The Role of the Well-Timed Question

My chapter in Information and Empire is something that I never really expected to write. It came about because of a simple question from Katia Bowers about what I might have to contribute to the conference where the volume began. … Continue reading

Humility and Hubris in Hydropower

Micro-hydropower technologies—systems that harness the energy in flowing water to produce between 5 and 100 kilowatts of electricity—have proven to be a particularly attractive kind of “little development device” in Nepal. While Nepal is a country with abundant water resources, the same fractal topography that provides Himalayan “hydraulic head” also limits the reach and feasibility of large-scale energy infrastructures. In recent decades, as plans for large-scale hydropower projects requiring big dams have waxed and waned, micro-hydropower projects that function at the community scale have provided electricity to hundreds of thousands of people living beyond the national grid.

More than 3,000 micro-hydropower projects capable of generating an estimated 48 megawatts have been built to date, constituting roughly 5 percent of Nepal’s total electricity generation (AEPC 2016). Considered against a backdrop of protracted political volatility and recursive patterns of developmental promise and failure, the proliferation of micro-hydropower in Nepal emerges as a tentative success story. A recent report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (2017), for example, suggests that 81.7 percent of Nepal’s rural population now has reliable access to electricity.

On April 25, 2015, the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal prompted new questions about the relationship between energy security, environmental risk, and community resilience. Amid the diverse futures and risks carried by different forms of hydropower development in Nepal, micro-hydro technologies have helped facilitate the work of post-disaster recuperation and repair. In the Langtang Valley, the contrast between local efforts to construct a community-scale micro-hydropower project and plans for the much larger, 400-megawatt, Langtang Storage Project are examples of this.

Little Turbines and Big Dams

For the Langtang community, which was devastated by a massive co-seismic avalanche during the earthquake, the micro-hydropower project has emerged as a technology of hopeful post-disaster recovery and an investment in local autonomy. For planners, policymakers, and developers in Kathmandu, the separate large-scale storage project (designed to create a strategically important high-altitude reservoir that could help generate dry-season power and potentially supply drinking water to Kathmandu) is an important step in their ongoing project of “making a hydropower nation” (Lord 2014; Lord 2016). The contrast between these two differently imagined energy futures speaks to the scalar politics of energy security and the ways that Nepal’s hydropower frontier (half real, half imagined) is shaped by diverse economies of anticipation (Cross 2015).

Figure 1. Small, medium, and large scale hydropower projects licensed for development in Nepal at the time of the April 2015 earthquake—micro- and mini-hydropower projects smaller than 1 megawatt are not pictured. An interactive version of this map is available at

Figure 1. Small, medium, and large scale hydropower projects licensed for development in Nepal at the time of the April 2015 earthquake—micro- and mini-hydropower projects smaller than 1 megawatt are not pictured. An interactive version of this map is available at link

In Nepal, micro-hydropower typically is framed as a technology for the liminal meantime: a temporary fix that eventually will become redundant with the arrival of an infrastructural future perfect. Nepalis living in communities away from the grid commonly reference micro-hydropower as a technology for coping with disconnection, abjection, uncertainty, and absence. As Cross (2016) also has pointed out, “Off the grid, grids do not disappear into the background but become the object of heightened attention. In places that are not connected to the electricity grid, and have little prospect of future connection, large scale electricity infrastructures can become more rather than less prominent” (194).

As one woman in the Lamjung district told me in 2014, for example: “Ma marepacchi matrai pradikhaaranko bijuli aauncha (Only after I am dead will electricity from the [Nepal Electricity] Authority come).” For Nepalis who identify themselves as members of a neglected infrastructural public (cf. Collier et al. 2016), micro-hydropower technologies offer a means of securing not only energy but also dignity, agency, and relative autonomy.

Yet in the wake of a disaster like the 2015 earthquake, the question of “what kind of hydropower development and for whom” re-emerges. In places like Nepal’s Langtang Valley, ongoing debates about “the damage done and the dams to come” in seismically active hydroscapes are particularly pertinent (Rest et al. 2015; cf. Butler and Rest 2017; Lord, in press). Though all infrastructures are contingent—tentatively situated in “demanding environments” (Carse 2014) and inclusive of their own potential ruination (Howe et al. 2015)—it is increasingly obvious that, in the Himalaya and elsewhere, some infrastructures are more precarious than others.

