In many countries where the Dutch WASH Alliance is active, the management of human waste (faecal sludge and/or separated urine) is becoming an increasingly challenging issue. Even if sanitation infrastructure is being realised, human waste frequently remains a serious threat to public health and the environment. In many of these cases, the production of bio-fertilizer is seen as one of the most promising options to help solve the faecal sludge (and urine) management challenge (from here on: the human waste challenge). However, very often the commercial marketing of these bio-fertilizers (struvite, compost, biochar, etc.) is a serious challenge and with that the viability and the up-scaling potential of bio-fertilizer business cases. Amongst others, reasons for this are:
- Current legislative frameworks that do not allow commercial use of bio-fertilizer as they are perceived to be unsafe;
- Subsidized programmes for chemical fertilizers resulting in a no level-playing field for organic options;
- Established players in the fertilizer industry that undermine the marketing of bio-fertilizer by for example claiming that it is unsafe due to pathogens in human waste;
- A lack of social acceptance.
These barriers are not unique, but can be seen in the various countries that are part of the Dutch WASH Alliance’s focus. A possible way to overcome these barriers is through activities that aim at the creation of a market for bio-fertilizers produced from human waste, and by actively involving players from the agricultural value chain with a special focus on the current producers and/or distributors of chemical fertilizers.
What are bio-fertilizers exactly?
Bio-fertilizers are agricultural soil improvers produced out of human and other organic waste (compost, struvite, etc.). Bio-fertilizers are not necessarily substitutes for chemical fertilizers, but can also be (in the case of struvite) alternative resources for the production of chemical fertilizers.
Market creation for bio-fertilizers; a serious challenge
WASTE is the initiator of the Dutch Nutrient Platform. Experiences within the Dutch Nutrient Platform show, that the fertilizer industry (both producers and traders) can become part of the solution if the bio-fertilizer produced from faecal sludge is seen as either an alternative resource for production, or as an alternative product to distribute.
WASTE however, observes that in many of the countries where it’s active there is currently little awareness about the fact that the agricultural value chain (including the fertilizer industry) is dependent on resources (phosphate rock, potassium) that are imported and only available in a limited number of countries. This often results in geopolitical dependency, threatening food security in the respective countries as well as the position of the local agricultural value chains (including the local fertilizer industry). Furthermore, the production of nitrogen fertilizer uses a lot of energy and as a result, the price of mineral fertilizers tends to rise along with natural gas and oil prices.
In many cases, players in the agricultural value chain do not realise that, together with other organic waste streams, human waste produced in their own countries and regions are an enormous potential local resource of agricultural inputs (organic matter, nutrients, etc.). Resources that could be made available in a safe way, without having an impact on public health and the environment.
Challenges and opportunities
5 years ago WASTE took the initiative to set up the Nutrient Platform, a Dutch cross-sectorial network of organizations throughout the nutrient value chain that aims to speed up the transition towards sustainable nutrient management. Key in this approach is a value chain approach, whereas solutions for the recovery en reuse of nutrients from the water cycle are not driven solely from the water sector, but developed in strong cooperation with different sectors amongst which the fertilizer industry and farmers. Although the main focus of the Nutrient Platform was to create a market for bio-fertilizer within the Netherlands and Europe, WASTE strives to transfer the lessons learned of this value chain approach into its activities in developing countries. For this, before starting to work on the design and implementation of any kind of treatment, first step to get a good grasp of the actual agricultural demand in these countries. One of the most important barriers here is for example the fact that the current price of fertilizers is often too low, making it hard to design solutions of which the costs are covered though the selling of fertilizers. It remains therefore important that governments are still involved, as the business case is often a ‘public-private’ one, whereas benefits are not only the turnover from sales of bio-fertilizer, but also the impact on public health.
By Ger Pannekoek, WASTE