Summer ’13 Jason Knutson, G
THE MICROBIAL FUEL CELL LATRINE AND A WEEK IN TAMALEPosted on January 28, 2014
MICROBIAL FUEL CELL LATRINE
Well, it has been two weeks since my last post, for which I apologize.. During that time, I left Accra for Tamale and then Kumasi, and I had written this post, but I was unable to post it due to poor internet connectivity. So, when it refers to “this week,” it is actually referring to the week during which it was written, January 12-17. Here it goes.
This week was quite a roller coaster, but it has ended on a high note. Sunday was a relaxing day. We went to church, had some fried Tilapia (Western style!), and then Chipo and I went back down the hill into Pokuase to retake a few GPS points that didn’t quite register. It was a nice day to recharge after a busy week.
On Monday we set off early in the morning for Nyakrom in order to visit a pilot project of a Microbial Fuel Cell Latrine. The Microbial Fuel Cell Latrine (MFCL) appears to be an old-fashioned pit latrine, but it actually is quite high-tech. It diverts the urine (which is rich in nitrates) into a nitrification tank, where it is converted into ammonia. The ammonia has a positive charge, so it acts as a cathode. Meanwhile, the solid organic waste is diverted into a different tank and is broken down into a compound that functions as the anode. The whole set up essentially acts as a battery (Cathode = positive side, Anode = negative), and it powers a light inside the latrine (in theory). It also produces biogas that can be used for cooking.
The MFCL is at the Nyastech Secondary School in Nyakrom, and it is failing due to a lack of consistent users. The school has 1500 students, but it is apparent that few students use the latrine. The urine that fuels the cathode is supposed to come from the males’ urinal inside the latrine, but the norm for male students is to urinate in the bush. The facility’s poor condition does not encourage students to use it either. As a result, the fuel cell has never generated enough energy to power the light.
Additionally, this school was a poor choice for the site of the MFCL pilot project because of neighboring facilities and habits/demographics of the students. Nyastech Secondary is a boarding school, but 60% of the students commute from Nyakrom. In Ghana, it is customary for people to wake up around 4:30 AM and stop by a public toilet to use on their way to work or school. This means that 60% of the population is very unlikely to use the toilet at school, according to our surveys. The other 40% stay in the dorms, where there are Western-style flushing toilets. Given the option between the dorm toilets and the MFCL (they are about a 3 minute walk apart), the decision for where to defecate is a no-brainer as well. Overall, this technology is interesting, but it is complex and difficult to implement in areas with more conventional options.
On Tuesday, Chipo and I were supposed to embark on a 12 hour bus ride to Tamale, in the Northern Region of Ghana. However, I awoke with possibly the worst stomach virus of my life. After early hours of vomiting, light-headedness, and a fever of nearly 103, I got a call from Susan saying that Wong had just gone to the hospital with the same symptoms. She soon called back and said that Wong had tested positive for malaria.
At this point, I got pretty panicked.
I splurged on calls to my parents and my Uncle Lee, who has many years of experience as an ER doctor, and he calmed me down a bit and explained how unlikely it was that I had malaria, based on my symptoms and the fact that malaria typically takes around 20 days for symptoms to show up. I was pretty lucky and very thankful to have him giving me advice throughout the process. Still, the fact that Wong had the same symptoms as me and had malaria just seemed strangely coincidental. Dr. Jackson also had called the Ashesi University head doc, and she said that it was likely that Wong actually had a stomach virus as well and was simply incubating malaria at the same time (his malaria symptoms had not shown up in full yet). We chose to buy into this, half out of optimism and half out the fact that I couldn’t imagine a 45 minute bumpy ride to the hospital for the test. I pushed fluids for the rest of the day and slept a lot, and I was feeling a bit better the next day.
At this point, I decided it was time to catch the Tamale bus. Chipo and I were able to negotiate moving our tickets to the next day, and we caught a bus that was delayed four hours. Once we got on the bus, however, we found out that the bus was infested with mosquitoes (just what we needed now that we were paranoid). For whatever reason, they seemed to love the back of the bus (our seats), and there were at least a couple hundred of them buzzing around back there. Chipo, two other passengers, and I were standing in the aisle trying to figure out what to do when the bus’s AK47-weilding security guard came back and told us that we had to take our seats and insisted that we keep the windows closed. He explained that the AC was on, and that the mosquitoes would “run and hide once the bus started moving.” I normally would choose not to disagree with a guy holding an assault rifle, but this was a special circumstance. We told him that we were opening the windows anyways, and after some bickering and the driver coming to the back of the bus, they finally agreed. Still, there were so many that we were slapping bugs until our hands were disgusting. After about 20 minutes of driving, I told the driver that I just needed to get some deet out of my suitcase, and he was nice enough to let me out to get it. After that, we were finally able to relax and get some rest.
