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African Entrepreneurs Pioneer New Ways to Improve Sanitation

Three African entrepreneurs are working together to improve waste disposal in their countries. Better sanitation and water quality are among the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which were created to improve social conditions in the developing world by 2015. From Washington, reporter William Eagle has the story of three promising innovations.

Their work is timely: The U.N. estimates that more than 5,000 children in Africa and Asia under five die each day of diseases caused by dirty water and poor hygiene. Almost 40 percent of people worldwide lack access to toilets and safe ways of disposing of human waste In Africa alone, that rises to 62 percent.

South African entrepreneur Trevor Mulaudzi was originally a geologist. Today, he and the staff of his company, called The Clean Shop, call themselves by other names: toilet activists, motivators, educators and revolutionaries. They're also successful businessmen.

One of his goals is to reach the Millennium Development Goals.

"Dirty toilets are hampering [efforts] by government to get sustainable good sanitation," he says.

Many share the blame. Mulaudzi says students and even public officials who have never learned differently clog toilets with newspapers and other refuse. Some school children use articles of clothing in the absence of toilet paper. They also fail to wash their hands. Then they bring the germs into the classroom and spread many types of diseases. Some teen-age girls drop out of school due to a lack of clean and gender-segregated restrooms.

Mulaudzi's 300-member staff clean up filthy and unusable facilities and then educate their clients to about the importance of keeping them clean.

The clients then motivate themselves and administrators to keep facilities clean, and the whole sanitation system – from construction to education and maintenance - begins to work successfully.

Mulaudzi and the staff of his group, The Clean Shop, teach students to become what he calls toilet angels, who are willing to learn improved hygiene and sanitation practices:

"We say the state of your toilet reflects the state of your mind," he says. "So we give children a clean environment and clean toilets so they can stay at school. We teach children how to discard sanitary towels. They are clueless. We [explain to] them where [waste] goes – we say that's what's causing little rivulets' in the [open sewers] in the street.

Mulaudzi tells children not to leave home without their own toilet paper, which he calls an "admission ticket" to their schools' shiny new restrooms. Students appear to be getting the message. At one school, they held a protest when his cleaning contract was not renewed, causing the administration to reverse its decision.

Educating – and serving - the public is also the successful strategy of David Kuria of Kenya

His company, Ecotact, builds free-standing bathroom facilities called "toilet malls. " Besides toilets, they often include a water kiosk and showers for men and women in poor areas where people seldom have showers in their homes.

Kuria has used well known public figures to spread the message of good personal hygiene and sanitation, including Miss Kenya, a local Catholic bishop and even the country's vice president. He's also hired comedians, whose light-hearted methods have helped encourage reluctant members of the public to try the malls, with great success.

He's also increasing business by adding other public and profitable conveniences to the malls.

"How do we increase the [usefulness] of the [toilet malls] How do we attract more people," he asks. "We have added snacks, soft drinks ,….[people to do] shoe shines, magazine sales, cell phone charging stations… in the future can the banks install ATMs [there], where you can withdraw your cash ? We are breaking the mentality that [restrooms are always] dirty. Companies are now putting their advertising in the [malls], because [over 30,000] people are using them each day. These are revenue streams….With all these enterprises, we are able to recover the costs [of building and operating the malls]."

Kuria says some of the toilets even use the waste to create biogas for small generators that provide electricity.

Social entrepreneur Joseph Adelegan applies a similar idea at bigger scale for his project in Ibadan, Nigeria. Adelegan, a civil engineer, has devised a way to turn waste from a cattle slaughterhouse into fuel, cleaning up rivers and groundwater, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating sustainable jobs in the process. He sees no reason why the idea can not be used eventually to process human waste as well.

Adelegan calls his initiative "Cows to Kilowatts." It uses a reactor to process large volumes of cattle waste into biogas that is sold as an inexpensive fuel for cooking or for generators that provide electricity.

He describes how he got started.

"The first thing we did," he says, "was scientifically determine the impact of the waste on the people. In [our part of] Nigeria, there are no potable water supply or distribution networks. People extract water from hand dug wells and boreholes. There is leaching where [waste penetrates] ground water and pollutes drinking water. Most of the pollutants exceed WHO drinking water [standards]. There are also water-borne diseases."

Thanks to the Cows to Kilowatts project, there's less untreated waste in waterways, drinking water supplies are safer and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

The plants generate over 1,800 cubic meters of biogas per day, providing affordable cooking gas to over five thousand homes. The gas is cleaner than fuels used for cooking, and reduces pollution inside homes. Furthermore, Cows to Kilowatts is now organizing with six other African social entrepreneurs – including David Kuria and Trevor Mulaudzi – to try to build similar plants in Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa.

Adelegan has used a similar idea for producing biogas from refined cassava waste, which is also dumped into waterways. The gas powers turbines that provide electricity for thousands of homes.

These three leading social entrepreneurs are now working together and with several others in Africa on similar innovative solutions. They are combining ideas and helping spread each others' work to new areas. They are all fellows of Ashoka, a global NGO that recognizes and promotes social entrepreneurs, supporting them individually and helping bring them together for even greater insight and impact. Ashoka now works with over 2,000 such fellows in 60 countries, helping change the lives of millions of people worldwide.