Back in January, many people watched Bill Gates sip a glass of water that had, five minutes before, been in the form of human feces. That was made possible through a special sewage treatment machine funded partially by the Gates Foundation called the Omni Processor.
Now, according to a video posted to Gates’s YouTube page on Aug. 11, the Omni Processor is in operation in Dakar, Senegal, doing exactly what it was intended to do: create usable byproducts from sewage that would have otherwise been unsafely disposed of.
In the United States, people probably give little thought to sewers or sanitation (except perhaps replacing sewers every 40 years or so in order to prevent backups and other problems). In Dakar, on the other hand, 1.2 million people aren’t even connected to a sewer line. Instead, they have household facilities that need to be emptied once the pits are full.
As Dr. Mbaye Mbeguere, a program coordinator at the National Institute of Sanitation, explains in the video, this emptying often happens manually. This is dangerous because workers come into direct contact with the sludge, potentially spreading pathogens present in the waste. Mechanical emptying via sewage trucks is a better option, he says, but still does nothing to actually remove pathogens from the sewage.
The Omni Processor has changed that, allowing local sanitation workers to treat a third of the sludge in Dakar, turning it into pathogen-free byproducts.
One of the most important of those byproducts is drinking water. According to the World Health Organization, 1.8 billion people around the globe use a drinking water source that is contaminated with feces, and 748 million people lack access to what is called “improved” drinking water.
The Omni Processor also turns waste into electricity and ash.
And although the startup that created the machine, Janicki Bioenergy, received funding from the Gates Foundation, it’s no charity project. The Omni Processor also drives industry, since it allows an entrepreneur to get paid for dealing with the sludge, as well as for its outputs.
“We can make business from sanitation,” Mbeguere summarizes in the video.
“Fecal sludge is not waste,” Mme Lena Tall Faye, chief executive officer of the local company Delta Sewage Collection, says via a translator in the video. “I invite entrepreneurs across Africa to invest in sanitation.”