We arrived to Tamale around 5:30 AM. Tamale is Ghana’s third largest city (500,000 people) and the fastest growing city in West Africa. It also is the home of my advisor Susan’s nonprofit company, Pure Home Water. We spent our first day here relaxing, and we went to the cultural center, where we saw (and bought) more Ghanaian masks, paintings, and clothing. The market here was much more relaxed than Accra, which was a welcome change. That afternoon, Wong was released from the hospital, and he had made an incredible recovery. In fact, the next day, he went out in the 90 degree heat and conducted twice as many surveys as his daily goal in order to make up the time he had missed. The kid is insane.
On Friday, Chipo and I set off to work. We went to Taha, a village next to the Pure Home Water (PHW) factory. This village is very traditional, with thatch huts scattered throughout it and a single dirt road running through town. However, development is rapidly approaching. Because Tamale is quickly expanding, Taha was connected to Tamale’s piped water network (although they only have two central taps) in September 2013, and the road into town is currently being paved. The purpose of our visit was to evaluate the toilets that were donated by PHW and the MIT Public Service Center to a preschool whose students were practicing open defecation. Although these toilets are pour flush toilets and are not necessarily innovative, it was still important to evaluate them. First of all, the pour flush model is considered to be an “improved” toilet, and most Ghanaians consider it a very desirable model (it is actually quite an advanced toilet in the Northern Region, where open defecation and open pits are predominant means of defecation). Also, it is important to evaluate it as a baseline to which more innovative models can be compared. We did already evaluate public pour flush toilets in the urban South, but we wanted to see if they perform similarly in the rural North as well. Also, we wanted to see how a younger audience (ages 4-7) uses a shared toilet.
We were unpleasantly surprised by what we found. The toilets are probably the nicest ones that we have visited in Ghana yet. They were commissioned only four months ago, and they have been well maintained. However, we interviewed the teachers of the preschool, and they informed us that the children do not use the toilet at all and instead still practice open defecation in the bush. This is because the belief is that the toilets are “too nice” to be spoiled by children who might improperly use them. However, this contradicts the toilets’ purpose, which was to reduce open defecation, especially amongst young children, who are most at risk to disease. Still, the situation gets worse. Because the children do not use the toilet, the stalls were opened to the public, who must pay about US$0.04 per use. Still, it appears that only about 3-4 people use the facility per day. Finally, I discovered that the preschool is going to move some amount of its students to the location of the old primary school (three blocks away) once the new primary school’s construction is complete in April. This makes for a complicated situation. What we have is a beautiful toilet facility and a behavioral problem, which seems to be the norm for most new toilet facilities in Ghana.
Still, the situation must be put in perspective. The toilet is only about three months old, and it is combating the tradition of open defecation, which is thousands and thousands of years old. Pure Home Water/MIT’s involvement with the project did not end the day the toilets were commissioned; rather, work just began to ensure its success, and we began our process of learning how to overcome behavioral challenges, a process far more difficult than learning to overcome the technological challenges.
In order to address this behavioral problem and seek solutions, I went with Michael and Awal, two of PHW’s managers, to meet with the chief of Taha. In order to meet with the chief, we first had to speak with a Taha citizen and get him to agree to accompany us. Then, we gathered up all of the six elders of the village from wherever they were and asked for their collective permission to have an audience with the chief. Finally, I had to offer a tribute of 15 Cedis to the chief. After this ordeal, we walked to the chief’s hut.
I hadn’t received much instruction from Awal or Michael, so I tried to follow their leads. The elders gathered plastic chairs for us, and, as I was about to sit, Awal grabbed my arm and motioned for me to squat down. The three of us squatted in front of our chairs, and the chief began speaking in Dagbani. Michael and Awal responded to all of his statements with a prolonged “Naaaa,” so I started doing the same. Eventually, the elders motioned for us to sit, and I was handed what I thought were four red rocks. I was incredibly confused. Although the entire meeting was in Dagbani, Awal translated any questions directed toward me as well as my responses. After about 15 minutes, we agreed that a village meeting would be called and that Susan, Awal, Michael, and I would attend in order to address the village regarding use of the toilet. We’re not yet sure what the plan of action is, but possibilities include holding a training session for the preschool students in order to encourage them to use the toilet or switching the focus to the public in order to encourage adults’ patronage of the facility.
I later found out that the red rocks were actually cola nuts, which are chewed by the elders in order to suppress hunger. Caroline and I decided to give it a try, but it tasted like an extremely bitter piece of wood… so we tried to convince everyone else to try them too
To cap off the upswing at the end of this week, Susan (my advisor) has asked Chipo and I to each give a lecture at the University of Development Studies in Tamale tomorrow morning! This University has a 60-member sanitation club and is hosting an event with 4 speakers, and Chipo, Susan, a UDS professor, and myself. Susan is speaking on little known facts about sanitation, Chipo is lecturing on sanitation in his native country of Zambia, and I will be talking about how/if technologically-advanced toilets can fit into Ghana’s tradition of using public/shared toilets. This will be my first lecture at a university in a setting where I’m not a student, and I don’t quite know what to expect, but I’m really excited! I’ve spent all evening preparing for it, so now I need to just focus on speaking clearly so that my accent is somewhat understandable. Should be fun!