NAIROBI, Kenya - The World Bank estimates that 2.6 billion people, or 40 percent of the world’s population, have no access to proper toilet facilities. In 2005, Swedish architects Camilla Wirseen and Anders Wilhelmson created the Peepoo - a personal, fully biodegradable toilet bag that can be used by people living in slums to improve their health and safety. It can even help to prevent women and children from getting raped on their way to the toilet at night.
Karen is a 12-year-old girl from the Nairobi slum of Kibera. She is accustomed to using what is known as a "pay" toilet - costing 6 to 12 cents, per use. These community toilets are rarely cleaned or emptied, and waiting lines are long. Karen describes a typical morning.
"The pay toilet, when you go there, maybe you have diarrhea. Many people are in the toilet, waiting for one person to move. You and your diarrhea, is just about to fall, you have to wait for all those people to go to the toilet, then you’ll be the last person."
In Kibera, sanitation options are limited. Residents can use either the pay toilets, or the free ones, which are even less-frequently emptied.
Improving sanitation issues
But perhaps the most infamous of all is the ubiquitous "flying toilet," whereby a person defecates into a thin, polyurethane sack, ties it up, and simply tosses it out.
In response to this problem, Swedish architects Camilla Wirseen and Anders Wilhelmson created the Peepoo, a thin bag made of biodegradable plastic, lined with a doubled-sided plastic funnel. At the bottom, they added urea, which breaks down waste and inactivates pathogens. Wirseen explains how this toilet bag works.
"It’s like a mobile phone. You have it in your pocket and you can use it whenever you need it. And needing to go to the toilet is an urgent problem. So, you have it there, you use it, you tie it up, and that’s it," said Wirseen.
A Girl at the Bethel Outreach Children's Center in the Nairobi slum of Kibera holds up her Peepoo toilet next to a garden fertilized by human waste, April 4, 2012. J. Craig/VOA
Removing safety risks
Besides the daily nuisance of time wasted while standing in line for a pay or free toilet, Kibera residents face great security risks if they need to go out at night. Even at 12, Karen is well aware of these dangers.
"If you go to the toilet at night, someone can rape you. If you’re a child, if you don’t go with an adult, someone can rape you. If you’re a big person and you go to the toilet alone, thieves can steal from you," she said.
Wirseen agrees that this basic need to go to the toilet presents great safety risks to both women and children.
"The thing is, that when you go to the toilet, you want privacy. So you go somewhere where you are alone. This happens all over the world when it comes to sanitation," said Wirseen. "The woman goes out into the bush to go to the toilet - a man knows she is coming. Or a group of men know… But I didn’t understand how many kids. In fact, the kids are raped as [they are] walking. They are in schools, and they don’t have any toilets, so they have to run out somewhere to do it…"
Efficient use of waste in economical way
With overflowing pay and free toilets, and the "flying toilets" which often explode upon landing, sanitation challenges are enormous. Wirseen said the Peepoo toilet bag is designed to help alleviate these problems.
"We are inactivating the pathogens in that short period of time. We say a security time of four weeks. After that, a problem has become a resource. So it’s become a fertilizer. With high value. High nutrients," she said.
Each Peepoo bag costs about four cents. It can be used in the privacy of the home, then returned to a local Peepoo "agent," who refunds 1 cent, to the user. It is even more economically feasible than a pay toilet.
But for Karen, there are better reasons to use this toilet bag.
"Peepoo bag is better because if you go to Peepoo bag, you feel relaxed, there isn’t any bad smell on the toilet, at school, you don’t seem disturbed by any person, that’s why they are good," she said.
So for Karen and others in Kibera, it seems that a simple toilet bag really is improving their lives.