Manual Pit Emptiers (MPEs) play a crucial role in urban sanitation. Sanergy, CAWST and PASA sought to focus on the work that MPEs do, the challenges they face and what support they need to improve their work.
Promoting the health, safety, and dignity of sanitation workers is an increasing priority within the WASH and labor sectors, but the perspective of MPEs is often absent due to heavy stigmatization and the informal nature of their work. We developed a MPE-centered approach to bring manual pit emptiers (MPEs) directly into the ongoing urban sanitation conversation. We conducted six focus group discussions (FGDs) in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Kenya, Cameroon, and Uganda to understand the work MPEs do, how it impacts their lives, their families and their communities, and to identify opportunities for support. Local sanitation workers within each country were trained and supported to facilitate FGDs and leveraged their existing relationships within manual emptying groups to recruit participants and create a comfortable environment for them to speak openly. We also led the direct online engagement between emptiers with other WASH sector stakeholders (the first to our knowledge) in a series of webinars giving them an opportunity to share their experiences and drive conversations about how the research could be applied and what solutions and opportunities should be explored.
Our goal for this research was to provide manual emptiers an opportunity to directly represent their realities, challenges, and hopes, in order to better inform how others engage with them and the support they receive. Our work focused on centering the voices and experiences of manual emptiers by creating opportunities for sanitation workers to represent themselves directly in each step of the research: from design, data collection, to dissemination of the results. In the research design we consulted with manual emptiers, and organizations working closely with manual emptiers, to understand their interests, and to help set a shared agenda for the data collection.
Our analysis yielded three main themes: the life of a manual emptier, manual emptying challenges, and opportunities to improve working conditions. Key findings in the theme of “a day in the life” included practical understanding of interactions with customers, methods for assessing pits, determining prices, and details on methods for emptying and transporting waste. Top challenges identified included stigmatization, risks to their physical health and safety, uncertainty of payment and lack of affordable and efficient emptying and transport tools. Desired support and opportunities for collaboration included peer-to-peer learning, training on business skills, developing more gender- and weather-friendly PPE and establishing professional organizations. Manual emptiers presented the FGD findings to an audience of global WASH stakeholders in a webinar series in 2021, and actively participated in the resulting conversation.
The formal WASH sector cannot afford to continue without incorporating the expertise of MPEs. Their nuanced understanding of the complexities of sanitation service delivery in urban contexts is an irreplaceable asset, and their creativity, problem-solving skills, and decades of experience position them as invaluable contributors to the design and scale of the safe, efficient and sustainable solutions that are necessary to expand access to safely managed sanitation services to all, including the urban poor. We hope that sharing our methods and results demonstrates the feasibility and value of incorporating MPE perspectives, and encourages increased representation of MPEs.
Webinar 1: A day in the life of a manual pit emptier
Alidou, a resident of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, once walked along the streets of his town while heading to work as a photographer. On the way, he noticed that there was a lot of sludge and waste water dumped in most of the residents’ premises. Moved by the situation, he decided to assist his community manage the waste. This marked the beginning of his career as a manual emptier in Ouagadougou. In most cities of developing countries, the containment, emptying, transport and treatment elements of the sanitation service value chain lack safe and proper infrastructure to serve citizens adequately. Manual emptiers like Alidou play a vital role in bridging this gap through their waste emptying and transport services. Manual emptiers often provide services in low income non-sewered areas where communities use pit latrines and septic tanks for their sanitation needs. When full, manual emptiers remove the waste using a scooping ladle or bucket and a drum-on-wheels (often called an ambulance in Nairobi). This service is most common in urban low income areas, where it is a necessity due to the tightly packed, organic layout of settlements, which makes pits inaccessible to vacuum trucks. In providing this service, manual emptiers face a myriad of challenges ranging from health and safety risks to high community stigma, alienation and working with rudimentary tools. After conducting focus group discussions (FGDs) with manual emptiers in Sub-Saharan Africa and surveying organizations that are interested in the work that manual emptiers are doing, The Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST), Sanergy and the Pan African Association of Sanitation Actors (PASA) organized a five-part webinar series aimed at better understanding the challenges experienced by manual emptiers, the opportunities to better support them to deliver safe and high quality emptying services and to explore existing initiatives that support manual emptiers in order to identify strategies for coordination and collaboration.
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Capacity development Cities Educators Emptying and transport (non sewered) Enabling environment and institutional strengthening Faeces or faecal sludge Gender equality Global Greywater or wastewater Market development Operation, maintenance and sustainable services Other funding source or unspecified Peri-urban Politicians and local decision makers Practitioners Private sector, including social enterprises Sub-Saharan Africa Urban (entire city) Urban informal settlements (slums) Urine
Dennis Gichimu (dennisgichimu)
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