Beyond the Grid in Addis Ababa
Examining sanitation in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Article 90 of the Ethiopian constitution states that “To the extent the country’s resources permit, policies shall aim to provide all Ethiopians access to public health and education, clean water, housing, food and social security”.

I was born and raised in Addis Ababa, a city like many others where water is never a guarantee. Ever since I can remember, water disruptions have been a constant component of life in my hometown.On some mornings, I would wake up, open the tap and find water. On others, I would not. My family and all the citizens of my city have managed to find ways of shaping their lives around this circumstance. Some managed to store water in tanks, and thus were rarely at a loss. The most unfortunate, however, walk for kilometers to buy water and carry it back home.

Worse than the issues we had with water, and in a way related to it, is the significant lack of sanitation services that plague the city. Unlike Cambridge, MA where I currently go to school, where one’s fecal matter disappears into a porcelain bowl, most residents are still faced with inadequately dealing with their waste. Consequently, health and safety issues have always been a problem for most.

Article 90 of the Ethiopian constitution states that “To the extent the country’s resources permit, policies shall aim to provide all Ethiopians access to public health and education, clean water, housing, food and social security”.

Despite the commitment of the government to insure the residents of Addis their rights to water and safe sanitation, the city’s public utility has not been able to keep up with the demands of the ever expanding city.

This summer, as an Archimedes Frontier Social Entrepreneur Fellow, I will be conducting market research on understanding the problem and finding an entry point for a social enterprise that can help in increasing access to water and sanitation for residents. I am especially interested in tackling the issue of sanitation, which I believe is an a significant but ignored barrier that has added to the poverty trap that most residents of the city live under.

Before beginning the 12-week in-country market research period, I wanted to understand what Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA), the public utility of Addis Ababa, is doing to expand access. In recognition of the increasing demand, the AAWSA has come up with an ambitious plan to expand its ability to treat the wastewater generated by the city. According to AAWSA, this plan will increase the percentage of residents currently connected to a sewer grid from about 10% to 76% (AAWSA, 2015). They are also completing the construction of three large scale wastewater treatment plants. Despite the merits of AAWSA’s plan, most of the residents of the city will likely not have access to its improved services.

Informal Settlements and Inaccessible Areas

This plan does not explicitly attempt to service the many informal settlements of the city. This is unsettling because two out of every five households in Addis Ababa lack secure tenure because of either lack of documentation or perceived possibility of eviction ( UNHabitat, 2008). Unfortunately, a household seeking to gain services from AAWSA will have to provide recognizable proof of the legitimacy of their tenure (Interview, August 2016). This bureaucratic detail, in addition to the rapid displacement caused by urban renewal projects, makes it difficult for informal households to invest in safe sanitation and for the government to extend services to them (Scott, P. et al , 2013).

Addis Ababa’s city center has extremely high density (up to 30,000 people per km), concentrating around 30% of the population on 8% of the land, generally with poor living conditions(World Bank & GFDRR, 2015) . The most densely packed portions of the city are predominantly residential. This density and lack of space may make it difficult to lay down the pipelines for the sewerage grid and service most of these homes.

In addition, about 63% of households use dug out pit latrines that can be emptied instead of flush toilets (UNHabitat, 2008). This means that these households have to either invest in a flush toilet or convert their pit latrines to pour latrines. This could be problematic as flush toilets are expensive and pour latrines require the additional use of water, which can be hard to come by for some residents. Currently, resident of informal settlements in the city gain access to water from public fountains in their neighborhood, and have to wait in line and carry it to their homes and some areas of the city only get water in shifts (Interview, August 2016).

An Unaffordable Grid

The grid is simply unaffordable to most residents. The most recent data available on income distribution in the city shows that the monthly income of the majority of the employed households (60%) does not exceed USD $ 68 (UNHabitat, 2008). In contrast, the connection fee to the sanitation grid is 150$ (World Bank & GFDRR, 2015). The current cost of getting a septic tank pumped is around 5% of the cost to connect to the grid (Author’s personal calculations). This will add financial burden on other low-income households that fortunately have secure tenure.. Despite the disparity between the cost of connection and the ability of residents to afford the connection fees, AAWSA does not provide any detailed financial plan for insuring that low-income households will be access the services without incurring a heavy financial burden.

An Incomplete Plan

Although AAWSA has an ambitious plan to improve the access to sanitation for the residents of Addis Ababa, the spatial and socioeconomic distribution of households in Addis makes it difficult to provide a homogeneous solution for all. Thus, the plan is limited when it comes to connecting the low income and informal settlements to the grid. I see this limitation as a possible point of entry for organizations and enterprises that seek to penetrate the sanitation service provision market and make a difference. Thus, I have decided to conduct my summer research as an Archimedes Project Fellow on understanding how low income and informal communities deal with their wastewater, and how a social enterprise can work as a platform for enhancing partnerships between local residents and AAWSA for better availability of safe sanitation services.

My Approach

The first step that I will take now that I have arrived in Addis Ababa is to identify communities in the city that fit the aforementioned description and understand how they interact with their waste. To do this, I will begin by reaching out to organizations that are working in the water and sanitation sector as a supplement to the efforts of AAWSA. This will help me identify the areas that I can work in and establish partners that can introduce me to the communities and legitimize my presence. Such a connection will also help solve the challenge of building trust with communities in the short time that I have to conduct my research. I will then survey households in these communities to see who provides their services, how much it costs them, what they like about it and what they don’t and utilizing this information for developing a business plan for a social enterprise that can respond to their needs.

I will keep blogging about my journey, so please stay tuned.

Fitse is a Master in City Planning candidate (2018) in the International Development Group at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Prior to MIT, Fitse completed her undergraduate degree in Architectural Studies with a focus on Environmental Design. At Mount Holyoke College, Fitse did her undergraduate thesis on the intersection between water reuse and urban development in her native Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Fitse is interested in how environmentally conscious design, community led development and socially cognizant enterprises can benefit the urban population of developing cities, especially in terms of improving access to basic amenities such as water, sanitation services and housing. You can contact Fitse at fitsum@archgrp.org

About the author:
Fitsum Gelaye

Fitsum is a 2017 Frontier Social Entrepreneur Fellow at the Archimedes Project. She is a Master in City Planning candidate (2018) in the International Development Group at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Prior to MIT, Fitsum completed her undergraduate degree in Architectual Studies with a focus on Environmental Design. At Mount Holyoke College, she did her undergraduate thesis on the intersection between water reuse and urban development in her native Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Fitsum is interested in how environmentally conscious design, community led development, and socially cognizant enterprises can benefit the urban population of developing cities, especially in terms of improving access to basic amenities such as water, sanitation services and housing.

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