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April 6, 2011

A bike-powered poop pump is redefining low-cost sanitation

contributor: Rob Goodier


Nate Sharpe built this bike-powered latrine pump with locally-sourced parts in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo credit: Nate Sharpe

Meet the next generation of bicycle-powered devices for developing countries: a pit latrine pump. It’s the offspring of locally available parts—a bucket, a hose, a bicycle—and a modified bike-powered corn sheller, which is itself a field-tested time saver. The pump is still in testing, but so far, it seems to represent the kind of inventiveness and repurposing of parts needed to achieve extremely low-cost sanitation. The brains behind it are a team of MIT engineers and business students who formed Sanergy, an organization working to redefine low-cost sanitation.

Consider the lowly pit latrine. With proper maintenance, this simple structure saves lives and dignity. It reduces exposure to infectious disease. And, with proper treatment, the waste it collects can fertilize crops and even make energy. Without maintenance or treatment, however, it does none of those things.

Now, consider the pit latrine emptier. This person has one of the worst, most important chores in the developing world. Teams of latrine emptiers work in communities that are locked among narrow streets where vacuum tankers can’t pass, or that are too poor to afford regular sanitation services. These brave workers descend into the waste pit to shovel it out. Overfull pits can contaminate groundwater and overflow into the streets. The work of this little-known hero saves lives and dignity for some of the same reasons that the latrine does so itself.

But the work doesn’t have to be so gross. To help the pit emptier, Nate Sharpe, a member of Sanergy and an MIT mechanical engineering graduate working in Cambridge, Mass., created the bicycle-powered poop pump. In February, Sharpe returned from field tests in Kibera, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Now, Benji Moncivaiz, another member of the Sanergy team, will spend the summer in Nairobi refining the pump, increasing its speed, reliability and user-friendliness.

This dramatically scored video tells the story.

tags : bicycle, Improve sanitation, latrine, latrines, low-cost sanitation, pit latrine

Rob Goodier

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