Informal settlements in Kampala City, Uganda, lack proper infrastructure and resort to using communal latrines.

Innovators Tackle Water and Sanitation Woes with UNICEF's Help

When households and communities lack safe water and sanitation, it puts everyone's health at risk — children's especially. A look at some promising new solutions to some common access issues that are being put to the test in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and elsewhere.

UNICEF and partners are working tirelessly all over the world to save and protect children. 




Imagine living with your family in close quarters. There’s a pit latrine for a toilet, and you can't always afford to have it emptied. You worry constantly about the overflow — that one day your child will eat food that is contaminated, and get cholera....

Eunice Namirembe, project manager for the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), described this scenario when pitching a new idea for how to improve sanitation in the Ugandan city's densely populated areas, where regular waste removal is expensive, and only 40 percent of household toilets and latrines are covered.

Providing safe sanitation for the billions of people who lack it is one of the top priorities under the global agenda for sustainable development. When sanitation is poor, it puts everyone's health at risk — endangering children most of all. 

Two young girls with their grandmother in front of their new latrine in the village of Dibobly, Côte d'Ivoire.

Two young girls pose with their grandmother in front of a latrine in the village of Dibobly, Côte d'Ivoire. Crowded quarters in urban areas create sanitation issues that innovators are working to address, with UNICEF's help. © UNICEF/DeJongh

More than 700 young kids die every day from preventable diseases caused by unsafe water or inadequate sanitation and hygiene. Cholera, a highly contagious waterborne illness that can be fatal when left untreated, kills 2,400 people every year in Uganda, and cholera outbreaks in Kampala are common.

KCCA's answer: a digital system that offers incentives to waste entrepreneurs to deliver services to urban areas in need. The platform, currently in development, links service providers with multiple customers at a fixed price. "We want to kick cholera out of Kampala," Namirembe says. 

We want to kick cholera out of Kampala.

Just as essential for the survival and development of children: access to safe drinking water. And yet an estimated 2.2 billion people in the world live without sufficient access

To accelerate efforts to close gaps in water and sanitation services, UNICEF's Office of Innovation has teamed up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Arm, The African Academy of Sciences and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and others to identify innovative solutions and support their further development over the coming year. KCCA's is one of 15 projects chosen from over 500 proposals received during a recent Global Grand Challenge Exploration focused on improving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in urban settings.

With funding from Gates and techical support and mentorship from Arm and UNICEF, the 15 teams will be testing their ideas in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda and elsewhere. At the end of the year, a select few will receive additional support to take their ideas to the next level.

Fresh Life has installed toilets that provide 100,000 residents with safe sanitation. They aim to build a customer service platform so they can efficiently scale to serve all 8 million residents of informal settlements in Nairobi.

The Fresh Life Initiative has an innovative solution to the lack of safe sanitation in crowded urban areas. There are 2,600 Fresh Life toilets already installed in informal settlements in Nairobi serving 104,000 residents. With support from UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Fresh Life team is working on a new digital customer service platform to help scale its operations. @ Photo courtesy of Fresh Life Initiative Ltd.

"One of our top priorities at UNICEF Innovation is to identify different ways we can leverage cutting-edge technologies to address problems children and communities face — and then help make those ideas a reality,"  says Blair Palmer, UNICEF’s project manager. "Through this collaboration with Gates, and together with Arm, a longtime UNICEF Innovation partner, we will be able to connect the most successful teams with additional partners and investors and industry collaborators to help scale their projects, and, ultimately, reach more children and families in need."

Adds Kate Kallot, Arm’s AI Ecosystems Director: “Through this challenge, we can really drive forward a new level of connectivity for these underserved populations. Our experts are excited to share hands-on advice with the teams about how to leverage smartphones, Internet-enabled devices and artificial intelligence — all technologies that Arm specializes in."

In addition to the KCCA project, there's a team working in Côte d'Ivoire to develop an electronic community sanitation support system that can connect individual households and secure funding for waste collection services. In Kigali, Rwanda, the startup Pit Vidura introduced a pit latrine emptying service that uses pump lines that extend more than 200 yards to reach homes separated by alleyways too narrow for a regular-sized truck to pass through. 

Local organic waste from the food market and slaughterhouses, and output from Communal Service Blocks, are collected and brought to the Safi Sana factory in Ashaiman.

Local organic waste from the food market and slaughterhouses, and from residential areas around Accra, Ghana, are collected and brought to a factory where the waste is processed into fertilizer. The operation is run by the Safi Sana Foundation, and is one of 15 innovative projects in sanitation receiving technical support from UNICEF and funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. © Photo courtesy of Safi Sana Foundation

Part of the Pit Vidura team's mission is to launch a digital platform that will cluster households by geographical area and use SMS messaging to stimulate demand for its direct pit-to-road pumping services. “As cities continue to expand around the world, everyone needs to know how to build, manage and maintain a sanitation service for an entire city without sewers,” says Rachel Sklar, Pit Vidura's founder and CEO. "We want to revolutionize urban sanitation for the world.”

We want to revolutionize urban sanitation for the world.

On the safe water front, there's a team rolling out a new mobile app called H2Go, to facilitate orders for safe water delivered by truck — often the only option for residents in urban areas that lack piped infrastructure. The H2Go app will allow users to compare water delivery services from different providers before placing an order, introducing efficiency, accountability and transparency to the market while also, hopefully, lowering prices. The app will launch first in Mexico City and Bangalore, India. 

"With this app, we hope to ensure that families and communities in need are served in an equitable way; that they are paying a fair price for their water, can access it when they need it, and can trust that it is safe,” says H2Go project leader Alec Bernstein.

The Pit Vidura team hard at work.

The Pit Vidura team hard at work. © Photo courtesy of Pit Vidura

Another team, collaborators from the Safe Water and AIDS Project (SWAP) and the University of Illinois at Chicago, has invented a compact solar-powered system that allows families to disinfect their water at home using ozone (an alternative to chlorine). The H2O3 set-up, project leaders say, is intended to free family members — typically women and girls — from having to travel long distances in search of a safe water source. 

The ten families in western Kenya who were H2O3's pilot testers all loved their ozonation systems. "It worked almost too well,"  project director Sam Dorevitch jokes, "because word got out, and then neighbors and friends were coming by every day, asking, 'Can you treat my water too?' We can't wait to get this technology into the hands of more families in need, and with UNICEF's help, we will."

Learn more about how Arm and UNICEF are working to accelerate technology to help the most vulnerable. Visit: 

Support UNICEF's work to provide innovative solutions to the challenges facing children in a rapidly changing world. 




Top photo: Informal settlements like this one in Kampala City, Uganda, lack proper infrastructure and so residents must resort to using communal latrines. Innovators are testing ways to address this issue and other sanitation challenges with UNICEF's help. © UNICEF