World Bank Doing Business ranking.

Still – and the reason we are here – Kigali has no sewer network. There is no facility to treat fecal sludge. Most Kigali residents use pit latrines – which must be manually emptied, the contents disposed of within the community – while waste flushed to a septic tank gets trucked to an open pit at the nearby Nduba Landfill. The World Bank estimates poor sanitation costs Rwanda $54 million each year.

President Kagame says “success will come down to whether we embrace innovation and harness advances in science and technology,” and that is exactly what Pivot is doing in Rwanda. We are starting with Nduba. Our plant will handle all of the fecal sludge currently transported to the landfill each day. We will also conduct trials with pit latrine sludge, working with local NGO Water for People and colleagues from UC Berkeley to systematize safe and affordable emptying of pit latrines and delivery of sludge to our plant. Furthermore, we’re confident the product coming out of our plant – Pivot Fuel – will be an attractive and welcome product here. Energy scarcity and the high cost of energy are widely recognized as major bottlenecks to development in Rwanda.

As 2015 shapes up in promising fashion, we will be building on the experience and lessons of 2014. Our work in Mombasa, Kenya, was fruitful. We made headway in facility and production design; in fecal sludge sourcing research; in human resource development; and in cementing our company culture.

And we stuck to our values. Like most startups, we encountered obstacles and, like any private firm engaging a traditionally public sector, we confronted potent risks and questions about our business model. When those risks, realized, had an impact on milestones, we decided it was time, well, for a pivot. As a successful entrepreneur we know says, it’s 5% inspiration, 95% perspiration. Kigali’s interest in innovative solutions to sanitation and energy problems means we should feel right at home.


Fecal Sludge Sourcing Series: Toilets Are Not Enough

For 1.1 billion people, when nature calls, it means run to the bush or scramble for a plastic bag to use as a “helicopter toilet” – whirling bags of waste that characterize the airspace of poor urban neighborhoods across the globe.

The lack of sanitation facilities contributes significantly to the 2.4 million deaths per year due to water related illnesses.  And the knee jerk reaction to these staggering health facts seems logical: build toilets, contain the waste, and prevent disease causing agents from proliferating.

Campaigns such as the UN Millennium Development Goals have helped to raise public awareness of the lack of access to basic of sanitation services in developing nations. They have funded large-scale projects focused on building new toilets for households worldwide. Toilet Expos sponsored by The World Toilet Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” have lead to impressive milestones in toilet design.

But toilets are not enough.

Without a plan for emptying, pit latrines become dangerous biohazards for users, the surrounding community, and latrine emptiers. Because pit latrines are one of the cheapest sanitation “solutions” out there, they are used by approximately 1.77 billion users worldwide, including in urban areas where they are inappropriate, given their quick fill rates and the lack of space to dig  new holes.

In the urban context of dense settlements and increased flooding due to climate change, pit latrines offer little protection from the public health consequences they were designed to prevent. They fill quickly and often, and the most affordable and available option for emptying is hiring manual pit latrine emptiers.

Ironically, the status quo of sending people into pit latrines to remove waste once they are full directly undermines the intended purpose of latrines: separating humans from their contagious excreta.

The solution to this problem is deploying toilets with plans for emptying, while rethinking the emptying process for existing pits. Emptying services must be affordable to households, safe and profitable for emptiers, and inclusive of a safe and legal place to dispose the sludge (such as a wastewater or fecal sludge treatment plant).

Integrated fecal sludge management solutions must address gaps from emptying and collection to transportation and treatment. Business opportunities need to be created for all service providers at all levels of the sanitation value chain to incentivize entrepreneurs, households, and local authorities to implement and maintain safe and reliable systems.

As described in our post on 1 September, Pivot is starting to build these chains of incentives at the level of the service providers, i.e., the emptiers. With the help of households, village elders, and other community based organizations, we have identified groups of emptiers that service households when their latrines are full. Now, we are working with these groups of emptiers to help them improve the safety of their work and offer better services that will expand their customer base. We have provided training sessions on health and safety and business basics. For those who have agreed to dump at the nearby wastewater treatment plant where we're building our facility, we have rewarded them in the form of  personal protective gear to reduce the transmission of infectious agents in sludge, and simple technologies such as mechanical sludge pumps that can lead to significant time savings and more business.

Shown is a picture from our ongoing entrepreneurial training program. For this session, the Mombasa group was joined by Abdul, an emptier from Africa’s largest slum, Kibera in Nairobi. Abdul is part of a group of emptiers that formed with the support of Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor in Nairobi.

Fecal Sludge Sourcing Series: The Forgotten Public Health Heroes

At 10:00 pm, we arrive in Chaani, an informal settlement by Mombasa’s airport, a small area of no man’s land that is home to over 28,000 people.  As we step off the matatu, we are greeted warmly by one of Chaani’s Village Elders. We walk through unpaved roads and narrow corridors until we arrive at a compound the size of my living room, but home to 4 families.  At one corner, there is a toilet waiting to be emptied. The elder warns us that we must wait until everyone falls asleep before the dirty work can begin.