NAIROBI, KENYA—Saturday morning and I was waiting outside City Hall for the sewer engineer to arrive for our trip to the Ruai sewage treatment plant when I felt the need to make a “long call” (as opposed to a “short call,” the east african equivalent of “number one” and “number two”). When I asked the guard to direct me to the toilet he responded “the toilet might not be up to the standards you are used to.” I have been in Africa for four months. I think I have seen bad toilets. And how bad could this one be if it is inside City Hall?

But what I found was perhaps the most unsanitary toilet I have seen yet. Feces were piled so high above the brim that it was impossible to tell where the toilet was exactly. As the toilet tourist I have become, I took a photo and left.


I asked the guard if this was the only toilet in City Hall. He said there were others upstairs but those were for “VIPs” and in any case were locked on Saturdays. By VIPs he meant anyone above the status of security guard or gardener. Someone has to clean that toilet I thought. What is wrong with this place? I still had to go and thought to myself, “if only there is an Ikotoilet around here somewhere.”

And there was. Just around the corner on the very same city block I found an Ikotoilet to my great relief. It was of comparable cleanliness to an average public restroom in the US which by Africa standards is unheard of. Toilet use cost only about 0.07USD.


A few years ago Ecotact started commissioning Ikotoilets around Nairobi to address the sanitation blight that extended to even the richest parts of downtown Nairobi (“Iko” approximately meaning “right here” in Swahili). There are about 10 public Ikotoilets in Nairobi operating on a for-profit model. Friends from Nairobi say that before the Ikotoilets were constructed, traveling in town had to be carefully planned because there was no way to find a clean public toilet.

Shoe Shine

The cost of sanitation is subsidized by rent for a shop built into the structure of the Ikotoilet and a shoeshine kiosk at the back of most Ikotoilets. Other advertisements are placed inside and around many Ikotoilets for additional income. Some Ikotoilets outside of the city turn the human waste into biogas while those near a sewer main do not and instead send the waste to the sewer system.

Perhaps inspired by the success of Ikotoilets, many of the disgusting public toilets operated by the city council have been rehabilitated to a sufficient level of cleanliness. (Well, not all of the city toilets. There are some pretty disgusting ones in City Hall!)

Lifebuoy Advertisement

I went for a field visit with Ecotact to see a few toilets under construction all of which will process the waste into biogas. Ecotact is working on a program to build clean toilets in schools. Funding comes from, as far as I was able to understand, children in the US. The children in the US raise money which goes to building the toilets at schools in Kenya. Then the students are supposed to pair up as penpals to write letters back and forth. I hope it works.

Lifebuoy has a sign on the side of each of the toilets we visited that give instructions for proper hand-washing techniques. In exchange, Lifebuoy gives T-shirts to all of the students and gives a one time supply of soap. If you ask me, they are getting a hell of a deal. Lifebuoy is teaching customers to use their soap at the age of 7. I wonder what brand of soap these kids will be buying for the next 70 years. Perhaps  Lifebuoy could supply soap to these schools for as long as their advertisements are on the side of the toilets. Sure, the kids will still be indoctrinated to buy Lifebuoy but at least the school won’t need to buy soap.


To give you an idea of how pressed these schools in Kenya are for money, at the school above, the school did not have enough money to paint the exterior of the buildings, so Safaricom, the biggest cellphone carrier in Kenya, charitably offered to paint the buildings for free.

Old toilet versus new toilet

In the foreground is a photo of the old toilet at the school and in the background is the new toilet.

learning from the locals

At a market near the town of Kikuyu just outside of Nairobi we visited an Ikotoilet under construction. The matatu drivers and conductors were very curious about this new building. We ended up having a nice talk with them. Will the toilet building have hot showers, they asked. How much will it cost? Can I set up a store next to the toilet? They even got creative: can we use the biogas to heat the hot water for the showers? I love talking to the end users.

In cities land is at a premium. Ecotact developed a way to make the digester more compact by placing the expansion chamber on top of the digester, instead of next to the digester, cutting land use in half.

Ikotoilet stalls

The toilets themselves were designed to be low cost. There is no expensive, imported toilet bowl. This is a good idea. But the toilet hole looks a little too small. And in practice, inspection of the holes showed that students sometimes missed the hole. In the future larger holes might be a better option. The stalls also had a strong odor. Lack of odor is one of the big selling points of biogas systems so I was surprised to find this. The design calls for minimal water usage so the toilets are only flushed a few times a day via a gutter under the row of stalls. Maybe some venting would help the fumes escape. Though I am not sure if the fumes would rise or simply diffuse.

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Adopt-A-Light: My Lesson on Intellectual Property and Partnerships in Africa

Ad Light

NAIROBI, KENYA—Today Nairobi is well illuminated at night especially along highways. I am told that this is new. Until recently there were few lights along highways and those that did exist often did not operate properly. Maybe it is just a coincidence but around this time, Nairobi earned the nickname “Nairobbery.”

