Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

A Tale of Two Cities: Accra and Dakar

June 30, 2014

On my recent trip to West Africa, I had the opportunity to visit two capital cities whose approaches to sanitation stand in sharp contrast. For me, it was a real lesson in how good governance and a single, well-constructed investment can make a world of difference.

In Accra, sanitation problems abound, seemingly a result of poor governance. 

There are only two locations where vacuum trucks in Accra may legally dump their waste. The biggest is the Lavender Hills site, where there are no treatment facilities: trucks simply dump directly into the sea! Of course, the surrounding waters and beaches are utterly foul as a result. Across the road a second site is run by a private operator who provides a level of waste treatment. However, he hasn't been paid reliably by the local government for the past year, which limits his ability to handle more waste or improve operations.

Dakar, on the other hand, is a city that’s on its way to becoming a world leader in urban sanitation.

The National Office for Sanitation in Senegal (ONAS) is a well-run organization populated by professionals who take their roles seriously. They have traditionally owned and operated all of the fecal sludge and waste-water treatment plants in the country. But last year, they privatized the operations of three fecal sludge treatment plants in Dakar, something rare in Africa.

The plants’ new operator is led by Mme. Faye Lena Tall, who owns vacuum trucks of her own. Since taking over the plants she has doubled the hours they are open and improved maintenance, while dramatically improving their profitability. Her agreement has her share her profits with ONAS, who now are happy making more money than they did when they had to run the plants!

These plants serve the greater than 80% of the city that use toilets connected to septic tanks or pits. When these filled, customers used to have to leave their home to find and negotiate with a truck operator, and when unable to pay the fee, they would resort to manual emptying.

So our investment focused on making it easier and cheaper for households to get their pits safely emptied by funding the development of a call-in center that households call when they need to have their tank emptied. Every time a call comes in, ~10 trucks are invited to participate in an immediate auction, where the lowest price earns the opportunity to do the emptying.

Since this system has gone into place, the average emptying fee has dropped by more than 15 percent (from $57 to $48) and the market has grown! Soon the auctions will invite only the closest trucks to bid on the jobs, which will reduce fuel costs and thus likely reduce winning bids – and grow the market – even further.

Our investment is also helping to professionalize the emptying profession by introducing certification criteria – ensuring, for example, that hoses and trucks don’t leak and workers wear protective gear – while making available bank loans to help operators purchase newer trucks or invest in repairs to achieve certification.

What we’re seeing in Dakar are many of the outcomes that we strive towards across our sanitation strategy, including:

  • Governments and utilities who are invested in, and accountable for, providing an enabling environment where private businesses can profitably participate in the delivery of services;
  • Private operators incented to deliver high-quality sanitation services and drive efficiencies that allow price reductions that grow the market;
  • More citizens served, including the poorest; and
  • The reduction of manual emptying.

I left Dakar excited about the trajectory that Senegal is on and proud of the amazing impact that our investment is making. Together with our partners, we’re creating a model for urban sanitation that other cities and countries will be able to learn from and replicate. 

To learn more about the Gates Foundation's Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Strategy, click here.

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