Pollution Research Group Hosts BMGF Launch Visit

by Susan Mercer | Jun 04, 2017

4 June 2017 – College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Newsletter, Volume 6, Issue 1

The Pollution Research Group (PRG) in UKZN’s School of Engineering recently hosted a delegation of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) representatives and a select number of their grantees for a visit to kick-start a programme initiated in 2016, which involves the engineering field testing of ‘Reinvented Toilet’ prototypes in Durban.

The trip involved site visits to the areas earmarked for the proposed tests in eThekwini, status updates from the various partners, a workshop to discuss site selection, grantee needs, local resources and community engagement, as well as visits to local fabricators who could be used to build the systems or components of the systems. The PRG works closely with eThekwini’s Water and Sanitation unit (EWS) in the implementation of research that can improve the water and sanitation services both to the local community and on a global scale. International research partners involved are from Cranfield University in the UK, the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), the University of South Florida, and Janicki Industries, all in the USA.

This programme arose from the global recognition of the PRG’s expertise as sanitation practitioners working in the field of faecal sludge management, particularly through the work of its Head, Professor Chris Buckley, who was one of three experts consulted by the BMGF, engaging in direct discussions with Bill Gates, in 2009 about the advancement of sanitation solutions for developing countries. Recognizing this advancement would require technological step-changes in sanitation, the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge was launched to accelerate new innovations that could ultimately improve access to sustainable sanitation infrastructure and public services in developing nations.

BMGF Senior Programme Officer, Dr Carl Hensman, spoke about the selection of Durban as a site to test these prototypes as being in line with its reputation as a city of excellence in sanitation. The hope is that the innovative technologies being piloted could trigger the development of novel business models in dealing with sanitation challenges.

‘Chris and the PRG have been one of the strongest partners we’ve had, from understanding the practical process of sanitation to looking at how to implement potential solutions in developing country environments,’ said Hensman. ‘In addition we partner with PRG to help broadcast and educate people with the message that sanitation for everyone is not beyond reach, especially when we adopt a solid scientific understanding, engineered approach, and business reality to the problem.’

He also described the multiplicative effect of working with PRG and EWS through their unique collaborative partnership and utility model in promoting full faecal sludge management, including treatment, reuse, disposal and more. This work is expected to expand beyond South Africa and pass on foundational knowledge throughout the continent and beyond.

Funding from the BMGF, specifically through its Water Sanitation & Hygiene (WSH) Transformative Technology portfolio, has played a role in supporting PRG. The PRG was a recipient of a two-year capacity building grant, awarded by the BMGF in November 2014, which included the upgrade of their laboratory on the Howard College campus to improve health and safety in its infrastructure. In anticipation of increased research activities, it has also facilitated the expansion of their space for hosting visiting researchers, and the purchase of new analytical equipment to enhance the analyses and tests they are able to undertake. BMGF have funded an extension of this grant for three more years, which is being reviewed for co-signature by UKZN leadership.

A central element of the engineering field-testing programme will be knowledge creation, and as such allows for the training of three PhD students and nine Masters students, with the long-term goal of creating a robust talent pipeline to fill the void of expertise in this field. Capacity-building of local talent is expected to contribute globally, with PRG giving curriculum input around the world.

It is anticipated that, by the end of 2017, there will be five  reinvented toilet systems in the field at different stages of testing in Durban, providing feedback on how to adapt the designs and engineer the systems for the environment and the end user. The various international research partners are contributing systems  geared for different sites, for example community ablution blocks (CAB) or household use.

The project will also involve collaboration from the School of Built Environment and Development Studies (SOBEDS), through Dr Cathy Sutherland, facilitating community feedback and engagement, with a platform to create a community of practice. The programme will be run so that systems can be accommodated as appropriate for the sites they will be tested on, and swapped between sites in other countries such as India for additional feedback.

South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) and Water Research Commission (WRC) are actively aware of the process, recognizing the potential for suitable systems identified through this testing to move to a larger scale of testing, use and even job-creating production in South Africa.

‘What Chris and Cathy Sutherland are helping us to do is pre-screen this for the South African community, with government and other partners more broadly looking for solutions that would work best for their needs,’ said Hensman.

Hensman also extended gratitude to Dean and Head of the School of Engineering, Professor Cristina Trois, for her support of the currrent programme and the long-term relationship of UKZN, through PRG, with BMGF’s WSH team.