Sanitation and Social Justice: Developing Simple Technology for a Cause

A basic technology, the portable toilet, has the potential to make a significant difference in the developing world. Earthzine explores how in an interview with Jasmine Burton on a first-place student essay from the Global Humanitarian Technology Conference (GHTC).

The team implementing and iterating the SafiChoo 2.0 toilet. Image Credit: Wishforwash

The team implementing and iterating the SafiChoo 2.0 toilet. Image Credit: Wishforwash

At the last Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) Global Humanitarian Technology Conference (GHTC), a design for a portable toilet took first place in the student essay contest. In an interview with Earthzine, one of the original developers of the SafiChoo toilet, Jasmine Burton, explained the roots of the idea and how issues of health and social justice can work-in-hand with technology design.

As a freshman at Georgia Tech in 2010, Jasmine Burton attended a women’s leadership conference, and she heard a statistic that caught her attention—nearly half of the developing world lacks access to improved sanitation. Not only does this present a health issue, the speaker explained, it can particularly hinder women seeking education or other opportunities, as many girls drop out of school when they reach the age of puberty simply because of a lack of basic sanitation facilities. Burton, who was studying industrial design, realized humanitarian issues such as this might benefit from a well-designed technological solution.

“That was the moment where I switched from just focusing on design and purely aesthetics to focusing on design for social impact,” Burton says. “That was the beginning of my passion.”

In summer of 2013, the problem of inadequate sanitation was still on Burton’s mind. She knew she would soon need to select a senior design project for an upcoming class, so Burton assembled a team of co-inventors including Rebecca Byler, Brandie Banner, and Erin Cobb and worked together with Georgia Tech professors Wayne Li and Julie Linsey to turn the idea into a senior capstone project.

“Our team was an interdisciplinary and all female team. We had industrial design, civil engineering, and biomedical engineering. So it was pretty diverse and all from Georgia Tech.”

The team set out to try to address a pressing need in the world of sanitation. Sanivation, an existing household sanitation company based out of Kenya and created by Georgia Tech alumni, mentored the team and offered parameters for the project. Sanivation explained that refugee camps have a pressing need for toilets that are mobile, impermanent, and can be made on site.

“We learned that while people end up living in refugee camps for several years or for their whole life even, a lot of the regulations still [require] something that isn’t too permanent because [the camps are] technically supposed to be a temporary themselves. So the concept of addressing a sanitation problem that still complies with the regulations of a refugee camp was one of our original constraints when we started the project,” explains Burton.

The resulting product was the SafiChoo toilet. The toilet is designed to be made of locally sourced materials, to be easily portable, and to capture waste in a secure canister.

Burton with a SafiChoo toilet. Image Credit: Wishforwash

Burton with a SafiChoo toilet. Image Credit: Wishforwash

The canisters are taken to a central waste-processing unit where the waste is re-purposed into fuel or fertilizer. An initial iteration was tested in the summer of 2014 at a refugee camp in northern Kenya under the auspices of Sanivation. Feedback is being incorporated into a beta version of the design deemed the SafiChoo 2.0. Ultimately, the team hopes to develop a design that would allow for composting or even post-processing that occurs within the toilet itself.

Currently, there is a new team working with Burton that is establishing a sustainable business based on this sanitation concept. In fall of 2014, Burton founded Wish for Wash, a social impact organization intended to bring innovation to sanitation through culturally specific design and education.

Burton is developing the company with Vice President of Operations Katie Isaf. Groups in South America, Haiti, Nepal, and India have all confirmed a need for innovative sanitation solutions such as the SafiChoo 2.0 toilet.

Meanwhile, the technology community has been supportive as well. In addition to one of the original Safichoo co-inventors, Rebecca Byler, receiving the GHTC student essay award, the project also won the 2014 Georgia Tech InVenture Prize Competition. Expecting the competition to focus on complex or technologically advanced concepts, this recognition came as a welcome surprise to the team.

“Since this is supposed to be a really simple concept, and also since it’s sanitation, we didn’t think it qualified as [something] that could win,” says Burton, . “Our story and our path has really proven that technology and innovation—it’s not all about the hottest tech concepts or what the sexiest solution is. It’s about what actually meets the needs of the users in the most sustainable way possible. It’s about improving the quality of people’s lives. ”

Making an impact is clearly Burton’s primary goal, and it seems that the SafiChoo project has set her well on her way. Aside from the direct benefits of a sanitation product like the SafiChoo 2.0 toilet, the conversations that take place during information gathering, testing, and feedback processes provide the potential to foster seeds of empowerment. In conducting research, the team worked primarily with female-headed households and female translators. Burton wants to see conversations around sanitation issues become more normalized.

“You can’t improve it if you can’t talk about it,” she says, ”… That’s a lot of what we were doing last summer with Sanivation’s guidance, trying to empower women to tell us how this concept could be improved to truly improve their current sanitation situation. They really enjoyed being actively engaged and valued participants in the work.”

Making connections. Image credit: Wishforwash

Making connections. Image credit: Wishforwash

Burton’s own views and sense of empowerment have changed as well during this project. She expresses gratitude for the support that the ever-evolving team has received and continues to receive from the Georgia Tech and Atlanta communities. Mentors, volunteer contributions of time and effort, and advice have all helped to propel the project forward. The project has changed Burton’s perspective in terms of what actually qualifies as technology.

“[It] empowers people within the tech community, or even people who don’t really identify as part of the tech community … You can be a business person or you can be an international policy person; regardless, you have a valued and needed voice in the process of making technologies that are intended to address some of the world’s greatest challenges. We’re empowering people in our own communities to become more active in this kind of work. Activating our community to work for social change has truly been one of the most satisfying parts of all that we’ve done so far.”

More information on Burton’s LLC, Wish For Wash, can be found at WishforWash.com.

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