Then a woman entrepreneur came up with the idea to post advertisements on lamp posts. She partnered with local authorities to provide the land and electricity to the lights while her company Adopt-A-Light organized the advertising and put up the lamp posts.

The project was a fantastic success and expanded, shining light on more and more of Nairobi. But the local authorities saw how much money was coming in and they wanted a bigger share. All of my data comes from asking Kenyan friends about what happened next but everyone agrees that Adopt-A-Light was cheated. The contract was terminated early and the local authorities awarded the contract to a different company. Other friends suggest that the contract was given to a politician’s friend.

Friends cite this as an example of how intellectual property laws cannot be enforced in Kenya. Even if you patent something the legal system is so slow that the hearing won’t happen for decades. My host-brother was in a car accident over 5 years ago and has been trying to take the responsible party to court ever since. With such a system, it is better to have your technology become a trade secret than a patent.

Other friends cite this as lesson to be learned for anyone partnering with the government. Don’t let them see how much profit you are making because they will want a piece of it. Of course this is a generalization and does not apply to all governmental groups.

Ad Bench

But the idea of advertising as a way to finance public goods seems to have taken off throughout  the city. Benches are billboards that happen to have a horizontal advertisement at siting height.

Ad Trash

Nairobi also has the most effective public trashcans I have seen in Africa, outside of Kigali, Rwanda. When a public good becomes profitable now everyone wants in on the business opportunity. And everyone can enjoy the benefits of clean streets and convenient trashcans. But somehow the slogan “Fresh Breath, Fresh Moments” feels misplaced on the side of a trashcan.

Before I started on this project, I theorized that if sanitation could become profitable in its own right, the world sanitation problem would solve itself. That seems to be what happened with lighting in Nairobi.

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Toilet Pilot

NAIROBI, KENYA—Sanergy is co-founded by the brother-in-law of a classmate from grades 1 to 12. (The other co-founder is also a cool guy but I have no six degrees of separation story for him.) I don’t know how much of the information I got is proprietary so I won’t spill the beans. But what I can say is that I am excited to meet a group with a vision so similar to my own; turning sanitation into a profitable enterprise for the world’s most impecunious. Today they have two pilot toilets and we visited their toilet in Lunga Lunga, a slum area. The Sanergy toilet looks a lot better than the toilet next to it.

Bridge School.JPG

This toilet was at one of thirty Bridge schools in Nairobi. Bridge International Academies is a for-profit company that provides quality education to everyone for about the same price as a public school education. Especially in poor areas like Lunga Lunga, classes can be delayed or canceled for reasons varying from chalk shortages to teacher absenteeism. Maybe for-profit school is a way to make schools more accountable and ultimately make education more available.

Bridge School Kids

The only playground toy in the compound was a cement culvert turned on end but the kids seemed to be having a lot of fun climbing inside.

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Fats, Oils and Greases: the potential biofuel clogging our drains

Flushing Truck

WANDEGEYA, UGANDA—When I was buying fries in the fastfood/street food district near Makerere University where I have been staying I noticed a sewage truck. Mohammed the driver explained what was going on. The 7 inch sewer that services the restaurant area gets clogged several times a week. The unclogging responded to sewer overflow complaints on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and now they were back on Monday, two days after Christmas. The sewer is undersized for the population it serves but that is not what causes the blockages. The restaurants and food stands in this area dump their Fats, Oils and Greases (FOG) down the drains that empty into the sewers. See below for what grease does to a sewer.

FOG Sewer.jpg unFOG sewer.jpg

Above are photos take of a London sewer before and after the rancid Fats, Oils and Greases were cleared away. The same applies to all sewers of the world so now you know what happens when you dump grease down the drain. Now imagine the impact on the 7 inch sewers of Kampala compared with the one meter sewers of London.


The team of about 9 men blasted water down the triangular sewer cover to unclog it. The water from the sewer overflowed (see the puddles above) and formed a stream going through the parking lot of the restaurants. Eventually their truck ran out of water and the sewer was still clogged.

It is a shame to waste FOG. It contains energy that we could use to our advantage instead of letting it clog our drains. I remembered a company called Black Gold Biofuels based out of Philadelphia that turns FOG into biodiesel and has won much acclaim recently. I went to an internet cafe to see what else can be done with FOG. I discovered studies showing that FOG can be used as a substrate in anaerobic digestion to produce biogas (methane) as well.

The BIG Picture Here is another waste that costs the city a lot of time and money when it could be a resource. An inefficiency is an opportunity. And there are so many stakeholders to benefit from a solution.

