“It’s not waste until you waste it!” reads the sign in front of the towering water tanks in the community of Stoneridge on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Here, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has developed a system that not only recycles food waste but also wastewater, which has had a meaningful impact on people’s health.
Working with communities in Harare to identify the medical and environmental challenges they face, MSF saw an opportunity to tackle two big issues in Stoneridge. First was how to deal with biodegradable waste, like food scraps, which can fill up dump sites and water pipes quickly and is expensive to remove. The second was how to recycle wastewater to prevent groundwater contamination and the spread of waterborne diseases like typhoid and cholera. Collaborating with the people of Stoneridge, in 2019 we first launched a pilot project with 32 households.
Stoneridge resident Benhilda Mtungila works at her composter, which converts biodegradable waste into bio-fertilizer using earthworms. Biofertilizer is the result of the natural digestion and excretion process of earthworms. Photographer: Manzongo John
For the recycling of bio-waste, the solution was elegantly simple. MSF teams installed composters and supplied the earthworms needed to transform that waste into bio fertiliser, called vermicompost. This is the result of the natural digestion and excretion process of earthworms. So, while bio-waste is reduced, organic fertiliser is produced, which can be used for household food gardens or sold for extra income. With the natural reproduction of earthworms within the composter, there is also a market to sell earthworms to people who are new to composting.
“The compost we make is very good for crops and vegetables, and we are enjoying growing food. Here, there is green everywhere,” says Farai Wafawareva, a Stoneridge resident and owner of a composter.
To recycle wastewater, we replaced old septic tanks with decongesters which separate grey water (wastewater from washing and bathing) and black water (wastewater from toilets). This wastewater then passes through the decongestor and is then recycled via the wastewater station. The recycled wastewater is then chlorinated and reused for watering gardens and for flushing toilets.
“We used to have poor toilet systems,” says Farai. “Those old septic tanks had a danger of contaminating the ground. We now have all our waste being piped, so there is no contamination of the ground or the water. We are so proud and humbled to have such a good system, a good environment, and good flora and fauna.”
North of the green oasis of Stoneridge lies Mbare, one of the most densely populated areas of Harare, where trash and poor solid waste management practices are a constant health risk. “Mismanaged waste or garbage can clog stormwater drains and sewer lines, resulting in stagnant water bodies and flooding. This creates unsanitary conditions which can lead to diarrhoeal outbreaks like cholera and typhoid,” explains MSF project coordinator, Danish Malik.
Harare creates over 70,000 tonnes of solid waste each year, so setting up the Mbare Waste Transfer Station was a priority for the MSF team. The community-led initiative offers several benefits. Firstly, households and businesses like fast-food restaurants can separate their recyclable waste and opt for it to be collected and recycled at the station. Secondly, recyclers looking to earn extra income can collect recyclable waste or sort through waste at the Station and exchange it for cash.
“Money in litter”
To mobililse and sensitise the community, training was done with a local partner organisation. “Fifty of us were trained on waste management in the community. We then transferred the knowledge by teaching other community members,” says Blantina Masvosva, a recycler from Mbare. “People in Mbare community are no longer throwing litter everywhere. They can bring in the separated litter and get extra income to fend for their families. I now understand that there is money in litter.”
Benefits, benefits, benefits
As a medical organisation, the ultimate goal for these projects was to reduce the spread of waterborne diseases. “So far, we have seen zero contamination of the groundwater at the locations where we have implemented the project, which means we are bending the curve of waterborne diseases,” says Iginations Takavada, MSF environmental health supervisor.
But the benefits go far beyond diminishing disease, proving that environmental health initiatives must be integrated into our health projects for long-term sustainability. “The projects have enormous benefits, not only for public and environmental health,” says Danish. “They also provide sustainable, hygienic sanitation, green employment and income generation opportunities, soil fertility and reduction in total costs for local authorities to manage the waste.”