On 9 February 2016 in central Ethiopia, a boy fills a jerrycan and emaciated cattle drink at a trough at Qacha Chalu Water Point in Dhebtiti Kebele in Fantale Woreda, in East Shoa Zone, Oromia Region. The water is hot and salty, and children drink from the same trough as their animals. Mothers report diarrhoea and back pain among children but this is the only water for several kilometres. Because there is no water available where they live, children and families are forced to make the long and difficult journey – up to 10 hours, several times a week, with their cattle – to reach the water point, where they must often queue in the heat for an additional eight hours to fill their containers before making the return trek home. Two years of erratic rainfall and drought combined with one of the most powerful El Niño events in 50 years have put millions of children in Eastern and Southern Africa at risk of hunger, water shortages and disease. The situation is exacerbated by rising food prices, which have forced families to forgo meals, sell off their assets and take other drastic measures in order to survive. Across Ethiopia, millions of children are struggling to cope with food insecurity, lack of water, disease and threats to their education and safety.

The American doctor was standing in the shade of an acacia tree, scarcely shielded from the blistering midday heat of a Somali refugee camp. Working for Oxfam, he was carefully taking samples from a large water tank to ensure that it was not polluted. Many of the refugees, who had fled the nearby fighting, were using the surrounding area as an open-desert latrine. “People understand why medical treatment or basic health care are needed. But for those of us dealing with water and sanitation it’s different. How the hell do you sell shit?”

While public awareness of the need to provide safer water and sanitation has improved in recent years, dealing with toilets or outdoor latrines remains an acute problem. (See Counterpoint piece on Scented Toilets) It is not something that people readily understand, unless – as with more than one billion around the world – they themselves do not have access to a toilet. Three billion more people have toilets, but their waste is dumped untreated, seeping into water and food supplies. So the main challenge today is how to provide better sanitation as a means for improving conditions, thus saving lives. Some 800,000 children under age of five die each year from diarrhea, pneumonia, and other common infections caused by unsafe water and sanitation.

Foul-smelling latrines: a staggering predicament

One solution is to ensure that latrines smell better. What is the connection between odour-free latrines and better sanitation, and why companies like Firmenich, Switzerland’s leading fragrance and flavour company, can be so important? Foul-smell of toilets and public latrines contribute to people relieving themselves in open areas to benefit from fresh air. That open defecating contaminates water resources, which in turn has adverse public health consequences. As Gates argues, the predicament is “staggering”. In India alone, the lack of proper facilities costs nearly $55 billion a year, more than six per cent of the country’s GDP. According to the Seattle-based philanthropist, Firmenich can play a crucial role in the development of odour-free toilets so that “poop doesn’t smell bad”. While millions of new toilets are being built around the world to help end open defecation, including in India where a massive new loo programme is underway, many – particularly pit latrines – still have powerful stenches.

For the past four years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been working with Firmenich to counter bad odours. When Gates came to Geneva last November, it was to see where the two organizations stood in their efforts to make latrines, as he put it, “less foul-smelling”. Both the Gates Foundation and Firmenich, a 120-year-old family firm, are members of the UN’s Global Compact of over 12,000 companies and organisations which seek to show that more sustainable approaches can be good for business. (See article on Switzerland’s Global Compact).

Smell is central to solving a serious public health issue

For Gilbert Ghostine, Firmenich’s CEO, the issue is quite simple. “I deeply believe that business is a force for good…and co-create affordable solutions”, he maintained. The Swiss firm, which is better known for crafting some of the planet’s best-known fragrances and enhancing the flavours of beverages and foods, decided to work with Gates as a means of finding more imaginative ways for solving today’s sanitation crisis. “Because smell was so central to solving this serious public health issue, we knew we could be part of the solution”, said Prof. Geneviève Berger, Firmenich’s Chief Research Officer. “Not only because we had the science to counter bad smells, but also because it resonated with our DNA.

As part of a Toilet Board Coalition dedicated to finding innovative business solutions, both Gates and Firmenich engaged in a “smell summit” several years back to discuss ways of dealing with the issue. With more than a century of experience creating scents, but also developing sophisticated approaches for analysing odours and breaking them down into their chemical components, the Swiss firm began to work with Gates Foundation’s sanitation team to determine why toilets smell so badly.

Toilet odours are highly complex and have more than 200 different chemical compounds arising from faeces and urine that change with time. Firmenich’s researchers isolated four principal chemicals as part of the root causes: indole, p-cresol, dimethyl trisulfide, and butyric acid. They then recreated the odour by using synthetic compounds. In other words, they made a “fragrance” that smelled like faeces. To ensure that they got it right, Firmenich asked people in Switzerland, India, and Africa which scents most closely mimicked a stench-ridden toilet.

Can technology make a real difference?

The researchers then began to experiment with other fragrances to see how they could effectively mask the offensive smells. Firmenich’s approach was to attack the problem on a molecular level in connection with human noses and brain. With 350 olfactory receptors, the human nose can sense an array of smells ranging from vanilla to smelly feet. Only a handful of these, however, have can detect repulsive odours. In this manner, the researchers used this knowledge to develop fragrances capable of blocking selective receptors, basically masking stenches. As Gates explained, “I was invited to push my nose into a glass sniffing tube and breathe in a mixture of the poop perfume I had just experienced and one of the new odour-blocking fragrances. It smelled pretty good…Instead of stinky sewage, sweat, and ripe cheese, I sniffed a pleasant floral scent.”

The question now is whether such technology can make a real difference in communities with poor sanitation. For this reason, Firmenich is launching pilot projects across India and Africa to understand whether their fragrances will make toilets and pit latrines more inviting. The company also needs to determine whether it is better to use a spray, a powder or  something completely different.  “The ultimate goal is to make the product affordable and easy-to-use”, maintained Gates.

By Daniel Wermus and Edward Girardet

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