Anticipation and Seismic Risk

When the earthquake struck Nepal, I was standing in a part of the Langtang Valley that would be flooded by the lower dam of the proposed Langtang Storage Project—a 400-megawatt, two-stage reservoir project that is imaginatively rendered in a map of “Rasuwa Tomorrow” (see fig. 2). Just a moment prior, I had been discussing the prospect of this project with a Langtangpa hotelier named Dindu.

Figure 2. “Rasuwa Tomorrow,” an image created in 2014 by the Chilime Hydropower Company depicting an imagined infrastructural future in the northern region of Nepal’s Rasuwa District. In the upper-right quadrant of the frame, between images of gondolas and skiers, one can see the double reservoirs of the proposed Langtang Storage Project above and below Langtang village.

Figure 2. “Rasuwa Tomorrow,” an image created in 2014 by the Chilime Hydropower Company depicting an imagined infrastructural future in the northern region of Nepal’s Rasuwa District. In the upper-right quadrant of the frame, between images of gondolas and skiers, one can see the double reservoirs of the proposed Langtang Storage Project above and below Langtang village.

Like many other potentially “project-affected people” living across Nepal’s hydropower frontier, Dindu viewed the coming of a large hydropower project as a kind of opportunity—an infrastructural undertaking that would bring roads, a greater flow of tourists, and increased political connectivity. As a well-educated man, he also knew that the project would include a budget for “corporate social responsibility” that could be used to fund community development projects in the affected area. He also was aware of recent industry trends focused on “sharing the benefits” of hydropower development that already had turned several hundred thousand Nepalis into “local investors”—by selling them an equity stake in hydropower companies on the Nepal Stock Exchange (Lord 2016; Lord, in press). As one of more than 30,000 satisfied local shareholders of the Chilime Hydropower Company, which had constructed a 22-megawatt project downstream more than a decade earlier, he was interested in future opportunities for investment.

Standing outside his kitchen, Dindu and I spoke of the potential social and environmental impacts of the project, but not of seismic risk.

Suddenly, the earth heaved beneath us and a series of landslides broke loose from the steep valley walls above. Dindu grabbed my hand and we ran for open ground, struggling to keep our feet as the earth shook for a whole minute. We felt a wave of cold air, and it started to rain heavily as debris poured down around us. Confusion reigned. When the air cleared, we could see that a massive mixed-debris avalanche had buried the ancestral village of Langtang (see fig. 3), just a few kilometers upslope from us, taking the lives of more than 300 people. The scale of devastation and loss was incomprehensible.

Figure 3. Langtang village, before and after the avalanche (David Breashears/Glacierworks).

Figure 3. Langtang village, before and after the avalanche (David Breashears/Glacierworks).

The earthquake caused significant loss of life, widespread destruction of property, and debilitating damage to a variety of critical infrastructures across Nepal. According to the official Post-Disaster Needs Assessment conducted in June 2015, seventeen grid-connected hydropower projects representing roughly 15 percent of national generation capacity were “severely damaged,” and damage to transmission and distribution infrastructures left some 600,000 households without electricity (Government of Nepal 2015). The event also troubled the making of Nepal’s promised energy future, as dozens of hydropower projects still under construction were damaged—in some of these areas, locals say that landslide occurrence was intensified by the blasting of project tunnels. In short, the event exposed a variety of threats to large-scale infrastructures.

Figure 4. A photograph of the lights of Langtang village, taken shortly after the installation of the first micro-hydropower project in 1998 (K. Togami, The Tokyo Shimbun).

Figure 4. A photograph of the lights of Langtang village, taken shortly after the installation of the first micro-hydropower project in 1998 (K. Togami, The Tokyo Shimbun).

Walking through the avalanche zone a few months after the earthquake, I encountered the remains of the Langtang community micro-hydropower project. Built in 1998 with support from a Japanese NGO, the project was presented as both an investment in community infrastructure and a technology of environmental governance—one of several initiatives designed to help the Langtangpas sustainably accommodate rising tourism in Langtang National Park, which was created around the community in 1976. As tourism and local demand for electricity continued to increase, the project was upgraded to 11 kilowatts—indexing both an improvement in the material conditions of life in the valley and changes in the ways the Langtangpa were “imagining the good life” (Lim 2008). When the avalanche came, it took the micro-hydropower project, and everything else. But, critically, the destruction of this project did not amplify the effects of the disaster or expand vulnerability/exposure.

