Write-up: distribution for the bioeconomy workshop

This workshop was held at GreenCape on the 22nd of February 2019, the event description is available at a previous post: https://indiebio.co.za/distributed-bioeconomy/ The raw notes can be downloaded here. From the introduction it was clear that there is an emerging ecosystem and there are enough skills and ‘ecosystem components’ in the room and wider to make this work. There is enough of a realised need from higher income markets to test it out in a complex country like South Africa (as a nation, too high income to rely on donor funding, but too poor and with too weak governance to effect changes in the way a rich country would be able to, if it wanted to.)

Introduction: What questions and expectations do the people in the room have?

Jane: GreenCape developed a role to support business during the drought. Now after the drought focusing more on the sanitation space: What potential is there to be involved?

Virginia: Have been working in this sector for 10 years. Interested in the SA market and context.

Chelsea: Working on a project for other kinds of organic waste too. Fascinated by how complex this is in the SA context. Working on a book on the future for toilets.

Dyllon: Interested in the sanitation space, circular economy. There needs to be a paradigm shift and the mindsets here create a perfect setting.

Mich: See enormous potential of sanitation products to link in with ecology and closed-loop systems.

Bernelle: Realised that the best way to clean water is to stop putting stuff in water in the first place. Link with water sensitive design (WSD), environmental sanitation that includes greywater, stormwater, and solid waste. For example the composted humanure may be well suited to urban application of compost to non-edibles, urban greening and other WSD applications. Hoped to learn from solid waste how to manage faecal sludge better. This workshop is to address the observation that solid waste does not really have good infrastructure and logistics either.

Mlu: Interested in sludge (all sorts, domestic, WWTW, faecal sludge and industrial), but innovation can’t happen in corporates.

The challenge of sludge is that it is not thought about, the water stream is focused on. We don’t know how much is produced, what is in it, on the design for WWTW and WTW there is just a little arrow ‘to disposal’. All municipalities are struggling what to do with the sludge. No one knows, landfills are stopping to accept them, they are classified as hazardous, have to go to a Class A site, which is far away…

Eugene: What is appropriate scale distribution? Systems emergence point of view, hives. For wastewater: Why do we only have things at either household or city wide level? Why is there not an intermediate level? Utility level stuff outsources a lot of skills and maintenance. It’s a lot of investment in terms of skills and effort to go ‘off-grid’. What is the logistics and risks of this?

Resources mentioned during and after the workshop


From Virginia, talking about using fungi/mushrooms to make faecal waste container liners: “Mosan is a smart circular sanitation system, which includes the award-winning aspirational Mosan Urine-Diverting Dry Toilet for in-home use.”



Not attending but mentioned as good to know about, possibly get in touch, or couldn’t make it and will follow up afterwards (if you fall in this category and want to be listed please leave a comment)

Sven City of Cape Town

Next steps

  1. How many toilets were sold, which types, during the drought? Did people follow through, are they still using these toilets? Mich: get database of people with EcoSan / dry toilets, with their rough location (to get the type of map that Dyllon had for the shopping centres), to see where we need to source processing sites. Do a beta-test survey with friends to test the survey, then do it again with the whole database. Survey shaping – who is a good company to help with this, what would it cost?
  2. Actuaries with interest in investment risk in the sanitation sector. Mlu, is the work that Umgeni did in this regard available? Even if confidential, just to shape what I’m asking in general terms.
  3. Legislation to declassify sludges as hazardous – Mlu and Dyllon share Heidi’s presentation

Notes from meeting

Things to keep in mind:

  • What is not here?
  • What is outside our echo chamber?
  • What good / innovative is happening currently and who knows more about this? also, what is useful in the BMGF reinvent the toilet challenge? e.g. hydrothermal liquid (Eustina Musvoto, Jason Gifford), VUNA project in UKZN

Challenges acknowledged, but not discussed at this workshop, because it causes ‘revving’, talking in circles about things that we can’t change:

  • Institutional gridlock
  • Income models
  • Legislation

Instead, the workshop focus is on private enterprise, with no institutional involvement (positive or negative). “They become the rock, we are the water.”

Sweetening the financials: What products of value can we recover from urine and faeces?

