One brick at a time

Date: 11th December 2018

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A few months ago, Leonard Ochwada was making more bricks than he could sell. Now he can’t keep up with demand. It’s a good problem to have, not just because of what it means for Leonard’s earnings, but also for the health of the people in his community.

A latrine made of interlocking bricks in Samia, Busia County, Kenya.

Leonard is a member of a youth group in Samia, a village in the county of Busia in the western region of Kenya. He and seven other young adults have taken up a project to manufacture inter-locking bricks that are used in the construction of latrines. Despite a slow start, they’re now doing a brisk business.

“This is going very much as we hoped it would,” says Elizabeth Wamera, Senior Technical Expert on WASH at the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC). The Geneva-based secretariat contributes towards increasing access to improved sanitation and hygiene by promoting behaviour change throughout the developing world. A major focus of the WSSCC’s work is to provide universal access to toilets, with a special focus on the vulnerable and marginalized groups, in the drive to end open defecation.

In a world where mobile phones are ubiquitous and space travel is common place, one-third of humanity still has no access to the most basic of technologies, a simple toilet. Hundreds of millions of people practice open defecation. Drinking water contaminated with feces makes children too sick to go to school and adults too sick to provide for their families. It spreads diseases to which hundreds of thousands of people succumb each year.

As the community learned about the benefits of the project, demand for bricks grew to outstrip supply.

The lack of toilets compounds other challenges – environmental degradation, illness, illiteracy and unemployment, among others – that together consign generation after generation to grindingly difficult lives. In 2015, the United Nations agreed on 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) targeting these and other issues that impinge on human well-being, of which universal access to toilets is one (SDG 6).

“You might think that anyone without a toilet would jump at the opportunity to get one, but it is not always the case,” says Elizabeth Wamera.

“It’s like anything new, people take a while to get used to it,” she says. “But if you understand what can motivate behavioural change, and with patience, you will see it happen.”

Members of the Bulala Betera Amani youth group learn to operate the brick-making machine.

That’s where Leonard Ochwada and the brick-making project in Kenya’s Busia county come in. Youth are typically the first to see the benefits of change and are often relied on by older generations to introduce new practices. That’s why WSSCC and several partner organizations are supporting and working with youth groups like Leonard’s to help lead the way to greater adoption of toilets in their communities.

Beginning in July 2018, all eight members of the Bulala Betera Amani youth group to which Leonard belongs were given training in making inter-locking bricks. On a provisional basis, they were given use of a manually-operated brick-molding machine known as a makiga with which they have been producing bricks for the construction of latrines ever since. In a setting where cost can serve as a major impediment to improved well-being, the group is able to sell bricks for about half the cost of commercially produced bricks by using a mixture that involves less water and cement overall.

The makiga, provided by KSHIP, enabled brick production to begin quickly and at reduced cost.

A key partner in this effort is AMREF Health Africa in Kenya which implements the Kenya Sanitation and Hygiene Improvement Program (KSHIP) funded by the Global Sanitation Fund through the WSSCC. The KSHIP model of presenting sanitation as a business in the community is proving to be a cost-effective approach, making latrines much more affordable than previous efforts. By providing local groups with interlocking brick-making machines, KSHIP has reduced the cost of production and enabled to begin quickly, sparking the interest of the community.

Now everybody seems to want to build a latrine from interlocking bricks. As demand now outstrips supply, Leonard and his group have plans to acquire their own makiga and to scale up production.

Similarly, WSSCC has introduced a model for increasing access to toilets that, by all measures, looks worthy of scaling up in other counties with a view to stopping open defecation and making the health benefits of better sanitation and hygiene available to more people.

 

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