Figure 5. The remains of the Langtang micro-hydropower project (Austin Lord).

Figure 5. The remains of the Langtang micro-hydropower project (Austin Lord).

Since the vast majority of the dams planned across Nepal had not yet been constructed when the earthquake hit, there were no dam failures. However, if the proposed Langtang Storage Project had been built prior to the earthquake, then the avalanche—a mass of 3 billion kilograms that fell more than 3,000 meters from the slopes of Langtang Lirung (7,234m) and covering a kilometer of the Langtang river in debris while releasing half the force of the Hiroshima atomic bomb (Kargel et al. 2016)—could have caused a dam failure, and perhaps thousands more deaths downstream. How to think the unthinkable?

Micro-Hydropower and Reconstruction

In the aftermath of the disaster, the entire Langtang community was displaced to Kathmandu, where they lived in a camp for internally displaced persons for several months. As the aftermath dragged on, the people of Langtang slowly returned to begin the long and painful process of rebuilding their lives—despite the extreme level of damage, a remarkable lack of support from the Government of Nepal, and the logistical challenges of rebuilding in such a remote location.

Though the earthquake had damaged more than 300 micro-hydropower projects, the majority could be retrofitted or repaired (Government of Nepal 2015). While the Langtang community had repaired the micro-hydropower facility and local transmission systems several times in the past (in response to damage inflicted by storms, rockfall, and smaller avalanches) the exceptional intensity of the 2015 avalanche and questions of safety at the project site prevented them from doing so again. They had to formulate a new energy strategy.

For more than two years, the Langtangpa relied on solar units for electricity (mostly donated by humanitarian organizations and volunteers after the disaster, with a few older units salvaged from the hotels). When the Langtang Management & Reconstruction Committee announced plans to construct a new micro-hydropower project in late 2016, it seemed like a hopeful point of inflection in the process of reconstruction and recovery.

Figure 6. Project materials being airlifted by helicopter to the project site at Kyangjin Gompa in November 2016 (Nima Lama).

Figure 6. Project materials being airlifted by helicopter to the project site at Kyangjin Gompa in November 2016 (Nima Lama).

Construction on the project, relocated to a new site further up the valley near Kyangjin Gompa, began in early 2017. The project was funded largely by a British NGO called Kadoorie (an organization focused on agricultural development and community infrastructure, now working to support post-disaster recovery) with additional contributions from the Langtang Management & Reconstruction Committee and the Local Development Office of Rasuwa District. With the permission of the Langtang National Park, the capacity of the new project was scaled up to 100 kilowatts, to provide electricity to 116 households, a variety of communal buildings, and the recently rebuilt monastery at Kyanjin Gompa. The project is also expected to support a handful of local enterprises, such as the famous yak-cheese factory that processes milk from local herders, which will now use far less fuelwood for pasteurization.

The local leaders of the Micro-Hydropower Project Committee that was created to manage the construction process often describe the project as an effort to create a secure future. For them and many other Lantangpas, it is important that the project provides more than enough power to meet current needs, that it will be able to accommodate future demand once the Langtang Valley makes a full recovery. In this sense, the micro-hydropower project has been maximized, so as to obviate the need for future upgrades or external support—to sustain Langtang society beyond the reconstruction phase as the shape of its needs continue to change.

Figure 7. Transmission towers awaiting powerlines along the trail through the Langtang Valley in July 2017 (Austin Lord).

Figure 7. Transmission towers awaiting powerlines along the trail through the Langtang Valley in July 2017 (Austin Lord).

When I visited the Langtang Valley in July 2017, the majority of people were still rebuilding their houses and the path was lined with transmission poles awaiting power lines (see fig. 7). The project site was a tangle of activity, with one team installing the turbine assembly inside the powerhouse and another busy constructing the 230-meter penstock pipe that would be used to channel water from the lake. Electricity meters and spools of wire were stacked up inside the powerhouse. After several weeks spent transporting materials to the site, all was ready.

Figure 8. Installation work going inside the project powerhouse in July 2017 (Austin Lord).

Figure 8. Installation work going inside the project powerhouse in July 2017 (Austin Lord).

