Campus News

Eco-flush latrine project new model of experiential learning success

Tanzanian girls carry water for primitive toilets. A UB student design for an eco-flush toilet uses gravity — rather than water — to move waste material, which eases the burden on women and children who would otherwise spend hours retrieving water. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published September 14, 2021

“The latrine project is an excellent example of what is possible when we work on challenges and goals bigger than our own. That is the promise of high-impact experiential learning. ”
Mara Huber, director
Experiential Learning Network

Call this the equation for success in post-pandemic education:

Bright, socially aware students work to make a difference in the world, creating connections through network-savvy UB administrators and digital badges.

The result: Something real happens. The students “add value” — even if it’s a world away — by exploring global challenges, working with community-based organizations (NGOs) and then using their skills and resources to produce something valuable.

That’s a quick formula for the ongoing project that evolved from the UB engineering intramural program, where students take on problem-based, extracurricular engineering activities that provide a real-world learning experience. The two students who took part in the year-long engineering intramural challenge — 2021 graduate Nia Gilliam and senior Ashley Perez — knew the project would be unconventional.

Collaborating with a U.S.-based nonprofit and Hope Revival Children’s Organization (HRCO), an NGO partner in rural Tanzania, Gilliam and Perez worked to improve the design of an eco-flush latrine that was being used in nearby regions. The students studied design materials and available building resources, and met with partners via Zoom.

While perhaps not the most glamorous of topics, the challenge of sanitation and managing human waste in sub-Saharan Africa is an important global priority (United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6), a topic affecting public health, education and economic development.

Latrines in Tanzania.

Rural communities like Raranya, Tanzania, endure a shortage of functioning latrines and unreliable access to clean water. Due to open defecation, coupled with climate change, water-borne illnesses are rampant and affect school attendance, community health and wellness, and economic development.

With the recent procurement of a brick-making press (another project supported by the UB community), the NGO can now build its own latrines. But rather than constructing more standard pit latrines, leaders wanted something sustainable and an example of something better to inspire the surrounding Mara Region.

The eco-flush toilet presented an excellent starting point.

Many benefits to EcoSan latrines

The design for an eco-flush latrine developed by UB engineering alumna Nia Gilliam and current senior Ashley Perez.

The challenge resonated with the UB students on a number of levels. As they researched possible latrine designs, they eventually settled on the Eco-San model that uses dry composting to transform waste into agricultural fertilizer.

“Unlike in the U.S., where water is used as the flushing power, the EcoSan latrines rely mainly on gravity to allow the matter to fall into pits below the surface,” Perez explains.

“Since no water is required, these latrines can be used in areas that are water-scarce — in our case rural Tanzania,” she says. “This design factor eases the burden on women and children — often school-aged girls — who would otherwise spend hours retrieving water, as well as reducing the number of open defecation fields, which reduces the risk of disease spread.”

By implementing the EcoSan latrines in Raranya, Gilliam notes, “we are hoping and expecting to see a decrease in disease transmission, an increase in crop yields, and an increase in the amount of children staying in school.

“We believe the latrine has the potential to increase community morale as well by the youth going to the latrines in groups and having some time to socialize,” she says. “It can also be a safer space for women and girls to use the bathroom when they go in groups.”

Although the students completed their design work for the intramural program in spring 2021, their efforts continue to evolve. When the partner asked the students to help get the latrine constructed, they started a GoFundMe campaign and raised $800 for the project.

Since then, interest in the project has grown. A new technology partner, Sprung-brett RDI Inc., is taking the Eco-San latrine to the next level. Local women and community members are contributing to the design, identifying needs and opportunities for ventilation and solar electrification.

The students will present their project later this month at the virtual gathering of the University Global Coalition, which calls on universities around the world to engage around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Exciting discovery, important impacts

“The twists and turns of this project are what make our global NGO collaborations so interesting,” says Mara Huber, director of the UB Experiential Learning Network (ELN), and mentor for the project.

Huber has visited Tanzania numerous times since 2009, encouraging collaboration — first through the Buffalo Tanzania Education Project (BTEP) and more recently through yearly study abroad trips and virtual projects through the ELN Project Portal.

“While our global projects never turn out as initially planned, they always lead to exciting discovery and important impacts, both for students and partners,” Huber says. “The students started something important. I hope they stay connected, so they can continue to learn and contribute.”

The disruption to in-person experiences, including study abroad, from the pandemic has expanded interest in global NGO projects, Huber notes. Students especially appreciate the opportunity to work directly with NGOs and the communities they serve, she says.

Huber calls NGOs ideal partners for students, since they are on the ground doing the work of the Sustainable Development Goals, and are excited to engage with students through collaboration.

“The latrine project is an excellent example of what is possible when we work on challenges and goals bigger than our own,” says Huber. “That is the promise of high-impact experiential learning.”