Nigeria is struggling to end open defecation, but a grassroots campaign is trying to change that

Nigeria's plan relies on a multi-sectoral partnership that's struggled to make significant impact.

Nigeria needs to do a lot of deliberate work to be able to end open defecation

For residents of Daramola Abete, in the Ijora Badia area of Lagos, shot put is not the track and field sport that has delivered glory for many athletes on TV screens, but a less glamorous term for a sport of survival.

At any point of the day, residents of this slum area go into shabbily-built wooden enclosures with nylon bags into which they defecate, tie up the bags, and launch them into an abandoned canal right behind the community, much in the same way an Olympian would launch the shot.

Olajide Lateef, a schoolteacher, has lived in the community for over 30 years and used to be a partaker in this sport, but he says he stopped two years ago when a public toilet was built right next to the canal.

The construction of the toilet was initiated by the Nigeria Slums and Informal Settlements Federation, and installed with free technical support from Community-Led WASH Solutions (CLWS) as part of the organisation's Open Defecation Free Nigeria (ODFN) campaign.

Launched in 2017, ODFN started with the simple aim of directly providing instant solutions for some of the over 47 million Nigerians, around 25% of the population, who practice open defecation.

Of Nigeria’s 774 local government areas, only about 14 of them are certified open defecation free, a worrying situation that compelled President Muhammadu Buhari to sign an executive order two years ago to end open defecation by 2025.

The government's previously-published roadmap outlined the need to construct nearly 20 million household toilets and over 43,000 public ones between 2016 and 2030.

This projection accounts for the estimated 56 million people expected to join the population of citizens practicing open defecation by 2025.

Nigeria’s plan is heavily reliant on a multi-sectoral partnership between government, development partners, and the private sector, but that doesn't appear to be providing desired outcomes yet.

When ODFN launched four years ago, it designed a straightforward plan to build 10,000 toilets in public places, and use sensitisation campaigns to encourage better hygiene practices in the most-affected communities.

The organisation has an army of volunteers - at least 56 of them across 18 states - who go into these communities, mostly rural ones, to enlighten residents about the dangers of their unsafe hygiene practices which usually involve open defecation.

These volunteers can then recommend that a community needs an easily accessible toilet to significantly reduce prevalence of the practice or eliminate it completely.

This would typically appear like a straightforward solution, especially for a community like Daramola Abete lined with dozens of houses with a lot of them lacking safe, hygienic household toilets.

The only problem is residents in the area are not exactly using the facility.

Iyabo Rasheed sells water inside tanks, metres away from the site of the toilet, and she’s uncomfortable with the fact that a lot of people still launch their excreta into the canal.

As a custodian of one of the keys that opens the toilet, she is best placed to evaluate how effective it's been over the past two years.

"We get like four people a day (using the toilet), on average. Sometimes, maybe five or six.

"There are days you won't even see anyone," she tells Pulse.

Many of the houses in the area lack indoor toilets primarily because of the marshy soil composition that makes it impossible to dig the required depth before hitting water.

This is what made the canal the reliable location of choice to dispose of waste, and that culture has stuck so badly that an alternative provided at no great cost to residents has not made the desired mark.

Even residents of the few houses that have had indoor pit latrines don’t bother with the public toilet, and have instead opted to join the crew of canal shot putters when their indoor option inevitably filled up with waste.

They simply cover up the hole instead of safely excavating the waste, further worsening the community's struggles with the health issues associated with faecal contamination.

Rasheed believes it's near impossible for the community's open defecation problem to end overnight, pointing out that many are unwilling to change a longtime ritual because the canal is still accessible to them.

"Even if more public toilets are provided, I'm not sure the attitude will change," she offers a bleak verdict

Open defecation is largely perceived as an access problem, but it has been repeatedly proven to also be a behavioural issue, just like the Daramola community proves.

This is not exactly news to ODFN chief campaigner, Raymond Gold, who says funding is a major hindrance to his organisation's work.

