Jackson rises from his bed at 5am. No alarm clock is necessary when you live in Mbiyani, a densely populated suburb in the heart of Blantyre, Malawi. Notorious for loud music, minibus horns blaring and cockerels crowing at dawn, the approximately 500,000 people who live in these busy, informal neighbourhoods are not accustomed to a lie-in.

View of Mbiyani
View of Mbiyani. Photograph: Nicola Greene

Jackson is a building contractor who has in the last 5 years expanded his business to include both construction and emptying of pit latrines and septic tanks across the city. He is softly spoken, did not finish school, and yet is one of few people in the country making a profitable business from provision of sanitation services; an industry as heavy in necessity as it is devoid of glamour. In Africa’s cities, sewer networks are not the norm. Instead, waste is collected on site in either pit latrines or septic tanks, and must be manually removed by contractors like Jackson. Today, he has been called to the home of a local bank clerk, whose latrine is on the verge of over-flowing.

A sample of the sight which greets Jackson and his team when they access a pit latrine
A sample of the sight which greets Jackson and his team when they access a pit latrine. Photograph: Nicola Greene

Over 75% of Blantyre’s households use on-site sanitation, primarily pit latrines. Many of them are old, poorly constructed, out of reach of the 30 meter access hose of conventional tankers (such as those used to empty septic tanks in more modern settings), and filled with solid waste as well as human excrement. A manual emptying service such as Jackson’s is the only way many of these households can safely have the 1500L(on average) of waste removed from their pits so that they can regain use of their toilet facilities. On average, Jackson empties 2 or 3 pit latrines per week. Demand for work increases in the rainy season, when rainwater causes pit levels to rise, threatening an overflow into homes and leading to many a tense torch-lit peer through the drop-hole.

The narrow access route to a pit latrine
The narrow access route to a pit latrine. Photograph: Nicola Greene

The primary piece of kit is a Gulper. A Gulper is a $300 basic mechanical pump specifically developed for hard to reach latrines. It is far from perfect; it does not prevent contact between the operator and the tank’s contents, its depth reach is limited and it can clog on solid waste. Solid waste is rife in Blantyre’s latrines, where pits can double as rubbish bins. This waste gets trapped in the Gulper’s valves and adds significant time and complexity to the job. Nevertheless, the Gulper is by far the leading option for this line of business, and is relatively affordable for the small scale entrepreneur. Prior to acquiring a Gulper, Jackson used the techniques employed by his peers including (i) manual emptying using buckets (typically done under cover of night and disposed of in a river), (ii) building a new latrine (if space allows), or (iii) digging a burrow pit (a pit next to the existing one into which waste can overflow).


Gulper clogged with solid waste
Gulper clogged with solid waste. Photograph: Nicola Greene
Gulper clogged with solid waste. Photograph: Nicola Greene

Departing for today’s latrine, Jackson packs his Gulper, 6 200L barrels, a 50L bucket, a fishing tool (a specially designed fork for removing solid waste) and some safety equipment on the back of a rented pick-up truck (his most significant cost for the day). His hired help arrives and they navigate their way to the customer’s home; stopping to fill one of the barrels with river water used to dilute the latrine’s content for easier removal.

They arrive at the home at 6:30 am. Negotiations begin with the owner around the price of the service. Officially, the price of the job is based on the number of barrels of waste removed, but unofficially Jackson also takes into account the appearance of the house (as a proxy for wealth), pit accessibility, and characteristics of the latrine contents (e.g. how dry it is, density of solid waste) that impact how difficult it will be to remove.

To demonstrate his point about solid waste content, he removes some sample rags from the pit using his fishing tool. The homeowner is disgusted by the sight of his family’s waste and quickly agrees to the price Jackson suggests and departs for his work in the city center, with promises to pay for the job at month end when he receives his salary. End of the month payments dominate all business transactions in Blantyre.

A fishing tool with some plastic waste retrieved from the pit
A fishing tool with some plastic waste retrieved from the pit. Photograph: Nicola Greene

Jackson and his employee get to work. They put on their overalls, gloves, boots and facial masks. It is questionable as to whether this gear sufficiently protects the men from the biological hazards they are about to face, but it is a significant improvement on the status quo.

