Seed Stories – change:WATER Labs Inc.: Portable, evaporative toilets for drop-in and distributed sanitation for displaced and urban communities


Categories: Health, Innovation, Seed Stories, Water

Since 2018, Creating Hope in Conflict: A Humanitarian Grand Challenge has provided proof of concept (Seed) and transition to scale (TTS) funding to 75 innovations intended for use with conflict-affected populations in over 20 countries. We embarked upon a learning journey to better understand how innovative products and processes could be tested and pointed towards scale in humanitarian settings, in order to help solve some of the most complex problems and barriers within the humanitarian sector.

This post is one of many SEED Stories: a series of blogs reflecting on what HGC-funded innovators have achieved and key lessons learned during the duration of their seed grant periods.

Globally, 4.2 billion people lack adequate sanitation infrastructure. With urbanization outpacing infrastructure expansion, approximately 1 billion people in urban slums and displacement settings must use poor communal facilities or open defecation as their only sanitation option. Poor water infrastructure in informal settlements and camps typically make flush toilets an unviable option, and there is a need for locally adapted alternatives. Many densely populated vulnerable communities have no means of accessing safe, clean, and dignified sanitation. Rampant raw sewage pollution of communities’ water sources traps them in a vicious cycle of chronic disease, malnutrition, and poverty. In addition to the risk of disease associated with inadequate facilities, women and girls who must leave their homes to relieve themselves in public are at heightened risk of sexual assault and violence. Improper sewage not only represents a threat to public health, but also deepens social and gender inequalities.


How change:WATER Labs Tackled this Challenge


change:WATER Labs was awarded a CAD $250,000 seed grant to address the unmet sanitation needs of densely populated communities within displacement camps, urban slums, and disaster relief, among other settings. They designed a novel waste-shrinking toilet that evaporates waste at the point-of-use. This toilet could improve sanitation while supporting more scalable, sustainable servicing by significantly reducing the required waste collection frequency compared to other container-based toilets. By introducing a novel, low-cost polymer membrane as a sewage evaporating collection pouch, change:WATER Labs’ toilet can convert liquid sewage to clean, molecular water vapour, enabling rapid onsite sewage elimination without any waste discharge or use of water and no need for hookups to external power or plumbing. By eliminating over 95% of sewage at the point-of-use and within hours, this “virtual flush” model provides a decentralized, off-the-grid sanitation solution without the heavy collection and removal costs of other no-flush toilets. In addition to its relatively small footprint and capacity to cheaply process and eliminate large volumes of sewage, the toilet is compact, standalone, self-operating, and easy to install.


January 2021 marked the end of change:WATER Labs’ seed funding period, which involved piloting their evaporative toilet model in Kiboga, Uganda. The preliminary results generated through their CHIC grant, following the implementation of evaporative toilets with support from local partners, offered promising proof of concept evidence, with improved sanitation provided to a total of 377 women and girls in Kiboga. Other benefits observed included 100% containment of waste and no onsite bathroom odors, which means these toilets help clean up communities, reducing local pollution and conserving local water resources, and can be located closer to schools and worksites, thereby increasing safety for women and girls, reducing their susceptibility to sanitation-related sexual violence; and creation of local jobs in the areas of supervision/training and waste collection.


Partnerships Built


During the funding period, change:WATER Labs engaged with a variety of public, private, and civil society institutions. For their field pilot in Kiboga, they worked closely with a local NGO called BILU Uganda, which focuses on sustainable development models involving agriculture, education, and health. For this project, BILU served as a liaison to local communities and stakeholders, and supported change:WATER Labs in designing and implementing relevant sanitation awareness and education initiatives. BILU also offered logistical support for accessing in-country resources needed to install the devices and monitor/operate the pilot.


change:WATER Labs also worked closely throughout the project with the Kiboga Chief Administrative Officer to create a plan for more sustainable processing of waste products, including policies that would encourage new waste conversion/re-use methods. For example:


  • The Kiboga District of Agricultural Production is now testing waste samples for safety and quality, assessing the impact of waste-treated soils on agricultural yields, and evaluating the performance of solar ovens for rapid composting.
  • The Kiboga Department of Forestry is working to identify farmable plots of land for waste composting and determine best practices for forestry-related applications of composted feces.


In the long term, these partnerships will be key to advancing community uptake and promoting sustainability of change:WATER Labs’ innovation in Uganda.


Lessons Learned


Some key lessons learned over the course of change:WATER Labs’ seed grant include:


  • Diversifying partnerships is important to both building resilience into project designs and providing flexibility to pivot when needed.
  • Additional safeguarding protocols may be needed to protect high-value equipment and supplies in poverty-affected communities.
  • Real-time iteration of prototypes facilitated by ongoing testing cycles can reduce elapsed development time and optimize the quality of final end products.


What’s Next?


change:WATER Labs intends to focus efforts on a number of emerging customer partnerships, with the aim of developing new formats of their evaporative toilet that can then be marketed to a broader range of customers. Their toilet model has already generated interest from governments and the private sector, with letters of intent, worth approximately USD $2M in sales, secured from three contractors. Construction companies in Central America and East Asia have expressed interest in installing evaporative toilets in low-income housing, and two Indian companies have expressed interest in adapting these evaporative toilets to port-a-potties and bathroom cabins for transportation. change:WATER Labs partnered with a Central American construction firm to convert their toilet from the initial public-use “squat” format to a household-use seated format, and pilot units of these household toilets are being installed for households in indigenous communities in Panama. Their evaporative toilet has also attracted funding from the Government of Turkey and AB InBev for further deployments into refugee settlements and unsewered urban areas in Sub-Saharan Africa. As sales gain traction, change:WATER Labs plans to grow their team to include production, business development, operations, and sales/marketing functions, and to build in-house production capacity to prepare for further scale-up across humanitarian settings globally.