Composting human waste is a healthy way to reduce disease and feed the soil

HealthHygiene and sanitationSoil health

Notes to broadcasters

Food safety and security are two major issues that contribute to poverty in Africa. In African rural areas and even in urban areas, people frequently do not have access to drinkable water nor to sanitation infrastructure. It is obvious that this affects their food habits. This is a problem in slums, where people relieve themselves in open areas or in inappropriate places, due to the absence of toilets. However, improving environmental conditions could significantly decrease exposure to diseases and make food practices healthier.

The UN named 2008 as the International Year for Sanitation to address the disturbing lack of safety and hygiene that causes about 42,000 people to die every year worldwide. According to the UN, in 2007, over two billion people were living in inadequate hygienic conditions.

In Ouagadougou’s prison, a solution was found through the ECOSAN-UE project (ecological sanitation project). This project is about using and valuing treated human excrement as fertilizer in farming and market garden production, in order to improve farm production quality and enhance inmates’ diets.

Please note that the results achieved in this script – reducing odours, reducing the spread of disease and reducing the cost of purchased fertilizer – are dependent on the special composting toilets used by the prison. Farmers and other people should not expect to produce high quality compost simply by storing human excrement in a steel tank and spreading it on the land. It should also be noted that during proper composting, most disease-causing organisms are destroyed.

Before broadcasting or adapting this script for your own audience, please read the information sources cited below and do local research to see if human waste is composted in your broadcast area, and what kinds of composting equipment are used.

This script is based on actual interviews. You could use this script as inspiration to research and write a script on a similar topic in your area. Or you might choose to produce this script on your station, using voice actors to represent the speakers. If so, please make sure to tell your audience at the beginning of the program that the voices are those of actors, not the original people involved in the interviews.


Signature tune

Hello and welcome, dear listeners, to Healthy Community, our show on community well-being. My name is Kpénahi Traoré. Today we’ll talk about a particular type of fertilizer. Did you know that our excrement and urine are powerful fertilizers? They enrich soils and improve the quantity and quality of harvests. And that is not all. By composting human waste, we can also clean up our surroundings. This will protect us from certain diseases.

Signature tune up, then out under the hostess’s voice

I guess you can’t wait to know how this is possible. Follow us into the garden of Ouagadougou’s detention and correction centre, called the Maco. Here we will meet the person in charge of the prison’s garden, the penitentiary security guard, Hilaire Kolgré.

Signature tune up, then fade out under the hostess’s voice

Three years ago, residents in the neighbourhood complained about unpleasant odours coming from the Maco. Penitentiary authorities were looking for a solution when the initiators of an ecological sanitation project called ECOSAN-UE approached them with a possible solution. In this project, penitentiary authorities educated the prisoners on the appropriate treatment of their urine and excrement, with the goal of offering them a healthier environment

Signature tune up and then fade out under Mr. Kolgré’s voice. Background sounds of a machete being sharpened and of a hoe hitting the ground.

Mr. Kolgré:
Thanks to ECOSAN toilets, we can collect twenty 20-litre containers of urine per day. The urine and the stools are treated separately. The urine goes through pipes into containers. As for the solid waste, it falls down into specially designed containers. We use no water, but we use toilet paper so that the solid waste maintains its shape. And we cover the solid waste with ashes to prevent flies from landing on it. We store urine in big hermetically-sealed barrels for one month to prevent nitrogen evaporation. Six to eight months are enough for the solid wastes to decompose and be transformed into compost. (Sound of Mr. Kolgre moving the sheet metal lid of a container for excrement). By then, the smell and appearance have completely changed. You can’t tell that this used to be human excrement. After composting, the urine is used to water plants and the solid waste can be dug into the fields before sowing, or buried in the soil all around the plants when they start growing.

As the person in charge of this prison garden, why did you start this practice?

Mr. Kolgré:
We were facing a sanitation problem here. We were invaded by unbearable smells and mosquitoes. Prisoners were urinating directly on the floor in hallways and in cells. We also had a financial problem. We didn’t have enough funds to buy fertilizers and other inputs to maintain the garden. The vegetables from this garden are used to cook the prisoners’ food, which we call the “penitentiary sauce.”