They transport water by the bucket from the truck and dump it into the latrine. The fishing tool is used to agitate the contents of the latrine and mix the water with the fresh sludge at the top of the latrine and the 10 year old sludge which lies in a dense layer at the bottom. The first agitation releases a great, almost poisonous stench unique to pit emptying (a smell signifying a release of gases that has been known to kill people in this business), but they do not flinch. Instead, the operator uses the fishing tool to remove an abundance of nappies, sanitary rags, condoms, medication and even a burst football. 200L of shit covered rubbish is removed from the pit in the first half hour.

Once the sludge is relatively free from solids, Jackson inserts the gulper via the slab drop-hole and begins to “gulp” waste. The race is on to get the job done before the rising sun starts to really unleash its heat and bring with it increased flies and smells.

A 50L barrel is filled and the men decant the contents into a 200L barrel on the waiting truck. The process continues, and despite intermittent blockages and the need to fish out more rags, the 6 barrels are filled in less than 2 hours. The bank clerk’s neighbors have been watching and express their amazement by the process. In fact, this is one of the main barriers to the expansion of Jackson’s business: people simply don’t know it exists. They plead that he empty theirs next, but when he explains the minimum cost is $35 (more than a monthly salary in many households in Malawi), their enthusiasm is dampened.

Waste is carried to the waiting truck in 50 L barrels
Waste is carried to the waiting truck in 50 L barrels. Photograph: Nicola Greene

Jackson and his employee clean the area, sprinkling it with chlorine powder and leave no trace of their work. They depart for the 10km drive to the sewage treatment works, bringing with them a foul smelling load and an army of flies. Jackson pays a $0.20 dumping fee to the facility manager. The low fee is set as an incentive to encourage people like Jackson to legally dump their waste, but does not contribute much to upkeeping this deteriorating facility. The dumping process is a messy one: the operators heave the 200kg barrels of waste to the edge of the pick-up truck and attempt to pour it into a meter-wide channel, which flows to the treatment plant below. They proceed to the latter stages of the treatment plant to use the discharged “clean” water to wash their equipment. This process takes 1.5 hours. While the equipment is now clean, the cleaning process actually re-contaminates some of the treatment plant’s effluent.

The waste from Jackson’s dump flows through the semi-functional treatment plant and is discharged to Blantyre’s main river.

The tertiary stages of the treatment plant are used to wash equipment
The tertiary stages of the treatment plant are used to wash equipment. Photograph: Nicola Greene

Amazingly, considering the number of pit latrines in Blantyre, only 20,000L (or 20 latrines) worth of waste are recorded as arriving in the sewage works each week. What happens to the rest of the waste is a mystery filled with abandoned pit latrines and indiscriminately dumped fecal waste.

Jackson does incredibly dirty work for a very small profit (<$5/job); but in doing so provides a critical public health service for the people of Blantyre. The same is true for many small scale pit emptiers around the world serving many millions of latrine users. Equipment remains substandard, latrines continue to be built in an inaccessible way, and users are not educated on why they should not simultaneously be used as a rubbish dump.

Latrines, in most cases, effectively contain human waste reducing the health risk it poses. However, in urban settings, without effective practices for transporting and treating the waste, the latrine merely postpones the problem of human waste entering the environment rather than solves it. Jackson’s business essentially provides a man-powered sewer. It is difficult to envision the situation in African cities in 20, or even 50 years’ time: Man may be walking on Mars before a network of sewers is established.

As a sanitation engineer, I work to improve businesses like Jackson’s through developing more effective technology for emptying latrine pits and treating waste, while simultaneously considering the (often overlooked) softer issues such as demand for the services and how customers might pay. Legislation underpins the entire process and without punishment for illegally dumping human waste directly into rivers, a legitimate business like Jackson’s cannot flourish.

On-site sanitation will be a fact of life, particularly in urban Africa, for many generations to come. However, without a refocus on management and disposal of human waste, we face a future where many homes contain Broken Toilets.

Author’s Note: Jackson is a fictional character representing the many manual pit emptiers that I spent time with in low income communities of Blantyre. My thanks to these men for their assistance in allowing me to observe, photograph and document their occupation during my work. Special mentions to John, Tim, Edwin, Harold and the Water for People Malawi team.

All photographs and video by Nicola Greene.