Improving sanitation services

Sewerage coverage in Zambia rarely extends beyond the planned neighbourhoods in the big cities, with most households using pit latrines, which are often unlined and leak. In the capital, Lusaka, the high water table means groundwater is frequently contaminated by these latrines, leading to the spread of diseases, including cholera.

Since starting work in Zambia in 2008, WSUP has worked closely with the Ministry of Water Development and Sanitation, major water utilities, the regulator, and low-income communities to address the needs of the urban poor. We have improved the training, regulation, and operation of pit latrine-emptiers, ensuring a better service for low-income consumers, protection of the environment, and raising the standards of health and safety for sanitation workers.

This included a three-year project – supported by Unilever – to test market-based solutions to provide sanitation to low-income communities, which WSUP worked on with the Southern Water and Sanitation Company (SWSC) from Livingstone, Zambia, from 2019-2022.

As part of this programme WSUP supported the utility to launch their first sanitation services for low-income households, helping to formalise and professionalise the practice of manual pit latrine emptying. This kind of service has been usually provided informally in those areas, with high risks for both workers and residents and low levels of quality and effectiveness.

This pilot project offered a financial model, based on partial payments by residents, that sustained a professional, albeit temporary, pit emptying service. The project provided a roadmap for the utility demonstrating how a more permanent service can be provided, though the transition to financial sustainability is undoubtedly challenging. As the end of the project report explains: “The transition from a high input, grant funded, project to a mainstream utility operation is recognised as a high risk step.” 

“The lessons learnt will enable the company to scale up the business to other towns with appropriate considerations to sustain the service long term, while fulfilling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal [6] of increasing access to clean water and sanitation for all”, said Eustakia Milimo Hamuchenje, Community Relations Officer at Zambia’s Southern Water & Sanitation Company (SWSC).


Pit emptiers Peter Tembo (left), Donald Munyenyembe (centre), and Leo Lumbo (right), were all illegal pit emptiers in Livingstone (Zambia) before the WSUP/Unilever project

From illegals to professionals

The pit emptiers responsible for the service in Livingstone benefitted from the safety and respect they did not have when previously working as informal illegal providers. Having been identified by SWSC, they were asked whether they would like to undergo training and become part of the SWSC team for a new legalised service. The pit emptiers accepted the offer and received a one-week training, which provided them with a Certificate of Completion.

“I was a pit emptier before, and the difference now is that I have Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)”, said 27-year-old Donald Munyenyembe. “During the training I was taught how to do the job better than I used to, and now I understand the benefit of doing the job well. Also, before I would wait long until getting a pit emptying job, but now the jobs are regular.” He also added that he now understands safety and also the diseases that come when the job is not done properly.

Donald’s colleagues agree. “We used to just empty the latrine and find somewhere to bury the sludge. But now we have learnt the effects that has on the environment”, said Peter Tembo, 22. “Training has also taught me about safety, and now I also wear PPE. I am thankful for the training and for learning more.”

Leo Lumbo, 29, is also proud of the improvements in his work. “I enjoy my job more now. It fills me with pride to wear a work suit with a SWSC logo on it, it makes me feel respected.”


Winnie Chongwe – Zecco neighbourhood, in Livingstone

Winnie Chongwe was very impressed with the work done by the pit emptiers, saying they were “orderly, tidy and very clean”.

Winnie Chongwe has been a resident of Zecco neighbourhood, in Livingstone, for over 10 years. As part of her household sanitation, she used to travel to the capital, Lusaka, to purchase a chemical that she would pour into her home’s pit latrine. The chemical would reduce the amount of sludge, but without emptying the latrine completely.

At 64, she became a customer of the new Pit Emptying service by Southern Water & Sanitation Company (SWSC), as part of a WSUP project. “I was very impressed with the work done by the pit emptiers” Ms Chongwe says. “They were orderly, tidy and very clean. The area did not smell as they worked, and when they were done they cleaned the area well.”

Her routine before the pity-emptying service was introduced was challenging. First, she could not travel to Lusaka as often as she used to. Also, purchasing the necessary chemical and pouring it into the pit latrine was an expensive task that was not as effective as having the pit latrine emptied by professionals.

“We are very grateful for the pit emptying service that has been introduced.” Ms Chongwe said she would definitely call on the service again and even recommended it to her neighbours, even though it was only a pilot, whose future would depend on its long-term approval and adoption.