It’s a shit business but….

This Zambian heat must be getting to me.  In what must have been a state of delirium, I recently signed up for a six-week course in Social Entrepreneurship through Coursera, a social enterprise in itself that offers thousands of free, online courses from some of the world’s leading Universities (check it out:

Led by Professors at the University of Pennsylvania, I joined 19,300 of my fellow students to do mind mapping, logic models, beneficiary tables, competitive analysis matrices, dashboards and scorecards for financially sustainable ideas that can address social issues ranging from child pregnancy in Zambia to irrigation efficiency for small-scale farmers in Kenya.

Thanks to a ridiculously hectic work schedule, travel plans & illness, this course could not have come at a worse time.  Nor could it have come at a better time, thanks to the opportunity to get involved in UNICEF’s Sanitation Marketing training in Luapula Province shortly after.

For those unfamiliar with Zambia, Luapula Province is a long, long way from me, waaaaay up in the North of the country, where waterfalls and marshlands abound.  In fact, one district is pretty much entirely under water in the rainy season (but more on that later!).  There is so much water that the Province faces major challenges in building lasting sanitation infrastructure due to collapsible sandy and waterlogged soils.  That’s where Sanitation Marketing comes in.

Sanitation Marketing is designed to equip community masons with the skills to construct stronger, longer-lasting latrines for a variety of environments, as well as building their capacity in marketing and making an income from this service.  The end result is less open defecation, less illness, and greater economic security for a number of masons and their families.  In other words, we’re helping create shit businesses – and that’s a good thing!

I joined 35 community masons from 5 districts for a week’s workshop on the shores of Lake Bangweulu in Samfya.  The breeze from the lake, and the afternoon dip in schistosomiasis- and crocodile-infested waters, was a welcome reprieve from the debilitating heat experienced elsewhere in the country.

Ahh, Samfya

Ahh, Samfya

Over three days, the masons (and I) learnt how to construct five styles of toilets, using locally available materials such as termite-resistant woven baskets, chicken wire, anthills, and mudbricks.  The competition for best hand washing facility was hotly contested, and introduced some great innovation.  We spent the rest of the time discussing and devising action plans to address the other fundamentals of marketing – pricing, placement and promotion.


While everybody left the workshop full of ideas and enthusiasm to see their businesses become shit hot (get it?), only time will reveal the true impact of SanMark in Luapula.  I can say this, though, already the latrines have passed one test of strength:  withstanding a 5.3 magnitude earthquake that occurred the day we left, with the epicentre in Samfya.

The trip to Samfya didn’t end with the workshop, however.  We were also invited, and privileged, to have the opportunity to visit one of the most remote and sanitationally vulnerable districts in the region – Lunga.

A 3-hour boat ride from anywhere, Lunga is little more than a series of inland islands – very wet islands.  During the dry season, water levels drop enough to allow temporary fishing settlements flourish along the muddy banks of the papyrus-lined, reedy, man-made canals.  It also drops enough to cause havoc to the propellers of motorised boats, virtually limiting outside access to communities except through dug-out canoes.  As the rains return and the waters rise, people return to their permanent settlements situated on the few lumps of land that barely stick out above the rising water table.

Ahh, Lunga

Ahh, Lunga

Needless to say, with a water table at about 10cm underground, construction of pit latrines can be a bit of a challenge.  We were impressed, however, to find a number of holes dug and strengthened by cobelling brickwork.  The down side was that very few of these latrines had walls, a roof, a lid or hand washing facilities, and were built about 2 metres from the house meaning they actually brought the shit and flies closer.  These structures were clearly intended for quick relief under the darkness of night.

The whole week was a fascinating insight into a different part of Zambia, a far cry from the dry, dusty, land-locked environment where I reside.  Eastern Province may not have the same challenges as Luapula, but the potential for shit business is just as great.  Kenny would be proud.

Categories: Work | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “It’s a shit business but….

  1. Fiona

    You continue to amaze not just me, but many and this lil anecdote had me laughing all the way to the loo. Luv your work!!!

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