Valentin Post:"People are more than willing to invest in a safe toilet once they see its benefits"
FINISH (Financial Inclusion Improves Sanitation & Health) Mondial’s goal is to make sure that people in low-income communities have access to a safe toilet. Via a partnership between WASTE, AMREF Flying Doctors & Aqua for All, it scales safe sanitation through strengthening local sanitation markets.
Globally 2.5 billion people still don’t have access to a safe toilet, with negative consequences for public health and the economy. The FINISH Mondial programme is implemented in 6 countries – India, Bangladesh, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia – improving living standards in communities. In this interview, Valentin Post, co-founder and CEO of FINISH Mondial, tells us about their approach to address the sanitation challenge, and how their programme contributes to the circular economy by encouraging safe disposal and reuse of human waste.
Can you tell us briefly about your career path and your current role at FINISH Mondial?
I have worked in the sanitation and waste sector for over 25 years. I started my career in industrial waste management and entered the toilet sector a little bit by coincidence. My first work experiences were with leather tanneries and the pollution they cause. You might think that working with human and municipal waste would be easy in comparison. But reality has taught me that the waste sector is never easy and highly contextual. As FINISH Mondial’s co-founder and CEO, my job is to safeguard the FINISH Mondial mission and vision, as well as to motivate and support the country teams, working groups, partners and supporting staff. To increase our footprint, I also actively seek to engage partners and innovations that may help us reduce costs or increase scale.
FINISH (Financial Inclusion Improves Sanitation & Health) Mondial’s goal is to make sure that people in low-income communities have access to a safe toilet. To achieve that goal, you follow a holistic approach described as the “Diamond model”. Can you explain your approach in more detail?
We involve all the stakeholders in the sanitation ecosystem with the aim of providing toilets for those who need them most
Yes indeed, our approach to the sanitation challenge is very comprehensive. We involve all the stakeholders in the sanitation ecosystem – communities, businesses, financial institutions and governments – with the aim of providing toilets for those who need them most. We visit communities and households to raise awareness of the health benefits of having a safe toilet, and we keep engaging with them to create demand for toilets. We train local masons to build quality low-cost toilets and safe sanitation systems, and train sanitation entrepreneurs to safely collect, transform and reuse human waste. We partner with banks and other financial institutions to develop sanitation loan products, build the capacity of their staff to market these products, and link them to interested households and sanitation businesses. Finally, we encourage governments to create an enabling environment and to join public-private partnerships.
So, in a sense, you make sure that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together…
Yes, exactly, because there is no point in training masons to build toilets if they can’t find customers (because people are not aware of the benefits of a safe toilet or prioritise other needs with the little money they have). Or you could get people interested in a safe toilet, but they can’t afford it. Or you could train sanitation entrepreneurs, but they have no capital to start or expand their business. You really have to make sure that all aspects are covered.
You apply a market approach to the sanitation challenge – people pay for their toilets – yet FINISH Mondial is an NGO. Why did you choose to work with a market-based approach?
The sanitation sector still relies heavily on government subsidies, which is unsustainable in the long run. 2.5 billion people still don’t have access to a safe toilet! People also tend to be more negligent with products or services they have not paid for. We wanted to find a more sustainable approach and therefore, people pay for the toilets, but we make sure they can afford to pay. As a rule, people without toilets are poor and can’t afford the out-of-pocket expense of a toilet. This is where microfinance and the financial institutions we work with come in. Paying the needed amount in small instalments matched to the expected income of the household makes safely managed sanitation affordable for many more people. We find that people are more than willing to invest in a safe toilet or sanitation system once they see its benefits. And by creating a sanitation market, we create local employment for masons, pit emptiers, and so on. We also, of course, make sure that sanitation businesses sell good products. We give a lot of training to entrepreneurs to ensure quality and affordability. Typically, our toilets and sanitation systems are both high quality and also a third cheaper than prevailing systems.
You operate in six countries – Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Can you tell us about your plans to scale up and about some of the barriers you face in this regard?
Asking farmers to use products made from human waste or asking consumers to buy food grown in human waste is not without its challenges
The biggest challenge is that scaling up sanitation is highly contextual: each country has its specific challenge. In Ethiopia, for instance, there are some financial liquidity problems. Even if households are interested in sanitation loans, the availability of funds is limited. In Bangladesh and eastern India, we need to construct floodproof infrastructures, which is a technical challenge. We have identified several possible solutions, some of which we have tested and others still need to be tested. We will also need to get the governments to accept and adopt these new floodproof toilets in their standards.
The FINISH programme contributes to a circular economy: how so?
Our goal is to “recycle” the human waste from the toilets we build. Recycling can be autonomous, carried out by the household itself using double pits. These systems are used mainly in rural and peri-urban areas; the human waste is treated on site, and households learn how to empty and safely reuse their own faecal matter. Alternatively, in urban settings, we work with and develop the capacities of sanitation entrepreneurs to collect and transform human waste, usually into a co-compost that can be safely applied in agriculture. Co-compost from human waste, mixed with other organic waste materials, is very nitrogen rich and makes a great fertiliser.
Greenhouse gas emissions from sanitation are often underestimated. How can safely managed sanitation help lower emissions?
Few people know this, but unsafe storage and dumping of human waste is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. When human waste is not stored properly it releases methane into the air. In Kampala, Uganda, for instance, a recent study estimated that sanitation represents more than half the city’s total emissions. So, building nice toilets is not enough; you must make sure you also keep an eye below the ground where the waste is stored. By processing human waste into products like co-compost and applying these in agriculture, you can also partially replace high-carbon-footprint fertilisers and further reduce overall CO2 emissions.
I imagine that some people need convincing about the idea of recycling human waste and using it in agriculture. What challenges does your team face and how do you create social acceptance for circular sanitation?
Indeed, this is not easy. Asking farmers to work with products made from human waste or asking consumers to buy food grown in human waste is not without its challenges. Yet, we forget that using human waste as fertiliser was common practice in ancient times. Today, thanks to scientific research and rigorous testing, we can make sure that the products we use are 100 per cent safe. We found that what works best to change perceptions is to start with a small group of farmers and foster peer-to-peer exchange. Farmers are generally very positive about using products from human waste. They see how their yields improve and how strong plants grown with co-compost are. This is backed by scientific studies as well.
We are talking about changing the narrative about a waste product that creates a lot of problems, from problem to valuable input
What is the future of circular sanitation? What vision do you have for the sector?
People, in general, very much like the idea and concept of circularity and the circular economy. But when you try to implement these concepts, you encounter many human-made obstacles that prevent circular sanitation from becoming standardised. Since we are dealing with faecal matter and potential pathogens, the public might express some concerns. So, we need to take a step-by-step approach. The promising potential of reusing human waste is still largely untapped. Globally, it is estimated that human waste could provide 50 million tonnes of fertiliser, which would account for a quarter of current global demand. Imagine, that’s quite amazing! We are talking about changing the narrative about a waste product that creates a lot of problems in today’s world, changing it from a problem to valuable input. And this isn’t only about improvements in food security and environmental benefits (carbon sequestration, nutrient capture, restoration of soils and their water-holding capacities, and flood resilience): the economic opportunities are huge as well. New markets, businesses and public-private partnerships will be created around the safe disposal and reuse of human waste. These are exciting prospects.