By Lisa Bauer
By 2050, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas, with 40 percent of this growth occurring in slums. One critical development challenge is the lack of adequate sewer systems–currently, one in every five city dwellers lacks access to adequate sanitation, including toilets. Without proper management of human waste, cities run the risk of exacerbating public health concerns, such as communicable diseases, worm infections, cholera, and diarrhea. One UC Berkeley PhD student and 2018 Big Ideas contest winner, Rachel Sklar, is working to change that with her company Pit Vidura.
“No one knows sh** better than we do. We are the ‘Uber’ of fecal sludge and we’re creating the future of urban sanitation systems,” declared Sklar during the May 2018 Big Ideas pitch day. Sklar took home first prize for her pitch, and placed second overall in the Big Ideas Global Health category. Her aim is to solve a central urban fecal management challenge: maintaining an efficient, accessible network of exhauster trucks.
According to Pit Vidura, almost 3 billion households worldwide use pit latrines, which have one major drawback–they fill up. Urban areas are constrained by a lack of space to build new pits, combined with inefficient, inaccessible, and prohibitively expensive systems for excavating them. Due to the massive population shift from rural to urban areas–with a projected 2.5 billion people expected to move to cities by 2050–cities in low-income countries are struggling to meet the heightened demands on urban waste disposal systems. For many cities, like New Delhi, India and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, it’s a daily nightmare.
Fecal sludge management failings also have created an illegal, unregulated, and highly hazardous market for marginalized laborers, who manually empty pit latrines from households that cannot be reached by exhauster trucks, endangering themselves and others because of the many diseases untreated waste carry. When the pits fill, as they inevitably do, manual emptying is the only option. Laborers are called upon to empty the pits under the cover of night for the equivalent of around $8 per pit. The fecal sludge is then dumped or buried elsewhere in the community where urban dwellers, primarily those residing in dense slums, are exposed to toxic fecal pathogens.
“These informal laborers have to manually excavate the human feces bucket by bucket by climbing into the pit,” explains Sklar. “They self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to withstand the unbearable stench and the infections that can follow. It’s extremely unsafe and stigmatized work.”
Manual dumping of pathogenic waste is common in Kigali, Rwanda, where Pit Vidura launched in 2016. As one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, Rwanda and particularly its capital, has not been able to keep pace with growing infrastructure demands to expand waste treatment facilities. Kigali, a city of over 1.3 million people, does not have a sewer system but only 7% of all human waste generated in Kigali is collected by exhauster truck services. The rest of the waste is buried underground or emptied and disposed of in the environment.
Sklar founded Pit Vidura to see if she could scale a clean and legal professional latrine pit emptying service for low-income populations and communities, using effective waste management practices. Pit Vidura’s efforts fall into three areas: pit emptying services, professional training, and technology development. The company trains waste workers on professional emptying tools and equips them with personal protective gear, providing formal, stable employment. Additionally, Pit Vidura safely transports the fecal sludge to factories, which transform the waste into fuel for industrial consumption. Over the past two years, Pit Vidura has served roughly 900 customers in Kigali, providing excavation services to low-income homes that previously could not afford the service.
Not long after launching Pit Vidura, Sklar said she was confronted with a technical challenge that required outside support. “This is a common situation for entrepreneurs–we start with a grand vision which ends up getting distilled into something quite different,” recounts Sklar. “I’m a big picture person with a public and environmental health background; but when we got Pit Vidura operating in Kigali, we quickly realized that our core challenges boiled down to fecal sludge transportation logistics.”
Given that transportation logistics fell outside of her areas of expertise, Sklar entered UC Berkeley’s nine-month Big Ideas student innovation contest looking for advice and collaborators. Her hope was to refine and secure funding for a live testing lab called Loo Lab, which could investigate and develop best practices for fecal sludge management transportation logistics.
“Big Ideas gave me the tools to access the resources I needed to push forward with a concept that was very new to me,” says Sklar. “It gave me confidence to build a strong organization and get people behind my vision.” Sklar advises students and aspiring entrepreneurs to take advantage of Big Ideas resources: “Whatever kind of entrepreneur you are, the resources are there for you. Don’t be afraid to use them. The Big Ideas team will help you navigate the process.”
Currently, Loo Lab is live testing technologies in Kigali to better streamline exhauster truck routes and minimize consumer costs using GPS technology to cluster house calls. Loo Lab’s rapid feedback cycle allows the business to quickly iterate and improve its services, while gathering data for scaling fecal sludge management systems throughout the developing world.
Last year, Pit Vidura joined a collaborative of sanitation service providers supported by the Dutch NGO WASTE and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As a part of the collaboration, Pit Vidura is hosting a workshop in Kigali this fall to share its technology and learnings with sanitation services providers across East Africa.
Goal 6 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. Rachel Sklar is among a rising generation of social entrepreneurs set on achieving this target.