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Improving latrines in rural Eastern Africa

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The past years have been both exciting and challenging for most sanitation professionals including myself.  Many rural communities have been motivated to construct and use latrines.   In Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, many districts are now open defecation free (ODF) and many other districts are in the pipeline to become ODF.  However, there is a big concern; more than 80% of the latrines in use are basic pit latrines that are in poor physical and unhygienic conditions (WSP 2012, 2013, SNV 2012, 2013).   Unless these latrines are improved, rural households are unlikely to achieve most of the social economic and health benefits that accrue from use of latrines.

Efforts by both governments and non-state actors to improve the quality of latrines in rural areas of the three countries have centred on provision and the installation of cement based or plastic slabs to a lesser extent.  In Tanzania, there is a cement based slab nicknamed Sungura introduced in the market for over 7 years ago.  In Ethiopia, the san-plats slab was introduced more than 5 years ago by NGOs.   In Kenya, both rectangular and circular cement based slabs were introduced by NGOs more than 10 years ago and many local masons were trained to make and install them. They still do.   In the market studies we carried out last year and in June of this year (SNV and WEDC 2012 and 2013) in 16 Woredas/districts in Amhara Ethiopia, 3 districts in Kenya and 3 districts in Tanzania, we found out that the majority of households have not improved their latrines despite the introduction of the slabs.  In Amhara, almost 98% of the rural household latrines do not have improved slabs. Only a few households subsidized by NGOs have latrines with improved slabs.  Table 1 below shows the low level of latrines in use in Kenya and Tanzania that have improved slabs.

Table 1.  Type of latrines in use by low and middle income households

Local pit latrines with unimproved slabs (%)

Local pit latrines with improved slabs (%)

Masonry Latrines: VIPs, WCs with concrete slabs (%)







Low income households







Middle income households







 In the studies we undertook, three latrine consumer segments who are the majority of the rural population and have special needs were engaged in focused group discussions:

  • Men and women from low income households spending less than 1.5 USD a day
  • Men and women from middle income households spending more than 1.5 USD a day
  • Elderly people of over 60 years of age

 All latrine consumer segments stated clearly that they are unhappy with their local pit latrines. They dislike these basic latrines because they are not durable, unsafe, difficult to clean, do not offer privacy, are smelly, and infested with flies. In addition to the dislike, people are aware of the risks, such as disease outbreaks, falling in the latrine, discomfort from bad smell and shame from visitors. Asked why they continue to use these kinds of latrines while knowing the risks, most consumers said that nice good and affordable latrines are simply not available in their area (Table 2.).

 Table 2.  Why rural households continue to use of poor local latrines

Consumer segment

Reasons for continued use of poor local latrines

Low income

There are no improved latrine options of low cost that they can afford

Lack of reliable advice on how to cheaply improve the existing latrines.

Middle income

No feasible desired options for the limited finances they have.

Negligence and no enforcement of bylaws

The elderly

Lack of alternative affordable good latrines of low cost

Never consulted on what they want

Men, women and the elderly in the study outlined different coping mechanisms they have adopted (Table 3.).  Whereas using ash and constructing pedestals are positive mechanisms, the other strategies cannot be relied upon.

 Table 3.  Coping techniques

Coping mechanisms


Use ash and /or burn a bunch of dry banana leaves at the pit hole to reduce smell

Use latrines at night time to gain privacy

Bath at night or hang a bright cloth around a crop plantation or any enclosure to bath

Advise children to practice open defecation for safety reasons

Enter latrines without heavy clothes to avoid trapping foul smell in the clothes


Make frequent repairs and reconstruct the latrine after every 2-3 years

For safety, they don’t rush in the latrine, they move in cautiously while holding on the door.

The elderly

Some elderly people have construct and use pedestals made from wood & cement.

Hang ropes in the roof a latrine to help one move up from a squatting position.

Pray to God to be safe

People are also aware of high-end toilets which they have seen in hotels, health centers and in some schools.  However, they have not adopted these because they cannot afford them and they do not have the features they desire. Rural consumers have higher aspirations. They indicated that if they had sufficient resources, they would opt for durable latrine blocks with brick wall, water based latrine with easy to clean slab, a pedestal for sitting, a bathing area, free from smell, spacious and well ventilated. Considering the limited finances they have, the consumer segments want affordable latrines that are: durable, safe, attractive, easy to clean, no smell and flies and offers privacy.  Women want latrines to have in addition a bathing space, while people with special needs (elderly and physically challenged) want in addition a pedestal to sit on and support rails.  These desired latrine options are at present not available in the market and the latrine slabs alone do not address their desires. 

An assessment of the assets purchased by rural households after they have catered for their basic needs (food, clothes, health and school fees) showed that low and middle income households purchase assets that cost in excess of 500 and 3,000 USD, respectively.  This result was surprising and indicates that there is a market in rural areas.   From the assessments all consumer segments agreed that rural households are able and willing to pay for an improved latrine if it is within the cost range of what they are paying for the current latrines and if they have access to affordable repayment rates.  Most of the basic latrines in use have a depth of 15 ft, and cost between 80-160 USD, with most of the cost going for pit digging which cost on average 2-6 USD per ft.  So it means that there is a market for rural sanitation but we need to start thinking beyond the latrine slab. We need to start taking into account more aspects of the latrine, and also innovate on distribution channels and payment options.

The findings presented here are part of an ongoing SNV/ WEDC action research on market-based solutions for improving sanitation in rural areas. The activity takes place in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia and the work is carried out by various staff of SNV and WEDC and local partners. From these findings it is becoming clear that we’ve only seen a fraction of what has to be learned. In the coming months we aim to pilot different business models in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia.  The models include different latrine options, a one stop shop model and sales agents, financing mechanisms for service providers and for household, as well as the enabling environment at district level.   We hope to innovate on exciting latrines and recommend some latrine options for rural areas this year and within next year we hope to test and recommend a business model for improving latrines in rural areas of Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia.  All your ideas and inputs are welcome.

By Jackson Wandera.  “the writer/ author is the lead on the SNV/WEDC sanitation action research”.


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Anonymous commented on 31-Jan-2014 01:08 AM
how can i access the pdf version of this research in Ethiopia?
SanMark CoP Team commented on 04-Feb-2014 04:32 PM
Thanks for your interest! You can find a word version of this document in the Kenya and Tanzania Case Stories under the Resources section of the website here:

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