Camilla Wirseen - Revolutionising urban sanitation

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    Peepoople in Kibera. Photo: Felix Brüggemann.

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    Girl showing a peepoo in Kibera. Photo: Camilla Wirséen.

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    Ms Camilla Wirseen and Ms Anne Ndunge, Peepoople, in Kibera. Photo: Maria Berndtsson.

2.5 billion people in the world lack basic access to a simple toilet. This problem is only going to get worse with global population soaring giving rise to urban slums. Camilla Wirseen, the founder of Peepoople Kenya, describes how new low-cost technology from Sweden is starting to make a difference for poor people in Kenya.

Most of us have experienced the frustration of needing to go to the toilet in a public place. But how many have ever experienced having to leave your home in the dead of night in search of a toilet only to find a line of people waiting outside an overflowing pit latrine (a hole in the ground)? This is the reality for 2.5 million people living in slums in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

Sanitation was declared a human right by the United Nations in 2010, yet 2.6 billion people in the world lack basic access to a simple latrine. This creates considerable health, social and environmental problems. In the world’s cities, more than one billion people live in informal settlements, or ‘slums’ as they are often called. This problem is only going to get worse as the figure is expected to double by 2030. However, a Swedish organisation is offering an affordable solution to this complicated issue. Of late, they have started their work in the heart of Nairobi’s Kibera slum.

Peepoople is an organisation that develops, produces and distributes a single-use mobile toilet, called a Peepoo, that comes in the form of a slim biodegradable bag. It is compact in size and easy to store, handle and use.

“This is a new solution to one of the world’s biggest problems,” says Camilla Wirseen. She and her husband, Peepoo’s inventor Anders Wilhelmson, founded the company Peepoople in 2008 around an idea born three years earlier. During a travel through India, Wilhelmson had come to realise that daily personal hygiene is one of the biggest problems facing women living in slums.

Wirseen explains that women, adolescent girls and children are the most vulnerable group suffering from lack of basic sanitation. When women and children cannot urinate or defecate in their homes, they are frequent targets for sexual harassment and rape. This problem is worsened at night; if there is no toilet in the compound and they have to walk into the slum the chances of being mugged and harassed are very high.

“Even if you build the shared toilets, you still have a problem with women and children,” Wirseen says. She continues:

“The biggest problem is that there is not enough space. I mean where do you build these toilets? It’s not only in Kibera; most slums lack space.”

Kibera is considered one of the biggest urban slums in Africa and one of the biggest in the world. With about 60 percent of Nairobi's population living in slums, Kibera is home to a quarter of a million of Kenya’s poor in a space of 250 hectares. Toilet facilities are scarce and the best one could hope for is sharing a latrine with three hundred other people. Kibera, with its high population density and poor housing squeezed in a small area, was a perfect starting point for Peepoople. Today they are working in seven villages in the slum with 12,000 active users, a number that is increasing steadily. Every week, 24 000 Peepoos are sold and every day, 5000 used toilet bags are collected. But the beginning was more modest:

”I visited Kenya in 2007, when we still had not made the final design of the Peepoo. I met with people at UN-Habitat who introduced me to civic leaders in Kibera. We started with the first field tests in April 2008 with just 30 people. After that, we scaled up to 300 people. In 2010, we got some money to run a larger demonstration project and that was when we founded Peepoople Kenya as an NGO (Non Government Organisation).”

Peepoople’s decision to start up its operations in Nairobi was also influenced by the city’s strategic location and good international communications. The fact that Nairobi hosts a large UN organisation is an additional advantage, says Wirseen.

So what is the Peepoo? It is a bag designed “with an inner layer that unfolds to form a wide funnel”. It was developed from a bottom-up perspective, putting the user’s needs first, explains Camilla Wirseen. Its ergonomic design makes it easy to use. As a mobile toilet, it is hygienic, odour free and can be used anywhere and at any time, giving the user freedom and privacy, which is hard to find in a slum. In the Kibera the net price of one Peepoo is 3 Kenyan Shillings (about 3¢), which are sold as single units or in rolls of 25 Peepoos by women micro-entrepreneurs.
Peepoo not only acts as a mobile toilet but the self-sanitisation design turns the waste into fertilizer that can be used in farming after only one month. Each bag contains six grams of urea (a non-hazardous chemical that’s the most common artificial fertilizer in the world) that breaks down bacteria turning the human waste into a valuable fertilizer for farming.

Used bags can be taken to a drop-off point where collectors pick up the bags and take them to a storage facility.

“The nutrients in the Peepoo fertilizer is like four times the amount of nitrogen compared to the standard fertilizer, and more than two times the phosphorous available,” says Peepoople’s acting General Manager and agricultural innovator Haron Wachira.

“In addition, the fertilizer binds with the soil, which means that what the plant cannot use remains in the soil and therefore you can go through two cycles without needing to add fertilizer.”

Wirseen says they are working together with the University of Nairobi and SLU, the Swedish University of Agriculture Science and have started using the fertilizer for coffee seedlings and forestation.

“It’s perfect for seedlings, trees, and eucalyptus tree grown with Peepoo fertilizer takes five years to be fully grown instead of eight years,” says Wirseen.

Lack of proper waste management, solid waste and industrial waste is another problem in Nairobi. Wachira points out that human waste cannot be used as a fertilizer from the city’s sewage system because it is mixed with industrial waste, and hasn’t been sanitised from human pathogens.

“But now we avoid that risk and we can actually create a fertilizer that can significantly support agriculture in Kenya if we scale this upwards to get hundreds of thousands of users – which is possible,” Wachira says.

But can this really provide a permanent solution to the sanitation problems? Clearly there is a need to also develop the infrastructure, enabling more conventional sanitation solutions in Kibera.

“The government and its donors are making plans to develop the infrastructure in Kibera, but that it is going to take a very long time; they predict it will take 50 to a 100 years. And we are not saying that Peepoo is the only solution,” Camilla Wirseen concludes.

“We see it as neither a permanent nor a temporary solution, we prefer to call it ‘contemporary’. It is a solution that is available here and now, and it gives people a choice.”

Text: Natasha Elkington.