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Domestic Biogas Program Rwanda


KIGALI, RWANDA—Field visits. If you want to do research in Africa on a shoestring (and I imagine other continents too) meet with the NGOs and companies of interest and arrange to go on one of their field trips. All organizations so far have been more than happy to take me along. It is a good deal for me and it is a good deal for them. For me, I get to have the undivided attention of knowledgeable people who would be hard pressed to spare 15 minutes to talk to me in their office. In the car, we get to talk for hours. For them, they are glad for the companionship. The field visit doesnt’t cost me anything and the people I travel with make for excellent tour guides. Even if you are not doing research, this is the way to get a local perspective while traveling on a shoe string. So my advice to you is come to Africa, find something interesting and start going on field visits with NGOs. In fact, living on a shoestring is the only way to get a local perspective. I have come to understand that if I had more money I would not be as good at my research.

I didn’t have much time in Rwanda but I wanted to see the famous biogas systems installed in the over capacity prisons of Rwanda. The prisons turned the problem of too much human waste into biogas for cooking. Foreigners need special permission to visit prisons in Rwanda which I did not have time to obtain so I went on a field visit with the Ministry of Infrastructure instead. MinInfra (Ministry of Infrastructure) is the implementing partner of the domestic biogas program in Rwanda. Claude of Mininfra was doing follow up for three anaerobic digesters of around 30 cubic meters recently built for schools. I tagged along.


There wasn’t much to see as everything but the digester covers are below ground, but the scenery was gorgeous.


The latrines are flushed with rainwater harvested from the roof. There is an auxiliary supply of water from the road in case rainwater is insufficient.

Squat Toilets

Like most toilets I have seen in Africa, these were squat toilets.


This is looking down through the toilet. A gutter passed under each of the squat toilets. Water was flushed down the gutter a couple of times a day to wash the feces into the digester. This was the first time I had seen such a set up. I am sure that it saves water. But the negative side effect is that the toilets don’t smell very good as there is feces sitting in the trough until it is flushed. Normally one of the benefits of a biogas toilet compared to a latrine is reduced odor, but here that benefit was not realized. Claude later said he would request that a vent pipe be installed to reduce odor.


Biogas production was only just beginning for these newly installed digesters.  Bacteria populations in the digester take some time to form so methane production may not begin for a month after initial use. These stoves were originally heated with firewood but they had been retrofitted with huge biogas ranges manufactured in Kigali. We had some trouble lighting the stove though you can see a few blue flames. The carbon dioxide concentration may still be too high.


The place where part of the kitchen wall was broken gave a testimony to the smoke the cooks once endured. Soot from the wood fires now covered the walls, windows and ceilings.

Zero Grazing Cows

On the way home we stopped by a domestic biogas plant of 6 cubic meters I believe. Mininfra, as a strategy to jump start anaerobic digester demand in Rwanda, awarded the most enterprising farmer in each of the 30 something districts a highly subsidized biogas plant and this was one of them. In Rwanda it is illegal to cut down trees without a special permit and even then you must plant trees in exchange. This means that people need to look for other sources of fuel, giving the biogas sector a big boost.

Domestic Digester.JPG

The biogas plants constructed under the domestic biogas program in Rwanda are the GCC style rather than the Modified Camartec used in Uganda. For a while, bricks were outlawed in Rwanda because brick making requires a lot of firewood. Thus, many biogas systems in Rwanda use rocks instead of bricks.


This farmer had a novel mixing mechanism. The inlet basin is filled with cow dung and water (in equal portions) and then the farmer can turn the crank to mix the slurry. The “feet” press the slurry against the sides of the basin to break up the clumps. I saw a man in Uganda mixing the cow dung elbow deep, which looked less fun. I am interested to see how this mixer works and if it wears down the concrete sides of the basin. And how to improve this mixer.


In the house, the biogas passes through a scrubber (top) and then through a gage. The only complaint of the farmer’s daughter was that the biogas smelled bad. This was because of hydrogen sulfide in the biogas. I know that scrubbers need to be aired out every once in a while to regenerate their capacity for absorbing hydrogren sulflide, so I wonder if the scrubber was simply saturated.

Small Biogas Stove

The stove itself was made in  Kigali. I later visited the biogas stove salesman in Kigali who imports from Puxin Biogas in China. His stoves are much more expensive and I discovered that he spend three times more on shipping that on the stove itself. Crazy.

Posted in Anaerobic Digester, Rwanda | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Wild, Wild East


KARAMOJA, UGANDA—I was first inspired to come to Karamoja when I heard that the region experienced semi annual cholera outbreaks because people refused to use toilets. Later people described the region to me as operating in the 1800s. In a nutshell, I found that Karamoja is completely unlike the rest of Uganda.

