In the sprawling seaside capital of Senegal, a family in a poor neighborhood in Dakar's periphery has to make a twice yearly choice about how much to spend to have their latrine emptied. They can pay the equivalent of 5 days' wages – about $25 – to hire a person to hand shovel the waste, which often gets dumped nearby. Or they can pay about $50 for mechanized removal by a trucker who hauls the waste to a treatment station. "The decision is often driven by how much cash is on hand when the latrine overflows," says Laura Schechter
, who is collaborating on a project that could improve sanitation for the millions of people around the world who have no access to modern sewage treatment.
At issue is diarrheal disease -- the lead killer of children under five in developing countries. The multifaceted study -- funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with grant management by the NGO Innovations for Poverty Action -- seeks to understand household decision-making on waste disposal choices, as well as ways to make disposal services more efficient and less costly.
Many of the three million residents of Dakar have no formal street address, and orders for latrine pumping service are often made through face-to-face contact with the closest trucker, who sets the price on the spot. To increase competitiveness, the project designers have established a centralized call center for residents who can accept the lowest bid from several pumping services that are included in a one-hour auction.
Mobile phones make it all happen. The bidding is solicited by text message from the call center to truckers, who then text their bids to the customer. Customers can even pay for the service by adding "mobile money" to the trucker's phone. A billion people in the developing world have access to cell phones but not a bank, so financial services are beginning to be delivered to phones for saving, spending and transferring money. The Senegal project takes advantage of this new technology.
In another aspect of the project, the researchers are running experiments to encourage adoption of mechanical "desludging," rather than using hand-shoveled waste disposal. How do neighbors feel about the fact that individuals who use hand-shoveled waste disposal may be dumping their waste on the land where neighbors' children are playing? How can we set up a savings system so that adequate cash will be available when the need arises? What can people learn from their neighbors who use a savings payment scheme to pay for the service?
"I got involved to experiment with different ways of employing social pressure to get people to adopt the cleaner technology," says Schechter, who studies the roles altruism, trust and reciprocity play in various development contexts. "But another really exciting aspect of this project is the combination of demand- and supply-side innovation."
Other countries have taken note. Ghana, Burkina Faso and Bolivia have all inquired about how the researchers can assist their own cities, especially setting up the call center piece of the equation. Dakar's call center will begin by serving the households involved in the trial, but it will eventually become a permanent and self-sustaining institution serving the entire city.
"Urban sanitation is such a major problem throughout the developing world, yet only Malaysia has a centralized system for supplying desludging services," says Schechter. "If we could design systems that make it as easy as calling a taxi, we could really improve people's lives."