BLANTYRE, Apr 10 (IPS/IFEJ) - In many parts of Malawi, discussing human excreta is taboo. The mere mention of faeces, in any of the country's 10 official languages, makes those taking part in the conversation uncomfortable. But, excreta could be about to gain respectability.
Recent years have seen farmers start to use human waste for fertilizer: faeces and urine, combined with wood ash and soil, are serving as a replacement for chemical fertilizers. This came as farmers who could not afford the standard fertilizers went in search of alternatives to increase the size of their yields.
Chemical fertilizers cost up to 11 dollars for a 50 kilogramme bag -- a hefty expense in Malawi, where over 65 percent of people live below the poverty line of a dollar a day, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
Estimates from the International Labour Organisation indicate that farmers and their dependents make up 85 percent of Malawi's 12 million strong population.
"My family and I use the type of latrine where we are able to add ashes to our excreta every time we visit the toilet, and this in turn ends up speeding decomposition. The decomposed product is mixed with soil after about six months, and that makes a very effective fertilizer," says Patrick Moyo, who farms in the northern district of Mzimba.
Moyo told IPS he no longer spends money on chemical fertilizers, and that his annual maize and fruit yields have doubled since he started using fertilizer produced from human excreta. Communities in six of the 27 districts in Malawi have now made the switch from chemical fertilizers.
The Livingstonia Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, a leading protestant church in Malawi, has joined forces with an international non-governmental organisation -- WaterAid -- to promote the recycling of faeces.
Sangster Nkhandwe, director of the synod's development department, says the transformation of human waste into fertilizer is termed "ecological sanitation", and that it poses little danger concerning the transmission of disease through excreta.
"We've done several scientific studies on this technology and have found that there is no threat to human health at all…as micro-organisms are treated immediately ash is added to the human excreta," he told IPS.
"Human excreta contain valuable nutrients for agricultural use, but most of this is lost after the traditional pit latrines fill up and get abandoned…hence the use of eco-latrines, which are being used to reverse this situation."
According to a policy and advocacy manager for WaterAid, Amos Chigwenembe, three types of eco-latrines are being used in areas that have turned to waste recycling: the Arborloo, Fossa Alterna and Skyloo.
The Arborloo, he says, is the simplest of the three, in that it involves the smallest adjustment on the part of the community that is using it. The only thing required is for people to plant a tree in a conventional pit latrine after it has filled up with excreta.
"The tree grows and utilises the compost to produce large, succulent fruit. After a few years of latrine movement, the result is an orchard that is producing fruit with real economic value," Chigwenembe told IPS.
With the Fossa Alterna, two shallow pits are dug. One is used for defecation, while the other stores waste as it matures and develops into compost.
Chigwenembe explains that a thin layer of soil placed on the maturing pit is ideal for growing tomato or pepper plants, and that watering of these plants helps the composting process. This pit is emptied to receive the contents of the defecation pit when this becomes full, with the composted waste being used as fertilizer.
The Skyloo works on the same principle, using brick enclosures -- or "vaults".
"The faeces drop through a squat hole into the vaults and are left to mature. The vaults are rotated in a similar manner to the Fossa Alterna. After a suitable retention time, the contents of the vaults are placed on the garden or farm," said Chigwenembe.
Eco-latrine designs may use a round, domed slab as a seat for toilet users. This also suits the needs of low-income communities, as the slab does not contain any iron reinforcement bars, which are expensive and only available in Malawi's major cities. The weight and size of the slab makes it relatively easy to carry using the limited means of transport available to poor families, such as hand carts.
In addition to being eco-friendly, these technologies are also woman-friendly.
Nya Kaunda recalls that when her traditional pit latrine became unusable after her husband died in 2000, she resorted to relieving herself in nearby bushes as she could not manage to dig another latrine. Pit digging is very hard work, as the holes normally have to be big enough to accommodate ten years' worth of waste; as a result, this task is traditionally taken on by men.
But with the introduction of eco-latrines, Kaunda has been able to dig one pit latrine after another.
"It is not difficult to dig an eco-latrine because the pit is shallow, and building a shelter for it is no big deal. I am now able to use my toilet comfortably without fearing that some little kid will find me relieving myself as it was when I was using the bushes," she told IPS.