Small Compound

The Karamojong dress very differently from people in the rest of Uganda and often wear very little clothes at all. I visited one water point used for the cows and found 5 men bathing in front of women and children as if it was the most natural thing in the world, which it probably was to them. Men often wear a kilt (that’s what I call it) and a piece of cloth over their shoulder, though now they sometimes wear trousers. Women wrap a cloth around themselves. Young boys tending the animals in the field often only wear a piece of cloth over their shoulder, which seems to be more for practical purposes than modesty. Young women were the most finely dressed with bright colors and striking hairstyles. The most common hairstyle was cornrows that faced forward so that the end of the braid hung over the forehead. Unmarried women rock a mohawk where the side of the head are shaved, but the top grows long. School girls in Uganda are required to cut their hair short but I hope that as education moves into Karamoja the women can keep their traditional hairstyles. The people loved to be photographed and would start talking excitedly when I showed them the photo of themselves on the camera LCD. In fact, it was impossible to get a photo of just one Karamojong by him or herself. Everybody wanted to be in every photo.


The Karamojong people were never colonized and, until 2001, there was next to no government intervention in the region. The Karamojong are self-described warriors and successfully fought back all attempts by the government to control the region. Recently, though, they have been subdued by a committed government disarmament program. Until around 2007, I am told that guns could be heard going off all night long as the men prepared for a raid or showed-off.



I learned most of my history and culture from JB (above photo). He is a Karamojong with a penchant for storytelling. The currency here is cows, JB told me. Cows mean everything. A man who has many cows will be respected. He can pay a high bride-price. A man with many cows will mark his favorite bull to show that he wants to be known as the owner of this bull and will thereafter be known as “Black-White” to signify that he is the owner of that bull. If this seems strange to you think of it this way. Cows bring prestige the way a Mercedes SLK might in the US. And more is always better. For as long as anyone can remember the Karamojong are cattle rustlers. In the night they will go to Mokoto or Kaabong or cross the border to Kenya or Sudan to raid the cattle from the tribes in those areas. Traditionally they used spears but after Amin’s government crumbled and his troops abandoned their weapons, the Karamojong captured the weapons. Until recently every man who was a “real man” owned an AK-47 and lived in a mud and stick house. Now much of that is changing.

Oxfam car

I traveled around with Oxfam an NGO from the UK that kindly allowed me to go on field visits. We took a white Land Cruiser from village to village. Though at first I thought the car clashed horibly with the surroundings, I learned that they color was very intentional. JB explained that white cars mean “NGO” to the Karamojong. Other colors mean the military or the police. In the past the Karamojong have shot at military vehicles in hopes of capturing the guns on board. For this reason, Oxfam wisely chooses to reveal that they possess no guns. UN armed escort vehicles have been shot at for the same reason as mentioned above. Less guns mean more safety for the NGOs.

On the final day in Karamoja I visited the villages by motorcycle with Milton. He is a Karamojong who founded Warrior Squad Foundation, an NGO that helps disarmed youth get back on their feet. We did a lot of filming and plan to release a short documentary in February 2011 on the challenges facing disarmed youth in Karamoja.



Due to theft and violene in the region and the government stepped in around 2001. The military tried to peacefully remove the guns by asking men to turn in their guns for building materials or without compensation. One man I interviewed said he was one of the first to hand in his gun. The military said it would give him metal to build a roof for his house but they reneged on their promise. Soon the military met with resistance to the disarmament movement. Many police and military where killed. Most of the people working at Oxfam said that had been caught in a Karamojong-military or Karamojong-Karamojong firefight at one point or another, though none had received a wound.


The government started using harsher tactics around 2007. They would surround (cordon) villages and search through every home to confiscate the guns. They had no tolerance for being shot at and there are stories of indiscriminate shooting at Karamojong young and old when provoked. The man I interviewed in the screenshot above told me his story, through translation, of being tortured by the military. “The military cordoned my home. I was grabbed. My hands were tied behind my back. My testicles were also tied. A polyethylene bag was tied over my head. I was tied upside down from the tree and they started beating me and beating me and beating me. I was forced to mention that it is true, I have a gun. And yet it is not true. And now I cannot produce children.” Another man told a similar story of how the military tied him and beat his shins until he admitted he had a gun (which he had already given over). The military would sometimes take all of the cattle away from a village until the men turned over their guns. If the men had no guns they would have to buy guns from Sudan to give to the military in exchange for their cattle.


Many of the men Milton and I talked to said that since their guns had been taken away all of their cows had been stolen by tribes whose guns had not yet been taken away. In the past if cows were stolen, the men of a village could often follow the raiders and, with a sufficient number of men and guns, they could overpower the raiders and take back the cows. Or they would go on a raid of their own.

Lack of cows proves to be a big problem for a man. The bride price for his wife must be paid in cows which is a minimum of 50 cows up to hundreds of cows. This causes much concern to the young men. They think they will have to pay back their in-laws over many years, buying one cow at a time until they have paid the bride price. Even married men are concerned. If I man has few cows, it is culturally acceptable for another man to steal the wife.

