Slowly, but surely, towards total sanitation in Ho, Ghana

The City of Lahti and Ho Local Municipality sister city cooperation began in 2010 with a focus on sanitation and environmental issues. The cooperation coordinated by Lahti University of Applied Sciences now continues with a new phase for 2017-2018. In this article, the former project coordinator Anna Aalto and the current coordinator Maarit Virtanen reflect on the achievements so far and the future opportunities.

Authors: Anna Aalto and Maarit Virtanen

Anna Aalto has acted as the project coordinator for Lahti – Ho sister city program in 2010 – 2014, and visited Ho again as a sanitation expert in 2017. “When I first visited Ho in 2010, it was my first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa. I could barely understand the dialect, never mind the customs and codes of conduct involving traditional chiefs, opinion leaders, seniority-based hierarchies and a culture of collectivism. Little did I know back then, that seven years later, I would be returning to the town for the tenth time and be greeted as a Grandma – an honourable title for a retired coordinator with an advisory role.”

“Looking at the past seven years, it is easy to note that the city is growing and the society is progressing. The outlook of the city is transforming with grand hotel schemes, new office blocks, modernised central market and developing urban waste removal services. Street naming programme has finally succeeded and most places in the town centre finally have an address. While demonstrating the rising wealth of the middle-class, the growing suburbs also raise the demand for public services and road development.”

Figure 1. Ho and Adeklu Mountain (photo Anna Aalto)

Despite the changes, a lot of tradition is still present. Agriculture remains the backbone of local economy and the development of agricultural sector is a key driver in the municipality’s economic development plans. The concept of ‘African time’ is also alive and well. Programmes tend to start one hour (or more) late and plans are interrupted by rain, as usual.

Attitudes, norms and a culture of dependency hinder toilet ownership

There is still no wastewater treatment available in the Ho region and solid waste management consists mainly of dumping waste at dumpsites. People lack access to improved sanitation in their homes, work places and schools. In fact, the adoption rate of household toilets in Ghana is still relatively low especially due to the common practise of shared toilets and the absence of strong socio-cultural norm that would encourage toilet ownership. In addition, the cultural acceptability of the widely advocated pit latrine technologies is low due to the offensive odours and hot vapour associated with the spreading of diseases.

Over the years, various sanitation development programmes with international donors have come and gone; the preceding Urine-Diverting Dry Toilet (UDDT) school pilot (2010-2014) of ours among them. The development programme paradigm has slowly shifted from donor-driven to community-led approach. In 2010, the common concept of programmes was one where a large international donor would identify beneficiaries and provide a facility of their choice. This approach has greatly increased the access to improved sanitation. Nevertheless, the challenge comes in with the ownership aspect. People come to expect that someone else will also maintain the toilet, since they have provided it. Poorly maintained facilities often become abandoned. For example, water closets are provided for schools without continuous access to water for flushing. A common sight is an improved pit latrine that has filled up the underground vaults, smells to high heavens and is left unused.

Community-driven approach is becoming mainstream in sanitation development

The lack of maintenance and even usage of many donor-provided toilet facilities has been acknowledged, leading to new types of sanitation development programmes. In 2013, the Ho Municipal Assembly started implementing the national Community Led Total Sanitation programme mobilising rural communities to eliminate open defecation. By now, six communities out of around one hundred are declared Open Defecation Free (ODF). Work continues with four dedicated officials that target four communities at the time to bring the change forward.

As we witnessed in some of the new ODF communities on our latest visit in May 2017, the change in attitude is possible. There is a sense of pride of the toilets constructed for all households with local materials and initiative. The community-led approach is now coming to the Ho township with Urban Sanitation Programme addressing the significant lack of household toilet facilities in the urban area. People building houses often neglect to construct a toilet facility and use communal ones. A family of five can pay yearly up to 2000 Ghana cedi (around 450 EUR) of toilet fees alone, which would be more than enough for a household toilet within a few years. Still, not all people see a toilet as a feasible or attractive investment, because the water bills already run high as it is and pit latrines are not recommended for small yards.

The quest for a better toilet to suit local needs and resources

Our UDDT technology pilot has set out to co-design a locally suitable toilet facility that would solve common issues associated with WC and pit latrine. It is clear that WC technology is not a sustainable solution considering economic restrictions, the lack of sewage treatment facilities and water supply shortages. Meanwhile, pit latrine technology suffers from high ground water table, rainy season runoff and especially the lack of user convenience and cultural acceptability.

The from-waste-to-wealth aspect of the UDDT has added a significant motivation for toilet ownership potentially unlocking major development backlog in the sanitation sector. The production of organic fertilisers has indeed created a lot of interest. We were happy to note that people are starting to be aware of the UDDT and the potential of organic fertilisers. As an example, the Director of the main private waste management company in Ghana, Zoomlion Ltd., spoke in depth of the benefits of compost during our radio talk show, while acknowledging the hazards caused by the untreated wastewater from septic tanks. Even the newspaper, on the very day we arrived, had an article on the economic potential of urine as a fertiliser.

Figure 2. Urine Diverting Dry Toilet at Housing Primary School (photo Maarit Virtanen)

In addition, the renowned toilet gurus of the developing world – experts from Kwame Nkrumah University of Technology and Science – invited our project’s engineer and artisan to build a demonstration toilet to Kumasi. The model has been reviewed by UNICEF and major donors who are considering it for schools to replace the pit latrine models. Also the Director of the regional government agency for water and sanitation encouraged us to go meet their National Director to promote the UDDT.

Go big or go home

Our pilot may be small, but it indeed has a lot of potential. Taking advantage of our well-rooted sister-city cooperation, we are in an excellent position to co-create the AGROSAN value-chains holistically in the spirit of frugal innovation. With Finnish circular economy expertise and local engineering and construction know-how we can turn waste into valuable resources that boost the local agricultural productivity and economy.

Partnering with local sanitation programmes, the whole Ho Municipality can be mobilized for total sanitation with the locally suitable toilet designs. What is more, there is a definite potential for achieving great impact with the established national connections and interest. As a regional capital, Ho can display its sanitation development for Volta Region and whole of Ghana.

The work with partners in Ho continues with the Co-creating Sustainable Cities project (2017-2018) funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. The cooperation also includes new elements on circular economy and cooperation between schools. The idea of turning waste into value, and moving directly towards holistic circular economy solutions on the waste sector has raised a lot of interest among old and new partners. The work continues with an intensive training in Lahti in September 2017, where solutions are co-created with the aim of involving also Finnish companies.

As we embark on this 2017-2018 project phase, Grandma’s message for the team is – This is not the time to hold back, it is the time to think big!


Anna Aalto, Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences

Maarit Virtanen, Lahti University of Applied Sciences

Published 20.6.2017



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