The innovation that one day solves sub-Saharan Africa’s chronic sanitation problem could be sitting in physics professor Stephen Mecca’s Providence College lab.
It’s not a new computer program or biotech marvel, but a toilet valve that happens to flush with a small fraction of the water needed to operate a toilet here in the United States.
“We are excited and think we are getting there,” Mecca said about the new valve and its role in a prototype toilet design that he is helping test in the West African nation of Ghana. “We are waiting for something to go wrong and nothing has gone wrong yet.”
With three prototype toilets installed in May going strong, Mecca and his students are now working on the equally challenging task of scaling the technology up and bringing it to as much of Ghana and surrounding nations as possible.
“I think we have changed sanitation in the developing world, but the tough part is still ahead,” Mecca said.
The problem poor sanitation poses to quality of life in rural Africa is enormous.
According to a 2008 World Health Organization report, 45 percent of people in rural West Africa do not have access to any sanitation facilities. As a result, many in the area are highly vulnerable to disease and struggle to find clean drinking water.
“This has all kinds of problems for people, including in education, where children don’t come to school at high rates because they are sick,” Mecca said. “Out of a gross domestic product of $30 billion in Ghana, a few hundred million [dollars] are lost directly to poor sanitation.”
With a background in nuclear physics, Mecca’s involvement in rural sanitation began recently after his granddaughter co-founded the Ghana Sustainable Aid Project Mecca, a nongovernmental organization that promotes health, education and economic development in the village of Pokuase.
In 2009, Mecca took a sabbatical from PC to teach in Ghana and began working with a local engineer named Kweku Anno, who had developed a promising waste-digestion system that he was struggling to make work in functional toilets.
Anno’s anaerobic digestion system uses organisms to break down human waste into compost, but the prototypes he had put in the field did not have any barrier or flushing system between the waste digestion and the user. The result was powerful odors and an onslaught of flies common to basic systems such as pit latrines.