See this Guardian article for more on disarmed youth.



The culture was so different from anything I have experienced that I was tempted to live in one of their huts to learn more. And I would have except that the staple food is sorghum mush which is like eating sand and people love their cows so much that they will often eat a cow that dies of natural causes rather than slaughter a fresh cow. So I couldn’t live with them unless I brought my own food.


Houses are made of only mud, sticks and grass. These materials are surprisingly hard to come by. Mud requires water, which requires going at least a kilometer and probably several to the closest water point. There are very few sticks in the desert and even fewer straight sticks that are required for building a hut. Thatching is likewise rare and must be gathered as far as 50 kilometers away. Donkeys can often be seen walking down the road with thatching on their backs, driven by a young boy. Because these materials are so rare, people will often take the materials with them when they move. In the above photo, a family took the thatching from this house for their next house. Also note how small the entry to the house is: about 1.5 feet high. This is for security reasons.

Karamojong relocate their homes for several reasons. JB explained that if a child dies in a house it is felt to be cursed and the family will move. First they will place an egg in the site of their new home. If, after a day, the egg has collected no dust, then this site is considered to be appropriate for the new hut.

Women are marginalized in Karamoja. They cannot own animals and have little say over whom they marry. During raids, girls would sometimes be raped. If the father of the girl knew who had committed the act, he would fine the offender eight cows. All of the Oxfam employees I talked to said that 8 cows was the standard fine across Karamoja. As such much of the effort of NGOs and the government is to raise the status of women in Karamoja. While this is important, men should not be forgotten either.


Alternative Livelihoods

With their guns taken away, the young men are now unemployed and have no knowledge of how to earn a living outside of cattle tending and raiding. They are now vulnerable to attacks from other warriors who have not yet been disarmed. They are uncertain of whether they can continue to own cattle as the young men have lost the means of protecting their cattle against invaders. Karamoja could easily fall back into a state of war because the youth do not have anything to occupy themselves with. As the disarmed youth are the future leaders of Karamoja, Milton and I were inspired to work on a documentary that I previously mentioned to bring awareness to the problem.

Brick Making Karamoja

There are some income generating activities that have been introduced to the Karamojong other than cattle raising, with Oxfam facilitating the construction of corn milling operations, among other activities. Over the last few years, people have started to build bricks which are fired in stacks as seen above (this is a common practice throughout Uganda).

Making Gravel By Hand

This man started to make gravel. His family digs holes in their front yard to find large rocks that they would then pound with another rock to break the rocks into smaller pieces. They can earn about $0.50 to $1.00 per day doing this.

Aloe Vera Cure All

As we traveled around and JB pointed out the different plants he told me about one specific plant that is used to cure cholera, malaria, cuts and burns. It is called Aloe Vera. Maybe you have heard of it before. It is in so many creams, soaps, and herbal medicines in the US. My first thought was, Income Generating Activity for the disarmed youth. Maybe someone can enlighten me on this, but I think there is a big market for Aloe in the US. If the Karamojong could farm this, instead of just picking it from the wild, they could sell Aloe to a middle man to bring this to the US. I have a friend in Ghana who serves as the middle man to bring Fair Trade Shea Butter to Europe. If any Aloe Vera specialists happen to be reading this blog, send me an email!

Over the past 10 years, NGOs and the government have drilled many boreholes (wells) to supply clean drinking water close to villages, but I wondered how the Karamojong gathered water before the introduction of the borehole. JB took me to visit a water hole. In a dry riverbed we found a six foot deep hole where water was scooped up and dumped in a trough for the animals. Gathering water in a desert can be difficult but it can be done. This water was also used to make bricks.




The sanitation problem was what first interested me in Karamoja. When I met Marten at Oxfam in Kampala he explained to me that there are yearly cholera outbreaks in the villages as no one uses latrines or other improved sanitation technologies. Each year Oxfam and other organizations provide disaster relief to stop the cholera. They provide latrines to the people, but for a variety of reasons the locals do not use the latrines. For one, it is not considered manly to go to a latrine. For another, a husband and his mother-in-laws are not allowed to let their feces mix as a sign of respect towards the mother-in-law and will not use a latrine for fear that the mother-in-law might have already used the latrine. This is related to the custom that a husband is not allowed to see his mother-in-law. If he wants to talk to her, there must be a wall separating them.

And so NGOs had a great deal of difficulty in persuading people to use latrines, much less to build latrines on their own. Oxfam employees told me they used to always look at the ground when walking around villages to avoid stepping in human feces. The violence in the region meant that people, especially young women, were afraid to go far from their homes at night. So feces were congregated around the main living areas. During the rainy season, open defecation plus unsecure water sources lead to outbreaks of disease.

