Seattle — Although there were no African prizewinners this week from a toilet challenge sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, South African Professor Chris Buckley doesn't see his team's project as going to waste - either literally or figuratively.
Researchers from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom snagged the prizes, but Buckley considers everyone a winner from the Reinvent the Toilet Fair, where innovations in sanitation were displayed at the foundation's headquarters in Seattle.
There were excrement eating worms, toilets that separated out the urine to recover water and carbon dioxide, others that turned feces into pellets for fertilizer or fuel, and some that converted excrement into biological charcoal.
"It's comradery; everyone is seeing the goal," said Buckley, from the University of Kwazulu-Natal, whose team was the only African finalist in the competition. "The people who don't have sanitation - those are going to be the winners. The African expression I like to use is: 'If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go a long way, go together.' And I think it's very, very true."
The foundation issued a challenge to universities one year ago to design toilets that can capture and process human waste without piped water, sewer or electrical connections. The toilets should also be able to transform human waste into useful resources, such as energy and water, at an affordable price.
The first, second and third place winning prototypes were recognized for most closely matching the criteria required. The goal, which is ongoing, is to develop technology that can deliver safe and sustainable sanitation to the 2.5 billion people worldwide who lack it.
Poor sanitation leads to transmission of waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Some 1.8 million people die from diarrheal diseases annually, most of them children under five, according to the World Health Organization. It estimates there are four billion cases of diarrhea annually, and 88 percent are attributed to unsafe water, poor hygiene and inadequate sanitation.
Sierra Leone recently declared a state of emergency because of mounting cases of cholera in the capital and outlying areas. In Zimbabwe, the government has come under pressure to deal with an outbreak of typhoid. And with worldwide depletion of water sources, experts say wealthier countries will be forced to transition their own water-dependent sewage systems in favor of more sustainable sanitation solutions.
Charity Kaluki Ngilu, Kenya's minister of water and irrigation, toured the toilet fair in Seattle, along with government ministers from Ghana, Benin and the Central African Republic, to bring ideas back home.
"We have a serious problem of lack of sanitation," Ngilu said. "You still have a lot of people in the country who go for open defecation - they just don't have latrines or toilets."
A member of parliament since Kenya's first multi-party elections in 1992 and a former minister of health, Ngilu says Kenya's government should do more to improve sanitation. "The priorities are wrong," she told AllAfrica, even if the main focus is the economy, "because as long as you have sick people, they cannot be productive. And, therefore, you cannot achieve development and there cannot be economic growth."
Ngilu has been mentioned in Kenyan media as a potential presidential candidate in elections scheduled for next March. If she were to run, she said, it would be on a "development" platform to address issues of poverty - which she would like to do because she said she knows where strategic investments can lead to rapid progress. She cited a World Bank report estimating that "every year the government is losing $324 million dollars to treat people who are sick due to lack of sanitation, and clean, safe drinking water".
That money, she said, "should be spent to prevent the diseases - much more than treating the diseases when they happen - by providing safe, clean drinking water and sanitation to the people".
Samuel Ofosu-Ampofo, Ghana's minister for local government and rural development, said poverty prevents construction of proper sanitation facilities.
"In rural areas it is very difficult for people to put up decent houses, let alone decent toilets," he said. "When you don't have a decent house and [a place] to lay your head, a toilet becomes a secondary matter."
But he said it was not only a question of health and development, but also one of human dignity.
"If you can have a decent place to attend to nature's call, it is one of the best things you can do for your people," he said. "In Ghana, when you are traveling on public transport … sometimes you have women doing it in the open because of the absence of facilities. It doesn't dignify the status of women and how they should be treated."
In some cases it's a matter of safety.
Doulaye Kone, senior program officer for sanitation and tools at the Gates Foundation, grew up in rural Cote d'Ivoire and experienced first-hand what it was like to live without a latrine. It is especially difficult at night, he said, and children are often frightened. But frequent diarrhea experienced by children in areas of poor sanitation gives them no choice.
"You don't know where you're sitting when you go out in the night, and you don't know what you're risking … snakes, other animals, pigs who may come and attack you because they feed on human excreta."
Kone said African governments were doing a lot to improve sanitation to achieve Millennium Development Goals by 2015 - international targets agreed at the United Nations to reduce severe poverty and disease. But he said progress could accelerate through expanding efforts in the private sector.
"Private entrepreneurs can play a tremendous role," he said. "They just need to be structured, and governments have to provide the right incentive, the right regulatory environment, so these entrepreneurs can flourish."