Pyramid of value, economic incentive, higher value products.
Conserve the “molecular complexity” – focus on products that is not possible or very expensive with conventional (chemical) production.

Examples of current value-add:

  • NaCl recovery OSEC uses NaCl to disinfect wastewater
  • Urine from pregnant women to fertility treatments. Health markets in the sanitation (Mothers to Mothers)

Current research

  • Faecal fungi’ porject (measure toxicity reduction (Dyllon saw paper where cow dung can remove pharmaceuticals from urine)
  • Dyllon’s urine work advanced feasibility studies on beneficiation.

Transport options

What scale works best, for what step in the process? Small or utility level? How best to integrate with existing transport systems, physical infrastructure? Centralised models are great for efficiency, but there is a reason the internet is not a single server. More inefficient but other benefits.

Ideally probably something like multiple entrepreneurs collecting urine. Uber with a towbar means trailers can be hooked. Railway systems, can have recycling depots at each train station. Things like this support the informal economy. Then from there process and centralise.

The entrepreneur perspective is a missing gap. How can entrepreneurs link up with Umgeni, for example? Risk-curve, working with multiple, smaller, entrepreneurs (Actuaries know more about this – see next steps). Umgeni has done some of the numbers: What is the risk appetite ?

The back-haul is very important in logistics. But using food trucks can’t ship shit back. How to guarantee safety, no pathogen transmission? What back-haul options are available?

Horse carts? This is Bernelle’s wild idea, she wants a horse but that horse needs to earn its keep. How can we embrace the horse carts existing in Cape town, fit it in with tiny vehicle transport – the cycling, skateboards etc, good urban planning? The horse manure should be able to be worked in, seeing as we’re transporting shit already.

User specification: What do people really want?

It’s our job to design, manage, maintain the back end, but in terms of the toilet design, it’s not about the back end, it’s how you interact with it. What does the toilet look like? Does it need a warmed seat, night light etc? From experiences during the drought it was clear that the people willing to use dry toilets were generally happy with using it, as long as they did not have to empty the toilet themselves. Therefore it is important to have an e.g. weekly cartridge of dried material ‘sanitised’ to go with solid waste management (the wheelie bins). Other things we think are important:

  • Urine as a separate toilet
  • “psychological flush” to do something to ‘finish it off’
  • “flush water feature” just to have the feel?
  • Benefits of dry toilets: no sound, no splashback, no skid marks

This needs to be researched a bit more – see next steps.

Testing of toilet performance in situ

This must be available to everyday people. Me in my own home, checking if my own toilet is working how it should. According to lab tests if you use the toilet correctly what comes out there is dry and can be used as e.g. briquettes. But if the toilet is used at home you can’t guarantee this. When the product fails it’s because it’s not being used the right way. If people have a way of testing what is coming out, similar to a swimming pool then they may be able to use it better.
Portable tests. There was an ISO recently written for the BMGF toilets that may be relevant.

Suggested reading: “Junkyard planet’ by Adam Mitner what makes it viable for people to make a business out of waste? Also covers logistics. Book is also on Audible.


Mlu: Feedback from FSM5:

WRC CEO Desighen speaks: create a first sanitation unicorn. Enough materials, professionals do not have the yuck factor. The technologies exist, finance can make a plan with a good business model. But the issue is collection, do we combine, do we decentralise, if so, how much? What scale?

The whole water and wastewater industry was built on providing water, but now we realise that we actually need to also take the wastewater away.

India: case study treating FS in conventional plants. Adds a solids handling pre-treatment step.

Try to get resources out, (e.g. electricity) but only powers a third of the plant. The organics in faecal sludge, need an extra source to make it economically viable. So need other organic waste too. Get a lot of waste streams supplemented, with main focus to improve energy production.

If gets energy out, still has to deal with sludge afterwards. Prefer compost, but we don’t have compost plants because need a partner for about 20 years to guarantee they will take the compost away at a certain cost. Sludge go to e.g sugar cane fields. So application depends where the farmer takes their produce too.

Compliance of land application of sludge is difficult. Most plants are public entities, so the fairness and procurement issues come into play. PPP

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