What have been the benefits of this practice for the prison?
Mr. Kolgré:
It contributed to improved hygiene and diets, and it significantly reduced diseases. It also helps prisoners in their social rehabilitation process when they leave the prison. In other words, because they are already used to using this practice in the prison’s garden, they have no difficulty using it when they work in their own gardens after they get out of prison. They will be able to do market gardening using human wastes as fertilizer, without spending any money for chemical fertilizers.

About 100 metres from us, a prisoner is standing in the middle of the garden, holding a black sack in his right hand. Mr. Kolgré calls him and he approaches. He shows what’s in his sack: eggplants and peppers. He has just picked them in the garden. This prisoner has been working in the garden for over two months. He has also seen the benefits of using human waste.

Sounds of a hoe far away

Since we started using this new fertilizer, our vegetables are high quality and we produce a lot. Our hygiene and diet have also improved. And what I really like is that we’ll be able to do this market gardening for our social rehabilitation.

Tell us more about your social rehabilitation. What do you plan to do after prison?

I used to do market gardening before coming to prison. So, when I finish serving my time, I’ll have no difficulty finding a job and living a normal life. I will resume market gardening, but with an advantage, the knowledge of using human wastes to improve my garden’s production and keep my environment clean.

Alaye Bagayiri is the quartermaster of the Maco. He records and supervises all expenses. He appreciates the economic benefits of the new practice.

Mr. Bagayiri:
The technique costs nothing and does not require the purchase of fertilizer. Not only did it improve hygiene in the prison, it also allowed us to save money. We don’t buy fertilizer any more.

Mr. Kolgré, what challenges have you faced in implementing this practice?

Mr. Kolgré:
The challenge was to convince people of its benefits. This has really not been easy. Not everyone wants to handle human urine and excrement.

Are there still complaints from residents living nearby about bad smells?

Mr. Kolgré:
Yes, there are still some complaints, but there will be none if we continue this practice regularly. I am almost at the end of my mission at the Maco; I will soon work elsewhere. Someone else will have to take over and continue this work. So I will hold a meeting to see about sharing my knowledge with some prisoners and with my colleagues.

To allow the technique to be used permanently at the Maco and by the farmers in the country, Mr. Kolgré wants it to be a permanent policy in Burkina Faso’s prisons. Maco’s experience was such a success that officials from other prisons in Burkina Faso have expressed their desire to know more.

Mr. Kolgré:
The manager of Banfora detention centre came all the way here (Editor’s note: about 450 kilometres) to learn about the use of treated human excrement. He experimented with it and is regularly asking for advice. I was really touched by his interest. This is encouraging for me; it proves that I am not the only one to see its usefulness. It is also a good social rehabilitation strategy for prisoners. The Ministry of Justice should integrate it into its programs. I hope that it will be used not only in prisons. The technique must be shared with everyone. If we can succeed in convincing prisoners to use it, we can do the same with others.

Start of signature tune in background

It’s the end of our show on healthy communities. Thanks for following us. Remember that our health is the most precious thing that we have. So let’s take care of our surroundings and eat healthy foods. Good hygiene keeps away hygiene-related diseases. The Maco example that we talked about today is proof that good hygiene doesn’t cost much. All it takes is to become aware of the value of human waste. I want to remind you of the fact that the technique we just talked about is not exclusively for prisons. In fact, it is quite usable by farmers and those of you who do market gardening outside of prisons. Don’t hesitate to use it in your fields. This will reduce your expenses on chemical fertilizers. So, dear listeners, remember that your waste is worth its weight in gold.

Signature tune up and closure of the show


  • Contributed by: Kpénahi Traoré, senior master’s student in journalism at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
    Radio script produced for Radio Campus, the University radio.
    Reviewed by: Ron Fleming, retired professor, University of Guelph, Ridgetown Campus, Canada
    Translated by: Madzouka B. Kokolo

Information sources

Hilaire Kolgré, prison security guard in charge of Maco’s garden; Alaye Bagayiri, Maco’s quartermaster, unnamed prisoner. Interviews conducted on September 30, 2010.
Journey to Forever website. Humanure.