"It's not just about building a toilet for them, but also taking their mind off the practice of open defecation.

"The fund is not just to build toilets, but you have to give people an orientation," he says.

While giving a briefing on Nigeria's battle against COVID-19 in August, NCDC director-general, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, raised alarm about how cholera has claimed more lives in the country than the pandemic this year.

At least 2,323 people have died of suspected cholera since January, with nearly 70,000 suspected cases reported in 25 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

In polluting the environment, open defecation causes health problems, especially water-borne infectious diseases like cholera, diarrhoea, and others.

Children under the age of five years make up over 70% of the 122,000 Nigerians that die every year from diarrhoea, with nearly 90% of deaths directly attributed to water, sanitation, and hygiene.

"If you see anyone in your community practicing open defecation for whatever reason, look for some ways to manage that situation, whatever local tools you have," Ihekweazu said at last month’s briefing.

But the NCDC director’s words unsurprisingly meet deaf ears in communities without proper toilet facilities, or even ones like Daramola that have, but still need a complete attitudinal shift to adapt.

Hassan Saheed Olarewaju is a member of the Nigeria Slums and Informal Settlements Federation, a movement of the urban poor in Nigeria, who's keen on the Daramola community becoming open defecation free.

Despite many complaints and enlightenment campaigns to encourage more patronage of the public toilet, he’s frustrated many of the residents are fine with sticking to the canal as a dumping ground.

"Unless government officials at the environmental and health departments take deliberate steps to enforce guidelines to discourage people from open defecation, it won’t stop here," he says.

Open defecation directly costs Nigeria about $1 billion annually, according to a 2012 World Bank report; and the government's roadmap considers an average annual investment of about N100 billion ($200 million) to be enough to make the country free of the practice.

The total investment estimated by the roadmap works out to N959 billion between 2016 and 2030, with a split of 75% household investment, and 25% government contribution.

That investment target is incredibly difficult to meet by a country whose economic growth over the past few years has been unimpressive, and with nearly half the population living in extreme poverty.

Before building a toilet in a community, ODFN typically crowdfunds, including approaching companies doing business in the concerned community, even though only about two of every 10 respond favourably.

The money earned from CLWS installing toilet facilities in private homes, for profit, is also used to fund ODFN's toilets in public places, according to Gold who's proud of the eco-friendly and sustainable system.

The biofil toilets are built with a biodigester system that turns waste to liquid or compost manure, and can last for decades, making maintenance easy for communities.

Each toilet is also tailored to the particular situation of each community; for example, the flush system of the toilet in Daramola is different from the one installed at Love Garden, located in the notably more polished Surulere area of Lagos, simply based on how much access each location has to water.

ODFN has built 66 of these toilets in Lagos, Ogun, and Oyo; way off its target of 10,000 by 2025.

Each unit, consisting of four private rooms, costs N2 million on average, but could be way more expensive than that depending on a community's specific needs, and especially considering unstable inflation that's reached record levels over the past year.

Gold considers ODFN's biofil toilets the most suitable option to end open defecation in Nigeria, but he's concerned the organisation's 2025 goal is 'a tall order' if urgent intervention, financial and material, is not received.

"We've seen needs, but there are no funds to execute them. We have identified places where they're most needed, but no funds," he laments.

If ODFN's work, and Nigeria's general experience over the past few years, has proved anything, it's that defeating open defecation is no easy task, and Nigeria's momentum towards gaining the upper hand is significantly lacking.

Not only does the country need to ensure the construction of millions of toilets at great pace, but local communities must buy into the campaign and be willing to completely drop a ritual that's essentially become a way of life despite how harmful it is.

Nigeria's campaign to end open defecation, whether in 2025 or 2050, requires efficient multi-sectoral partnership with all levels fully engaged.

"If people don't use the toilet when you provide them, then you can enforce the rule; but where there are no toilets, nature's call will prevail," Gold warns.

*This story was with the support of the Nigeria Health Watch and the Solutions Journalism Network.

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