Shitovation: solving sanitation challenges where sewers don’t exist

A pit emptying business in Kampala sets up the Gulper 4 pump to empty a latrine pit. Entrepreneurs have led the initial testing of the pump, leading to improvements in overall design. © Water for People

Seeking practical solutions for those without safe sanitation, Water For People has created a fund that supports creative, innovative solutions that are achieving great success and disrupting the narrative around how SDG 6 can be achieved. Tom Wildman explains.

A recently released report, Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, by WHO and UNICEF, raises warning flags that the world is woefully off track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6): Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by the target date of 2030. Right now, 46% of the world’s population – 3.6 billion people – do not have access to safely managed sanitation. Unless the pace of progress is quadrupled, by 2030 that number will still stand at an estimated 2.8 billion people who lack proper toilets and adequate waste management. The vast majority live in communities built without centralised sewer and wastewater treatment systems – and because of the massive scale of this problem, including logistical and budgetary constraints, the likelihood of constructing such systems in our lifetimes is virtually nil. 

Defined as ‘the use of an improved sanitation facility where excreta is disposed safely in situ or is transported and treated off site’, safely managed sanitation can be achieved by abandoning a ‘business as usual’ approach. Solving this complex and expensive challenge will require new ways of working to create an ecosystem of interconnected, publicly supported actors working in harmony to contain, collect, transport and treat waste across large geographical areas.

In urgent need of disruption

Water For People recognises that the sanitation sector is running out of time to address this global crisis. The organisation is in urgent need of disruptive innovations to develop cost-effective and appropriate solutions at a scale large enough to affect the nine countries in which it operates. Water For People’s success in sanitation to date has been born from disruptive ideas. Meeting the challenge of United Nations’ SDG 6 means we must maintain a pipeline of innovative ideas to rapidly test and refine. 

To do this, we launched The Shitovation Fund in 2018. It is a sanitation-focused innovation fund that provides small injections of ‘risky development capital’ for ideas that are new, disruptive, and untested at scale or within our current geographies. Almost all of Water For People’s sanitation programmes start with small ideas that are tested at speed; we kill off the failures quickly and rapidly scale up the successes.

Worth the investment

The fund invests in initiatives spanning technology, sanitation-focused business models, public–private partnership models, and wider market system development. These innovations cover the entire sanitation service chain, each part of which must be operating at efficiency to manage wastewater and solids. What follows are examples of initiatives that have yielded the most promising outcomes from the innovations we have funded within four key areas that enable effective sanitation. 

Capture and storage

Safe sanitation starts at the household level. In many parts of the world, poor people have shockingly little choice in terms of affordable, high-quality toilets. Many locally produced toilets require specialised labour and high material and transport costs, and do not lend themselves to economies of scale. We have focused our work on the mobilisation of the private sector to offer affordable, safe and dignified toilet components at scale.

Notably, the standard septic tank has not changed much since it was invented by Jean-Louis Mouras in 1860. While tanks are commonplace in rural areas of North America and Europe, it is still prohibitively expensive in many developing countries because of high costs of fabrication – either the cost of in situ concrete construction, or of setting up manufacturing for prefabricated plastic and fibreglass versions. 

In Guatemala, Water For People has developed a locally fabricated septic tank. The Eco-Digestor competes performance-wise with roto-moulded plastic versions available in the market, but at a significantly more affordable price. We believe it can meet a huge gap in the market – namely, households in rural and peri-urban areas who cannot afford plastic biodigesters. The next phase in developing the supply chain for this product will involve establishing partnerships with private–sector actors and with our existing microfinance partners, to offer this model through wider distribution channels. 

In Bolivia, there is no shortage of options for toilet and bathroom fixtures, but the price of hardware and installation is prohibitive for large segments of the market. To address this challenge, the Water For People team in Bolivia has pioneered the Incentivo Municipal (Municipal Incentive) with district government partners. It is a publicly funded subsidy, targeted towards households who do not have a basic level of sanitation and who face financial barriers to upgrading their bathrooms. The Incentive covers 10% of the cost of a bathroom; if qualified families invest in the basic structure of the bathroom, the Incentive covers the cost of the toilet bowl and sink. 

This past year, the team launched an innovative new partnership with hardware stores, which were encouraged to offer toilet packages at a discounted rate to support families in meeting the minimum requirements necessary for obtaining the Incentive and completing their bathroom installation. This partnership has supported households to invest in more affordable sanitation and led to the growth of a competitive and varied market for sanitation goods. It has also stimulated local economic development. The pilot initiative resulted in nearly 700 toilet packages being sold during the first nine months, accounting for almost half of the 1800 upgraded bathrooms installed through the Incentivo Municipal programme. 

Next year, the programme will expand significantly across Bolivia, and is being modified for markets in Nicaragua, Peru and Guatemala, where we hope to link it with the Eco-Digestor referenced previously. 


Places where no sewers exist present the most challenging link to develop and sustain in the service chain. Our work in this realm has included investments in private- and public-sector service models. We have incubated and supported more than 50 pit emptying enterprises in Uganda and Malawi to establish viable business models for emptying latrine pits and septic tanks. A major barrier to service provision, however, was the absence of a lightweight, mobile desludging pump that could reach into crowded urban areas.