Latrine in Karamoja

But what I found in the villages I visited was quite encouraging. This past August there was a particularly bad cholera outbreak. The Karamojong did not know that cholera was spread through human waste. Knowledge from NGOs and a recent disaster seems to have sparked action in many people. The man above built his own pit latrine. He had been encouraged to do so by NGOs but had not received any money to build the structure. I went inside and found that the smell was negligible. How was the smell so mild I asked? The man, through translation, answered that he spread ash on the waste after each use. I was surprised. As you may know from a previous post, putting ash on feces is considered witchcraft in Uganda. The man replied that it was only witchcraft to him if witchcraft was intended. In this case it was not. However, the woman at another latrine we visited laughed when I suggested that she put ash in the latrine after each use. “Do you want to do witchcraft on me?”

Pit for Latrine

There are several technical difficulties on top of the cultural challenges. Because logs are so short and there is no concrete, people dig pits for latrines that are very long and skinny so that they can use shorter logs to cover the pit and apply mud on top of. Even short logs are rare and this family had to wait for several weeks to travel the many kilometers to gather the logs. This family was building two latrines. One for the mother-in-law and one for the rest of the family.


Termites are also a problem. They will eat through the underground wood supports and a person using the latrine could fall through. The wood used for the floor is covered in mud and therefore its structural integrity is not known until the floor collapses. People have to preemptively construct new latrines about every 6 months. This is difficult considering the distance they must travel to find logs, but the people I talked to seemed willing to expend the effort to avoid future cholera outbreaks. People were also concerned that the pits would collapse due to the sandy soil.

The BIG Picture Until now, my assumption has been that the sanitation problem in the world can be solved by for-profit organizations because sanitation services solve a need. But the people of Karamoja needed education. They needed to learn how cholera was spread. In the end, the latrines do not cost them anything to build. All the materials are gathered by hand, though it may take many days to collect them.

The disarmed youth present their own challenge. Very few people asked me for money (compared to Kampala). Instead they asked for a job. This seems like a great place for a social enterprise to step in and build off of what the NGOs and government have already done to make Karamoja safe and sanitary and give the men a job for long term security of the region.

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Thoughts on Marketing

KAMPALA, UGANDA—Marketing is that girl I hated as a kid. I called her names. We just didn’t get along. And then one day I realized how beautiful she was. I needed her. I couldn’t live without her because she was the perfect complement to me. Maybe it was okay for a guy like Technology and girl like Marketing to be together.

Well, I never had such a girl but that is basically how my relationship with marketing has progressed. I remember telling my dad “marketing is a waste of human resources. Everyone should be engineers and the world would be a better place.” (I ended up graduating with an engineering degree.) My dad replied, “how will people know to buy an engineer’s great invention if they don’t know it exists?” And about 10 years later I have come to understand why marketing has social value and perhaps touches an important part of what makes us human.

Recently I have started thinking about what makes us buy things? Specifically, how can I encourage uptake of new products in Africa. Cell phone companies and others already have advertisements in all corners of life in Africa, but I am particularly interested in marketing products that are traditionally the  sector of non-profit organizations. The idea is to sell people products which will actually be good for people. These products were traditionally given away. It doesn’t take much of an advertising campaign to give things away. Today we find ourselves in a place where we are really bad at marketing good, healthy products in Africa. There is not much experience with it. In theory, marketing products that people really, truly need that will make their lives better should be easy. No lying required.

But so far marketing socially responsible products has been difficult.  I know the most about this in relation to the domestic biogas sectors of Uganda and Rwanda. Aid organizations have approached marketing from an intellectual point of view (in biogas and other areas): these products will empower you, make the environment better, reduce global warming, reduce the risk of cancer in 30 years, etc. While these are important effects a social enterprise or aid organization should consider before bringing a product to market,  this is not the only way to encourage uptake. In fact I will argue that this logical thinking misses what makes us human and the marketing less effective than it could be. This kind of advertising misses the social element.

When I buy an iPhone (and I will imagine that most people are like me), sure it will make my life a little bit easier, but that is not why I buy it. I buy it to show off to friends. Part of that is a status symbol that owning an iPhone confers but part of that is the human interaction. You will be happy to hear how excited your friends are when they see your phone. You will talk to other people about this or that app. You will be able to share photos more easily. You will manage your meetings and contacts better for work. The iPhone creates social interaction.

This, I am beginning to believe, is how socially responsible products should be marketed as well. Sure, longterm- and largescale-benefits are should be present to pursue the product in the first place, but a company must know its audience. Does reducing global warming really matter to the consumer who is working hard to survive each day? Is lung cancer such big concern when lives are so short? These benefits need not be part of the marketing of biogas. Instead, biogas should be a status symbol. People should want to show off their digesters and the ease with which they can turn on their fires.

I talked with members of SNV and Mininfra in Rwanda and heard about the struggles in increasing the uptake of domestic biogas systems. But I also heard the fantastic feedback SNV had received from the nearly 1,000 biogas owners in Rwanda.

  • One farmer said his wife was more beautiful now. The smoke from wood fires no longer makes her eyes bloodshot and soot no longer covers her face. Biogas will make your wife more beautiful. Who wouldn’t want that?
  • Another farmer said that now he can cook small food for himself. (Men traditionally never cook). Now it was so easy to cook. As no smoke got in his face anymore he no longer needed to wait for his wife to come home. He could cook by himself. So easy, even a man can cook. Who wouldn’t want that?
  • Children get better grades now that they spend two less hours per day gathering wood. They can also work until 9 or 10 pm on their studies because the biogas lamp operates at no cost to the family. Get Biogas. Get better grades in School.

I have yet to see any of the above slogans on a brochure encouraging farmers to install a biogas plant much less a marketing campaign that pushes biogas as a status symbol. NGOs seem hesitant to say this. They shouldn’t be. Biogas should be a status symbol.

Part of what keeps it from being a status symbol is the presentation. It is a concrete thing that you put cow dung into. It’s kinda gross. First, biogas construction companies should brand their constructions with a seal of their name on the lid. Second, the farmer should be able to personalize the system. Here, every taxi and every mini bus has a different phrase on the back. How can a farmer put his design on the lid of the biogas plant or elsewhere? The installations could be customized in ways that accessorize it. A gas gauge, a rainwater-harvesting-to-feed contraption, etc.

Of course, the marketing has to be honest. That should go without saying. But marketing does not have to be based on 30 year longitudinal studies of a representative sampling of individuals. It leaves out that whole important part that makes us human. The social part. To me, the marketing solution is simple. Ask people what they like most about it and let others know about these benefits. This is what people are really looking for in a product.

These ideas might sound naïve or obvious. I am just coming to terms with Marketing (we haven’t even moved in together yet) and I am only starting to realize what a big role marketing will play in any company I aim to establish. May I learn much from my relationship with Marketing. Let me know if you have any relationship advice for us.

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Urine Diverting Toilets: Technologically Ingenius, Culturally Incompatible


KAMPALA, UGANDA—To be honest, my interest is not Urine Diverting toilets. But I had heard so much about urine diverting toilets from friends who used them on a daily basis while working on an organic farm in Argentina that I was curious to see how urine diverting toilets work. I visited the Ministry of Water in Kampala to get insight into their usage in Uganda.

The terms “Urine Diverting” and “EcoSan” toilets seem to be used interchangeably here even though EcoSan (Ecological Sanitation) is supposed be a blanket term to mean a sanitation technology that recycles the waste for fertilizer. Urine Diverting would be a subclass of EcoSan. Anaerobic digestion would be another subclass of EcoSan. Martha at the ministry of water took me to a nearby school (I believe St. James in Luzira area) that had recently installed a Urine Diverting toilet.


The urine is collected in the front funnel and the feces drop through the hole behind into a basket below the hole. The bin on the left contains ash. A scoop of ash must be deposited on top of any feces to dry out the feces, reduce smell and kill pathogens. Children bring ash from their homes to replenish the ash at school.

Urine Collection

The urine is directed through a pipe to a jerrycan which would normally be placed below the pipe in the above photo. (With school out for the holidays, the jerrycan was not in position.)

Urine Storage

The urine is left to sit for two weeks to one month before a farmer comes to pick up the aged urine for his fields. This aging reportedly kills any pathogens. The urine must be mixed in a 1:3 ratio with water before applying to fields and even then must not be applied directly to the roots of plants to avoid burning the crop.

Feces Collection

The feces drop into the basket below the toilet and the feces are covered with ash. Someone has to remove the basket when it is full. The basket is dumped in a pile to decompose over 6 months after which the compost is suitable for application to fields. Other Urine Diverting models do not use a basket but allow the chamber below to fill with feces and ash. Once it is full, that stall is closed for 6 months to allow decomposition. The solids are removed after 6 months, at which point the solids look like dirt. That way, no one has to remove fresh feces. This would to be a better solution and would minimize human contact with unsanitary conditions.

Overall, I was very impressed with this technology. It provided sanitation and allowed the wastes to be reused as resources. There is no water required for flushing so this would be appropriate even in dry regions.

The school had left half of the traditional pit latrines standing. Even though the urine diverting latrines had no smell, were clean and new, half of the students used the smelly, dirty pit latrines instead. Why? Mixing feces with ash is considered witchcraft in Uganda. People believe that if you mix the two you will get inflamed hemorrhoids and other bad things will happen to the perpetrator and his or her family. I was surprised to find that even in the capital, this belief has not been erradicated. I did not realized belief in witchcraft was so prevalent and never thought that it would prevent the uptake of such a beneficial technology.

