Overcoming a Latent Inertia to Food Security in Nigeria


Joachim Ezeji




Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) sponsored Ecosan course participant and social entrepreneur, Jonathan Eke had come to the sub-technical committee meeting of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources, Abuja Nigeria to convince the group on why the ministry should adopt the eco-sanitation technology as a desired sanitation option, but the technology he is promoting appears very strange and exotic to a majority of the audience.


Eke’s product is a dry system that directly uses excreta in agriculture. Otherwise known as ecological sanitation; it is designed to deal with human waste in an environmentally and economically sustainable way. Here, the urine is diverted to a soakaway, leaving only faeces to accumulate in the sealed vault below the toilet.


The operating principal according to Eke, is that the faecal matter remains dry and safe to handle over time. ‘’This toilet uses a double vault system” he said. “ Once the first vault is full, the pedestal is moved to cover the second vault. The opening to the first vault is sealed with a lid. This allows for the faecal matter in the first vault to dry out for at least six months before it is removed, when the second vault is full”.


He continued “Each time the toilet is used the householder throws in a cup of sand or ash to cover the faeces. This helps in the drying process and reduces smells. The dried faecal matter can be safely removed by the householder at no cost. This faecal matter is taken to the farm to make compost and enrich farm harvest”.


Concluding he said “This technology significantly enhances the treatment of sludge through composting, an end product that yields cheaper source of organic soil conditioner for local farmers. To start the composting process, the compostable material is (dried faeces from the vault) is placed in long piles with kitchen and garden waste. The ‘recipe’ combines high carbon and high nitrogen materials. Air is added to maintain aerobic conditions, either by turning the piles (windrows) or forcing air through them’’.


But the audience was not convinced as almost everybody raised his/her hands to ask questions when he finished his explanations. The first question came from the group’s chairlady, Rose, who asked, “But who gets rid of the faeces when the two vaults are filled, how long does it take for these vaults to get filled?, Eke replied “the householder and this at intervals of six months”, but this answer arouses further questions;


“How do you convince an urban dweller to replace the water flush system with this dry system?” Gladys, a woman engineer sitting next to him asked. Eke was trying to get an answer when another question was asked; “How do you wash the toilet?” asked Bello, who works for UNICEF.


“Do you need to construct a pit, how deep? Asked Ade; a burly built man who had come from one of the states in the west. “How do you adapt this technology to an upstairs accommodation? Asked Etim; the general manager of a sanitation agency in the south.


It was a torrent of questions for the 27years old Eke who seemed the youngest in the group; but as he tries to satisfy their curiosities, more questions poured in. One of those was the question from Opara who had come from Onitsha, a city that sources its drinking water from the Niger River.


He had asked three questions at a go; “how culturally acceptable is this idea of handling one’s feaces”? ;……. ‘’How do you run this type of system in urban areas where there may be little need for compost’’; and …..”Do you think that people would be willing to eat crops grown with human faeces? Etc. His questions drew uproar of laughter from almost everybody there seated. Even at that more hands were still up, rearing for more questions. But that is where Augustine Smart, a previous SIDA course alumni and project manager of Latrine-Tec Nigeria Limited, steps in. "You have to allow the young man answer your questions one after the other," Augustine tells the group.


The two men, Eke and Augustine; previously unfamiliar, were brought together by the one day sub-committee meeting. The meeting gathers State water utilities, private firms, water related civil society organizations and research institution heads from all over the country, who are trying to find a solution to the many management and technical problems afflicting the country’s water and sanitation sector.


Augustine, speaking before the 100 participants, exhaustively explained the benefit of the eco-sanitation system and why it should be adopted in the country.

Augustine’s company is into the business of emptying, designing, upgrading and short listing of toilets/latrines. The company partners with the public and private groups to improve public health, personal dignity and the quality of the living environment.

He has been in the sewage disposal business for over 10 years and is well respected because of his expertise in the sector. He is a great exponent of “Sanitize and Recycle”, a model which he describes as a cycle; a sustainable, closed-loop system. It treats human excreta as a resource. Urine and faeces are stored and processed on site and then, if necessary, further processed off site until they are free of disease organism. The nutrients contained in the excreta are then recycled by using them in agriculture.


According to him “In today’s urban societies the flow of plant nutrients is linear: nutrients are taken up from the soil by the crop, transported to the market, eaten, excreted and discharged. In a sustainable society the production of food must be based on returning the plant nutrients to the soil. The use of chemical fertilizers is not sustainable, since their production relies on non-renewable resources”.


He concluded by explaining that “Ecological sanitation is based on 3 fundamental principles: Preventing pollution rather than attempting to control it after we pollute; sanitizing the urine and the faeces; and using the safe products for agricultural purposes”. It was from this approach that he defined his model; “Sanitize-and recycle”.


