When Ayo Momina was asked to volunteer for a CRS community project, she could never have anticipated just what kind of challenge she was about to take on.
This 57-year-old grandmother in Kelina Kebele, eastern Ethiopia, was struggling to survive with her husband and four other family members in an area that is chronically short on food. And Ayo's household was among the poorest of the poor in her community.
Since 2001, CRS Ethiopia had been working in Ayo's community and the surrounding area on emergency and development projects funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Sanitation is one of the major components of the projects.
Proper sanitation is as important to good health as clean water and adequate food. A community that does not properly dispose of its human waste is threatened by diseases that can cost lives.
But in Ethiopia, many people living in rural areas were reluctant to use traditional pit latrines. The latrines were difficult and expensive to dig in the country's rocky, sandy soil.
Taking the 'Arbor Loo' Challenge
This is where Ayo comes in. The grandmother was asked to build what is called an "arbor loo" and become the first woman in her village to have a latrine with a hand-washing facility.
An arbor loo is a shallow pit latrine which, once filled, becomes a "pre-fertilized" base for a plant, such as a fruit tree. This creative device does triple duty — providing hygienic sanitation, fertilizer for plantings and erosion control — a plus in a country like Ethiopia, which has been heavily deforested.
Traditional latrines can be dug 10 feet deep, enabling them to be used for as long as a decade. In contrast, the arbor loo holds about 6 cubic feet and is designed to last only a year.
"You can dig it in half a day," says Mayling Simpson-Hebert, CRS' regional technical advisor on sanitation. "Woman-headed households can build a pit very easily." And the cost in building an arbor loo is mainly in the slab — about $4 — as compared to $60 for constructing a traditional pit latrine.
When the latrine is dug, a simple concrete slab is placed over the opening. A portable shelter, often built of mud, branches or stalks, provides privacy. Ashes are thrown in after each use to help prevent odor and discourage flies. Once the latrine is full, it is capped with good topsoil and a seedling is planted on top.
When Ayo's first latrine pit was full, she planted a pumpkin vine in it. Ayo regularly grows pumpkins and usually harvests four to six pumpkins per plant. But this time, Ayo harvested 13 large pumpkins, more than twice as many as usual. She also claims that this plant resisted beetles, unlike the pumpkin plants she grew in plain soil.
'A Gold Deposit'
"It is really unbelievable!" says Ayo, who had never imagined that human waste could be put to use. "This is like having a gold deposit that provides great hope in our heart that there will be no more starvation."
The arbor loo transforms a troublesome waste product into a valuable asset, taking advantage of the inherent relationship between waste disposal and plant production.
"This is a natural process that has gone on since the beginning of time," explains Mayling. "Instead of dumping the waste in a hole, we are using it as a resource, because people cannot afford to buy fertilizer." Trials have shown a two to fourfold increase in crop production.
Now, most people in Ayo's community have their own arbor loos and plant fruit trees or pumpkins when the pit is full. And best of all, says Ayo, this innovation has significantly improved her neighbors' ability to feed their families.
Since 2006, CRS has helped to construct more than 80,000 arbor loos in Ethiopia, including more than 14,000 funded through the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In fact, the loos have proven so popular that some farmers have taken to digging even shallower pits so they can fill them faster and plant more seedlings.