After visiting I went to see Netwas, a non-profit working in the water and sanitation sector of Uganda. The project manager told me the Urine Diverting project is the most difficult project she has worked on so far. I received a recent report on Urine Diverting uptake in Uganda. Uptake has been slow with the number of Urine Diverting toilets in Uganda in the hundreds. They are expensive to build (biogas systems could be build for less), there is significant cultural reluctance and public Urine Diverting toilets are in poor condition as are most aid projects that become a public good. The toilets were built, but either no one is in charge of maintaining the toilets or those in charge shirk their responsibilities.

Toilet Grafitti

On a positive note, the inside of the Urine Diverting toilets had some of the most kind graffiti I have seen. There was a lot of “I love…” and I didn’t understand the rest.

The BIG Picture Urine Diverting toilets seem like the perfect solution for Bwaise slum (see my previous post). Here is a sanitation technology that operates above ground (perfect for Bwaise because Bwaise is a wet land and it is impossible to dig a hole for a pit latrine or a biogas plant) and the users of the Urine Diverting toilet will not be tempted to empty the contents of their toilet into the alleys during rains as the Urine Diverting toilet produces solid waste and cannot be emptied as such. However, the belief in witchcraft may be difficult to overcome. I hope Netwas can help people to understand the benefits and allay the fears of the public.

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The chicken and egg of product differentiation in Africa

Row of Butchers

The six butchers shops in the above photo all sell the same meats for the same prices. (Kigali, Rwanda)

KAMPALA, UGANDA—There appears to be little market differentiation in Uganda, often with one store selling exactly the same thing as the one next to it. On the surface there appears to be little innovation. A Peace Corps volunteer told me that innovation is discouraged in Ugandan culture. Schools employ rote learning. He visited a school where the children were all outside because the school was out of chalk and the teacher, therefore, couldn’t teach.

The Peace Corps volunteer I was visiting was assigned to work on economic development in his village and he saw lack of product differentiation as one of the main hurdles. How can people improve their living conditions if they do not innovate? How can a person control the market if he sells the same thing as the person next to him? Everyone sells the same things for the same prices. Exactly the same prices. The volunteer and I visited several carpenters to try to find a good deal on a table. But they were all selling the same table for the same price. He didn’t know where to buy the table from since they were all the same. In the end he bought a table from a carpenter whom he had a personal connection to.

What would be services in other countries are commodities here. For 2,500 UGX (~1 USD) you can buy a meal of matooke, meat and vegetable. Everywhere. Restaurants are a commodity. All the work that cook puts into the meal does not give the meal any special value—value that could lead to economic development.

But even if there was differentiation of products, my friend told me, who would buy them? Here they will eat the same food every day for their entire lives even though they could invent some new dish. This is an indication of how unwilling they would be to accept a new product. So it is a chicken and egg thing. People in Uganda will not differentiate their products because no one will buy them and vice versa. This is what I heard and it forced me to reflect.

It is true that there are very few differentiated products and most of those that are come from outside Africa. However, there are many new products that have emerged on the scene in Uganda. Cell phone service providers come to mind first. Everyone has a cellphone now whereas 5 years ago very few had cellphones. Products like efficient cookstoves are experiencing success despite being a new, more expensive product. Many non-electrified villages now have solar panels and solar lanterns. Sure, Ugandans will not fall head-over-heels for a marginally different smelling shampoo like we do in the US, but Ugandans are very willing to buy new products that make their lives easier.

My friend pointed out that innovation here can be a challenge because as soon as one shop keeper becomes successful selling a new brand of bread, his neighbors will start doing the same and he will have lost his edge. But such is differentiation. Dynamic. Just because you are different today does not mean you have captured a market forever. The shopkeeper needs to constantly be on his game. But this kind of dynamic innovation hasn’t happened in the streets of Uganda but I think it will happen. In the above photo, the butcher shop on the left is selling phone credit (MTN and TiGO), unlike the butcher shops next to him. This is a start.

But when advocating economic development, I always wonder if we have just dressed the devil in a shiny new suit and called him ‘Prince Charming.’ Maybe it isn’t so bad to buy a table from a carpenter simply because he is a friend of yours and not just because they have the lowest prices. Maybe friend loyalty is more important than brand loyalty. These people are really happy. Sure, some people sleep on the floor. But the people I see smile, laugh, dance, sing on the way to work and certainly don’t live in an office. (Though they may cook food all day in a smokey kitchen.)

So the BIG QUESTION should be do Ugandans really need economic development? This is the real question  we should be discussing, but we cannot answer it because it leads to the question: are we humans striving for happiness or better living conditions? And no one knows the answer to that. So we will keep asking how to provide economic development even if we don’t if it is the right question to ask.

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Made In China

MBARARA, UGANDA—On this restaurant table, there were four different brands of salt shakers (used for various purposes) all identical in shape all with a red rose as a logo. There is something weird going on here, I haven’t quite put my finger on it.

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