In view of the foregoing, it is good to report that Nigeria is ranked 20th on the Global Hunger Index. What this means is that about 65percent of Nigerians are food insecure and vulnerable to hunger and ill-health.


Though a coterie of factors is involved in food cultivation, but the role of fertilizer (organic or inorganic) is great. Sadly findings have shown that fertilizer application is still dismal amongst farmers. Nigeria is said to require about 3.7million metric tones of fertilizer per annum but only one-third is used in the farms.


Nigeria’s rate of application of NPK is reported to be 13kg per hectare. The ugly implication is the heavy post harvest losses calculated at 50per cent for fruits and vegetables and 30per cent for root crops and tubers. The number of those using compost or inorganic manure is grossly unknown, yet the potential for this brand of fertilizer to complement or replace the chemical fertilizers are not really considered hence the strangeness of eco-sanitation as being promoted by Eke.


Interestingly, Nigeria’s policy guideline on excreta and sewage management (2005) prescribes amongst others for the promotion and adaptation of the by-products of sewage treatment in productive uses. This if practiced will benefit the population in many ways.


First, food security and poverty alleviation .In parts of Nigeria, particularly in rural Nigeria, rural people suffer from periodic famine due to drought, small plot size, soil erosion, poverty (inability to purchase sufficient food) and political factors. In urban areas , poor people also suffer from under nutrition due to poverty, although urban agriculture is a growing phenomenon. However, growing food for the immediate family within confined spaces is a challenge.


The products from eco-toilets with their nutrients can be used in rural and urban areas to increase food security for all households, particularly the poor.


The products from eco-toilets can be used directly at the homestead level, in backyard gardens. Researches have shown that about 1.5litres of undiluted urine can be used to fertilize 1 square meter of soil. 1.5 liters is the amount produced by one adult in one day.


Even without an eco-toilet, people could collect their own urine and use it on backyard gardens to increase yields. However, the fertilizing effect of urine is said to work best in soil with high organic matter content and this can be increased by adding the humus from eco-toilets and garden composts.


In urban areas, the sanitized humus from eco-toilets can be used as a rich nutritious soil for planting in pots, and the urine can be used to fertilize the soil before planting and for continued fertilization of plants during growth.


Vegetable and fruit crops grown using urine fertilization produces 2-10 times the amount of crop by weight as those grown in unfertilized, poor soil. If people use urine to grow vegetables and fruits, the increased production results in greater food security at virtually no cost.


Soil enriched with humus from eco-toilets holds water longer than soils not enriched with compost. Research has also shown that plants grown in soils enriched with large amounts of humus require less watering and survive droughts better than plants grown in ordinary soils without this humus.


In times of drought as was recently experience in Yobe and Jigawa states in northern Nigeria, when whole fields of grain may die, backyard crops grown on humus may well survive and produce enough vegetables to help a family through a difficult period. If over time, families can collect enough humus from their eco-toilets, they may be able to enrich larger and larger areas, leading to increasing food security.


Second, cost saving for Nigerian farmers is another benefit. This is true because the formulation of nutrients in urine is similar but not exactly the same as that in commercial fertilizers. But urine and commercial fertilizers give similar results in boosting plant growth.


Urine is high in nitrogen and lower in phosphorus and potassium. Some top-up of phosphorus and potassium is often needed to get the best possible use of nitrogen. As faeces and ash are high in phosphorus and potassium, farmers can replace commercial fertilizers with urine and top-up with sanitized faeces from eco-toilets at little or no extra cost.


A study in China calculated the cost savings of using urine and dried faecal humus from eco-toilets as a fertilizer in a 3000 square meter greenhouse owned by one farmer in Jilin Province of northern China. The farmer not only used the dried faeces from his household but also purchased additional dried faeces from other homes with eco-toilets and was given their urine free of charge.


He did not calculate the cost of transport of dried faeces (which was transported by tractor) or the cost of transporting urine, which was carried in buckets on shoulder poles. He used to buy 350-400kg commercial fertilizer per year, but now this has been replaced by the free urine. The farmer calculated his cost savings per year to be the equivalent of CNY 740 (USD90) per 1000 square meters.


Such calculations could become even more important at the community level, especially where farmers are struggling to make a living. A city of 100,000 people would produce about 500,000kg of elemental nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) per year in excreta. While the cost of commercial fertilizer varies between countries, as does its content of elemental NPK, it is possible to make a rough cost comparison of buying elemental products or collecting and transporting locally produced urine and faeces.

Third; preventing nitrogen pollution of drinking water in our communities is another benefit. Pit toilets as well as sewers are frequently a source of ground water pollution, especially in areas where the water table is high such as Port Harcourt, Calabar and Lagos etc.


Urine is rich in nitrogen and up to 50% of the nitrogen leaches out of the pit toilet pass through the soil and reaches the groundwater. Water with NO3 concentrations higher than 50mg/liter is considered to be unfit for human consumption. It is not unusual to find such high concentrations of nitrogen in wells in communities with pit toilets.