Our first attempt to solve the problem was via investment in ‘The Gulper’ – a manual, locally manufactured pit emptying device that quickly empties wastewater and solids from household pits. It helped spawn an entire network of pit emptying entrepreneurs in Kampala, Uganda, and Blantyre, Malawi, serving more than 16,000 people. However, The Gulper had limitations; it could only reach a latrine pit to a depth of about a metre, which meant sometimes removing the roof of a latrine to position it correctly. Public sector authorities also desired a more hygienic option to meet regulatory requirements. 

In response, we have invested in the development of The Gulper 4, an aluminium prototype that we’re testing in Uganda, Malawi, Rwanda, and Honduras. This improved version can empty pits to a depth of three metres (10 feet), with a delivery head of five metres (16 feet) to pump to a flat-bed pickup truck. It can fit into the tightest of toilets, and be folded up and transported on a motorbike. We are testing the pump performance with local entrepreneurs and analysing the pump’s impact on their operational expenditures. Our teams are already adapting the pump locally, manufacturing versions made of both steel and wood, with the aim of having The Gulper 4 in markets within one year. Local manufacture is targeted at $250. 

In Honduras, residents of peri-urban areas with septic tanks have little to no choice in terms of pit emptying services. Using The Gulper 4 as a starting point, the Water For People team issued a call for existing entrepreneurs who were willing to invest in expanding their businesses to include pit emptying services for households with septic tanks, in exchange for our support with market analysis and business planning. Less than one year later, two businesses are now offering these services to previously unserved households, with a third business expected to enter the market soon. The next step is brokering agreements with public sector actors to include these businesses in wider sanitation planning efforts, and ensuring they can easily and effectively dispose of waste in existing treatment plants. 


The world is littered with non-functional wastewater treatment facilities, many financed by well-meaning international development actors. These facilities were either not designed appropriately for the local context or did not make the necessary investments into other elements of the sanitation service chain. Our Shitovation-funded investments have focused on cost-effective, low-maintenance technologies that can handle variable hydraulic loads. We also focus on complementary public/private business models. In Rwanda, for example, Water For People is joining forces with district government partners to implement a modular, low-cost, small-footprint waste treatment plant that is a fraction of the cost of typical faecal sludge treatment plants. The cost is low because it uses tiger worms, which have the capability to process an entire town’s faecal sludge. This process – known as vermifiltration – has been used at scale in India and Australia, and is completely passive, produces zero faecal sludge to dry and dispose of, and emits no smell because of the aerobic treatment process. We have just completed the design and feasibility phase, and will begin construction in 2022. We hope to not only provide a cost-effective, modular alternative for waste treatment in small towns, but also to sell the vermicompost produced by the worms to organic farmers and subsidise the operation of the plant. 


Beyond safely capturing, transporting and treating waste, we also invest in ways to reuse it. Through The Shitovation Fund, we are exploring ways to derive value from the reuse of treated faecal sludge. In Kampala, Uganda, we partner with the National Water and Sewerage Corporation to turn treated faecal sludge into eco-briquettes, which are sold in local markets as a safer, more efficient, and more sustainable alternative to wood charcoal, which is commonly used for cooking. The briquettes are 40% dried faecal sludge and 60% charcoal dust, and we have been selling them for three years. However, our team in Uganda spent 2021 researching more sustainable alternatives to charcoal dust, and fine-tuning the process of replacing it with sawdust waste found in Kampala markets. While briquettes remain a target market, the team is also testing the production of biochar – a black carbon soil amendment to improve fertility and crop yield – from the same sources. We see this as having great market potential; given Uganda’s degrading soil quality, biochar can turn the ‘headache’ of dried sludge disposal into a resource that supports food security . 

The Fund’s future

Four years into The Shitovation Fund, we are looking back and looking forward. In summer 2021, we undertook a global sanitation gap analysis with our colleagues in all nine country programmes to define knowledge gaps and areas of prioritisation for research and development (R&D) and innovation funding within our sanitation programmes. We are using this to define future strategies and prioritise Fund investments, as well as to identify R&D opportunities. The priority gaps identified are in:

  • Smaller-footprint, lower-cost faecal sludge treatment options, particularly for peri-urban and small-town contexts
  • Monitoring and evaluation of faecal sludge management services in non-sewered areas, particularly monitoring of safely managed sanitation across a geographic area
  • Mechanisms to incentivise public sector investment in development of sustainable market systems for sustainable decentralised sanitation services
  • Publicly financed, ‘smart’ subsidy models that benefit low-income groups while driving market growth for sanitation goods and services

Complex, deep-rooted problems of essential service delivery rarely have simple solutions, and innovation – or Shitovation in our case – is not a ‘silver bullet’. But we firmly believe in the importance of stimulating and incubating innovation and taking considered risks where most traditional donors fear to tread. The Shitovation Fund is driving progress and getting us ever closer to closing the service gap for the 3.6 billion who still lack dignified and safe sanitation solutions.

Tom Wildman is senior programme manager of sanitation at Water for People

More information

Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene