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Shit Business is Serious Business: A successful cooperation between research and the private sector.
Shit Business is Serious Business smiles down in large letters on the side of the truck. The unusual slogan of a Nigerian mobile toilet company reveals what the truck has on board: faecal matter. Instead of tactfully paraphrasing his line of business, the resourceful entrepreneur Otunba Gaddafi has chosen a more direct marketing strategy, attracting much attention and recognition in the process. We seldom talk about the ‘other end’ of the food chain – too seldom to recognise that it may actually have positive aspects and not just waste removal issues. On the contrary; the shit business is not only a serious business. It also has the potential to be a crucial one. Human waste can play a major role in improving our food systems.
The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and its partners are showing how this can be done with a public-private-partnership in Ghana. IWMI is one of the 15 research centres of the global research partnership for a food-secure future (CGIAR). In over 90 countries, CGIAR researchers develop widely applicable solutions such as new technologies, enhanced seed and adapted agricultural practices for smallholder farmers in developing countries. In the fight against hunger, malnutrition, poverty and degradation, not only research innovations are in demand, but also innovative research. Therefore, agricultural research does not focus on agricultural production alone, but also on its in- and outputs.
To produce more food for providing a growing world population with sufficient and healthy food, we require an increasing amount of water. Yet water is already in short supply in many places. Agricultural use already accounts for 70 per cent of all water extraction and the amount of irrigated land in developing countries is expected to grow – especially near urban centres. These intra-urban and peri-urban areas meet up to 90 per cent of the urban demand for leafy vegetables.
At the same time, many cities in developing countries do not have adequate sanitary systems and disposal facilities. In many Ghanaian cities, for instance, over 90 per cent of human waste from toilets is discharged directly into the environment with little or no treatment, contaminating land and water bodies. In and around Kumasi, with 2.5 million inhabitants the second largest city, farmers use such polluted water sources to irrigate approximately 12,000 hectares. The environmental problem therefore rapidly transitions into a health risk: The contaminated water flows along the food chain from the field to the plate, for instance in the form of irrigated green leafy vegetables. However, human faeces is a valuable resource for agriculture; as a source of biological fertiliser. In particular, countries that suffer from low soil fertility like Ghana need nutritious fertiliser urgently. Currently, most of the fertiliser applied is synthetic which is too expensive for most farmers and increases the risk of soil degradation.
The wastewater generated in the world’s cities alone could substitute a quarter of the nitrogen currently applied as synthetic fertiliser. In order to make sure that pollutants and pathogens do not contaminate food, faecal matter must be processed and applied appropriately. However, developing countries often lack the necessary financial capacities and physical infrastructure to implement such solutions.
Together with its partners, the agricultural research centre IWMI works globally on broadly applicable solutions for sustainable use of water and land resources in developing countries. For this, IWMI involves increasingly the private sector. Even though the advantages of recycling and reuse of resources such as faecal matter are obvious, it is still a challenge to create economic opportunities from it when others see only (public) costs – and dirt. Together with its public and private partners, IWMI and other centres have developed various innovative technologies and products that transform human waste into high quality biological fertiliser – benefiting more people than just farmers.
One of these products is the Fortifer whose marketing and adoption is currently supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Fortifer, manufactured from faecal matter, food waste and minerals, can improve agricultural yields by 20 to 50 per cent compared with inorganic fertilizers, without reducing soil fertility. In its practical pellet form, Fortifer is also easy to transport and dispense. It also complies with the international safety standards of the World Health Organization, of course.
Close to Accra, Ghana’s first public-private enterprise dedicated solely to producing an affordable fertilizer of this type has recently been launched. Ghana’s Government contributes land while the private sector has committed financial resources to cover the operating maintenance and marketing costs until breakeven. By producing high quality fertiliser in Ghana, the country’s dependency on imports decreases while new opportunities for the local economy arise. The disposal of faecal matter and food waste is used to generate a resource that can fund livelihoods. Jobs are created along the entire value chain: from transport and processing to trading and engineering. The success of the project has already impacted policy: Ghanaian ministries officially approved commercial production of the pellets and included waste-based composts in its national fertiliser subsidy program.
IWMI initiated the project and facilitated its scientific process from market analysis to product development. Researchers are still involved in order to develop the research results into a long-term business model. The cooperation between agricultural researchers, the Ghanaian Government and private investors created a model solution with high potential that could be replicated in other countries – such as Sri Lanka, where IWMI is currently testing the same Fortifer with BMZ support. With the aim of fostering further initiatives, IWMI has analysed Fortifer as well as other products and business models for faecal sludge management, and developed practical guidelines.
The IWMI project is just one example of how agricultural researchers and the private sector can join forces to develop innovative solutions and put them into practice. Many partners are required in order to create these custom, needs-oriented products, as they cannot be developed effectively without the input of their eventual end users. To have a long-term impact, they also have to be profitable. Especially where public services are weak or non-existent, larger private-sector partners play a key role in bringing the results of research into smallholder practice. All of the 17 agricultural research centres supported by Germany therefore do not merely contribute to developing solutions with their expertise and results. They also have the crucial task of acting as knowledge brokers and actively engaging in, initiating and managing partnerships.
For we need not merely more but also more diverse foods in our diets to combat hidden hunger and malnutrition.
Yet international agricultural research does not only cooperate with the private sector. It is also an important counterweight to the major players on the market, the international agricultural conglomerates. It produces public goods that are freely available around the globe and are not limited in their usage by patents. Furthermore, researchers work on crops like millet and cassava that may be less interesting commercially, but play crucial roles in terms of world food security as staple dishes in developing countries. For we need not merely more but also more diverse foods in our diets to combat hidden hunger and malnutrition. International agricultural research has a public mandate: mitigate hunger, poverty and degradation. Its results cannot be geared toward profit – but they can very well be profitable. Examples like the Fortifer prove that this is indeed possible. And those who find the idea of ‘shit business’ too blunt may find alternatives: IWMI has analysed another promising business model in India. Here, the transporters that pump out faecal sludge in exchange for a small fee have been fondly termed ‘honeysuckers’.