Recommendations as those in Nigeria’s policy guidelines on excreta and sewage management (2005) that toilets be sited at least 30meters from wells are meant to protect well water from pollution, but plenty experience shows that soil conditions vary considerably and both pathogens and nitrogen pollution can still result.


Finally, restoring lost top soils could also be another great benefit. This is true because according to FAO, the Earth is losing 25billion tones of topsoil per year because of erosion. Chemical fertilizers, while boosting plant growth, cannot replace topsoil. Topsoil contains humus formed from decayed plant and animal matter, and is rich in carbon compounds and micro-organisms necessary for healthy plant growth, which are not found in chemical fertilizers.


The addition of humus is therefore necessary to maintain and renew the topsoil. With the loss of topsoil comes the loss of human food security. In many parts of the world, people are experiencing reduced productivity on their lands due to loss of top soils.


But is Eke capable of convincing the group and the authorities of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources who are the conveners of the sub-technical committee meeting to consider the merits of his case? Perhaps there is also need to seek the ears of the Federal Ministry of Environment so that a synergy could be achieved.


Already a chemical fertilizer contract worth 64billion Naira has been awarded by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources. This was in the categories of 290,000 metric tones of Urea; 210,000 metric tones of NPK 15-15-15 and NPK 20-10-10 each as well as 150,000 metric tones of SPP18 percent.


The award of this contract almost caused a scandal for the ministry when contractors earlier screened for the contract were dropped for reasons that bordered on corruption charges according to the minister Dr.Abba Ruma. The minister had explained that the ministry was able to save the Federal Government of Nigeria about 20billion naira through proper certification of fertilizer suppliers in Nigeria.


Already the global rise of oil price has already reflected in fertilizers since fertilizers are usually hydrocarbon derived. This has inhibited large purchase on the part of the government and the individual. The Federal Government of Nigeria had to shelve its original plan of buying 850 metric tones for 650,000 metric tones. What this means is that only a fewer number of farmers will actually get fertilizer while many will not.


In this context is the urgent need to adapt farmers to the sustainable benefits of eco-sanitation products; urine and faeces. For a product like urine this is true, because most of the plant nutrients in human excreta are found in the urine. Based on data from five countries (China, Haiti, India, South Africa and Uganda) it is estimated that on average each person produces about 5kg of elemental NPK in excreta per year; about 4kg in the urine and 1kg in the faeces. Using urine as a fertilizer is worth it, especially as its content of NPK is readily available to the plants.

In Sweden, the total yearly production of human urine contains elemental nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium equivalent to approximately 20% of the amounts of these nutrients used as mineral fertilizers in 1999/2000. The concentrations of heavy metals in human urine are negligible- an important advantage over chemical fertilizers.


Urine works better if the soil to which it is added contains humus. Such humus is rich in living materials and beneficial soil bacteria, and these convert the urine nitrogen into a form that the plant can use.


Trials on the fertilizing effects of urine have been tried in a number of other countries. Example: In Sweden, tests on Barley showed that the nitrogen effect of urine corresponded to about 90% of that of equal amounts of ammonium nitrate mineral fertilizers.


Similar test on Leeks showed that fertilizing with urine gave a threefold crop yield increase. The nitrogen efficiency…, when using human urine was high, ranging from 47% to 66%. This is the same level as when mineral fertilizers are used. Nitrogen efficiency for most other organic fertilizers e.g. Compost, is normally between 5 and 30%. Tests on Swiss chard in Ethiopia showed crop yields of the fertilized plots were up to four times of the unfertilized.


Human faeces consist mainly of undigested organic matter such as fibers made up of carbon. Although faeces contain fewer nutrients than urine, the humus produced from faeces actually contains higher concentrations of phosphorus and potassium.


After pathogen destruction (through dehydration/or decomposition) the resulting inoffensive material may be applied to the soil to increase the amount of available nutrients, to increase the amount of available nutrients, to increase the organic matter content and to improve the water holding capacity.


With poor soils, the best way of enhancing plant growth using processed human excreta is in two stages. The first stage involves improving the texture and humus content of the soil by combining it with humus formed from processed faeces or faeces and urine. Leaf compost and garden compost can also be used at this stage.


The second stage involves enhancing and sustaining the nutrient levels in the soil with urine. It should be noted that during growth, all plants take up nutrients, and the nutrients removed from the field during crop harvests must be replaced if the soil is to remain a fertile medium for growing of healthy plants.


It was with all this in mind that an international group of planners, architects, engineers, hydro-geologists, ecologists, biologists, agronomists and social scientists have since the 1990’s developed an approach to sanitation that saves water, does not pollute and returns the nutrients in human excreta to the soil. We call this approach “ecological sanitation”, or “eco-san” for short.


Certainly this is not a queer approach to food security. It works!