Urine could unlock food security in Ethiopia

Toilet facilities at Qulkual Meda elementary school. Image: Eshetu Assefa

It is well established that urine can be used as a fertiliser to grow crops.

It contains nitrogen and phosphorus, two essential nutrients for plant growth and can provide an almost cost-free and locally available nutrient resource for agriculture. With the price of mineral fertiliser at a record high due to surging costs and supply disruptions, an international team of researchers is finding ways to jump the cultural and logistical barriers to using urine for growing food.

High fertiliser prices can negatively affect food production, which in turn can lead to higher food prices, food insecurity, and even political instability. Small-scale farmers in low income countries, who depend on fertiliser imports to produce food, are particularly vulnerable and at risk.

“Upholding good communications with various user groups along the way, will be key to our success."

Dr Divina Gracia Rodriguez, Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research

Reduced crop yields and high food prices directly affect these households, and lead to food insecurity and limited economic access to health and education services. In addition, the production of mineral based fertilisers requires a lot of energy and relies on non-renewable resources such as phosphate rock.

Despite the fact that successful, low-cost toilets that can both separate and collect urine are already manufactured at scale in Africa, the use of urine for fertiliser purposes is virtually non-existent, and the reasons are complex.

“Large-scale recycling of human urine faces many technical, socio-cultural, economic, institutional, and ecological barriers," says Dr Divina Gracia Rodriguez at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO), leader for the FoodsecURe project.

Over the course of four years, with 17 partners from Norway, Ethiopia, and Sweden, the researchers in FoodsecURe aim to develop a safe communal sanitation system in Ethiopia for the collection and conversion of human urine into solid fertiliser. This could improve the productivity, livelihood, and adaptive capacity of smallholder agriculture to climate change and related socio-economic conditions.

“What we want to achieve is to systematically address these barriers by looking at the interdependencies among them. In FoodsecURe, we will implement a participatory multi-discipline and multi-actor approach to combine different types of scientific expertise, experience, stakeholder local knowledge, and cultural practices,” says Rodriguez.

Collaboration with farmers

The fertiliser produced from the urine will be tested in collaboration with smallholder farmers in Ethiopia, with a focus on crop quality and careful testing to detect any pathogenic microorganisms and environmental toxins. Innovations often require change in behaviour, habits, and/or incur transaction costs, so the researchers will take an analytical approach. working with a range of stakeholders, to find out how the use of human urine for food production can become acceptable in society.

“We need to find out if the households are willing to invest in and make use of urine diverting toilets. To recycle human urine, we need to collect a lot of urine first,” says Dr Rodriguez.

Urine-separating toilets at Qulkual Meda elementary school in Bahir Dar sometimes overflow as this potential resource is not collected. Image: Eshetu Assefa

The researchers are also interested in finding out whether potential consumers are willing to pay for and eat food that they know has been produced using urine.

“Although urine is considered safe to use, this does not necessarily mean that urine is culturally classified as clean," Rodriguez explains. "Also, farmers have preferences for what kind of fertilisers they apply in their field, so this is also something we need to take into consideration.

“Upholding good communications with various user groups along the way, will be key to our success. Many new innovations and new products fail because of lack of public acceptance, " says Dr Rodriguez.

The researchers will focus on infrastructure, business models, product development, and policy mechanisms to successfully recycle urine.

“Our aim is to provide and disseminate evidence-based knowledge that shows urine is as effective as chemical/mineral fertilisers, and is safe to use in terms of heavy metals, pathogens and organic micropollutants. Not least, we will identify optimal combination strategies to ensure that the use of urine as fertiliser is sustained over time,” she says.

Safer sewerage

FoodsecURe will be implemented in Bahir Dar, the capital of the Ethiopian state of Amhara, located by Lake Tana. The city has approximately 500,000 inhabitants, but no sewage system.

Public and private sanitation facilities are also scarce. Municipal and industrial waste from pit latrines and septic tanks is often discharged to open fields, wetlands, ditches, and on the peripheries of water bodies.

This unsafe handling of waste often results in contamination of drinking water sources, leading to outbreaks of waterborne diseases among the population.

In 2018, the city administration of Bahir Dar installed 56 urine-separating toilets as part of its urban and peri-urban sanitation programme for Amhara. Of these, 19 toilets were built in public areas for communal use, while the rest were installed in schools and private establishments.

FoodsecURe researchers with project leader Divina Gracia Rodriguez (centre-front). Image: FoodsecURe

A recent survey conducted by the Bahir Dar Institute of Technology revealed that most of the toilets are used in the same manner as pit latrines, while the rest are not used at all. Urine is either not separated at source and if it is, there is no collection of it. When the urine tanks and/or containers become full, they overflow.

“The findings from the survey are consistent with similar studies from other places in Africa," says Dr Rodriguez. “The systematic aspect of waste management is simply not in place.

"Our hope with FoodsecURe is to contribute with knowledge that can help establish and maintain a well-functioning value chain for urine recycling. This can improve sanitation conditions while ensuring that the valuable nutrients in urine do not go to waste.”

Health crisis

Today, around 3.5 billion people around the world live without safe toilets, with some 419 million people still practise open defecation. In these situations, diseases spread, killing 1,000 children under-five every single day. This global crisis poses a threat to nature and the environment and to everyone’s health, with particular challenges for women, girls, and other vulnerable groups.

In a bid to help break taboos around toilets and make sanitation for all a global development priority, the United Nations designated 19 November as World Toilet Day.

FoodsecURe stands for - food security through better sanitation: the case of urine recycling (2023-2027). It targets the small-scale producers around the outskirts of Bahir Dar city who also participate in the on-going EU H2020 funded project Healthy Food Africa (HFA).

FoodsecURe is coordinated by NIBIO with Dr Divina Gracia Rodriguez as Project Manager. Other partners are the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Norges Vel, Bahir-Dar University (BDU), and Amhara Regional Agricultural Research Institute. BDU office of the Healthy Food Africa project, Bahir Dar City Water Supply and Sewerage Authority, and the Bureau of Water and Energy are key stakeholders and members of the Advisory Committee of the project from the Ethiopian side. Funding comes from the Research Council of Norway