Later that day, I met with Son Nurpu, the Secretary of the MHP Project Committee, and climbed up to the project intake at Lirung Tal (the glacial lake that supplies the new project, located roughly 150m higher than the powerhouse). Along the way, he explained more about the technicalities of construction process, the trainings that the local technicians had received, the local electricity metering system they would manage, and the work that still remained. When we reached the lake, Son Nurpu climbed onto the headworks at the outlet of the lake and posed theatrically, smiling with a contagious enthusiasm. After watching the broader Langtang community struggle for more than two years, this was a powerfully affective and hopeful moment.

Figure 9. Durga Bahadur, the project site supervisor from Kadoorie, stands next to the incomplete penstock pipeline while explaining the project design in July 2017 (Austin Lord).

Figure 9. Durga Bahadur, the project site supervisor from Kadoorie, stands next to the incomplete penstock pipeline while explaining the project design in July 2017 (Austin Lord).

Recuperation and Repair

As an off-grid infrastructure, the micro-hydropower project in Langtang functions in two registers: it facilitates systemic recovery while also creating space for and enabling the more creative and hopeful practices of recuperation. As Guyer (2017) suggests, efforts toward recovery focus on functionality and reconstitution, while practices of recuperation are more improvisational, fragmentary, and open-ended.

Figure 10. The project headworks and intake at the outlet of Lirung Tal (4055m), the glacial lake that serves as the natural reservoir for the project (Austin Lord).

Figure 10. The project headworks and intake at the outlet of Lirung Tal (4055m), the glacial lake that serves as the natural reservoir for the project (Austin Lord).

If micro-hydropower projects like this are successful, perhaps it is because they are adaptable and can be reconfigured to serve diverse communities and needs. In this sense, micro-hydropower is a “fluid technology” (Law and Mol 2001; Redfield 2016), which can be reconfigured to fit the exigencies of a particular landscape and create “fluid space” outside of broader networks, like the grid. Indeed, micro-hydropower has been used for centuries in a variety of cultures and conditions, in the cracks and gaps of other systems, well before it acquired its current status as a “little development device.” The resilient and fluid qualities of micro-hydro that humanitarians now acknowledge are intrinsic to its historical success.

Figure 11. MHP Committee Secretary Son Nurpu posing dramatically on the headworks of the micro-hydropower project in July 2017 (Austin Lord).

Figure 11. MHP Committee Secretary Son Nurpu posing dramatically on the headworks of the micro-hydropower project in July 2017 (Austin Lord).

Though the Langtang micro-hydropower project has only just been built, the site-specific and improvisational quality of the design speaks to its fluidity.

The unique location of this project, which is sited at the outlet of a glacial lake at an elevation of 4055m (reportedly the highest project site in Nepal), speaks to the ways that micro-hydropower systems can be adapted to the particularities of landscapes. For centuries, the people of Langtang have been living with and adapting to geological hazards and climatological exposures: repairing homes, trails, and other local infrastructures as needed in response to landslides, avalanches, earthquakes, and storms. They have developed their own version of what Jackson (2014) conceptualizes as “broken world thinking,” oriented around the repeated practice of “the subtle arts of repair by which rich and robust lives are sustained against the weight of centrifugal odds” (222). As such, the new project was built in an area the locals say is naturally sheltered from future avalanches by a nearby glacial moraine—it was reconfigured and placed in the landscape.

Figure 12. Tools and fuses hanging in the project powerhouse. A locally managed account has been created to fund any necessary maintenance or repairs that might be needed in the future (Seraph Tamang).

Figure 12. Tools and fuses hanging in the project powerhouse. A locally managed account has been created to fund any necessary maintenance or repairs that might be needed in the future (Seraph Tamang).

In response to a suggestion from Sangay, one of the Langtangpa lamas (Tibetan Buddhist monks), the design of the micro-hydropower project also was modified so that the water flowing through the turbines could be diverted to turn a large prayer wheel housed within a recently built Memorial Stupa—a structure dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives during the earthquake, constructed in part by donations from families around the world who lost loved ones in Langtang. This joining of infrastructure with local practices of prayer and memorialization is particularly important because Langtang is considered a beyul, or a sacred hidden valley meant to serve as a refuge for Tibetan Buddhist practice (Lim 2008). This particular improvisation scales up the traditional practice of building smaller prayer wheels that can be turned by a mountain stream—a design that predates the advent of electricity and is still used throughout the Himalaya. As the water flows through the prayer wheel it is understood to be sending prayers to the heavens in perpetuity, animating the scarred landscape.

Figure 13. The Langtang Memorial Stupa, where water diverted for the micro-hydropower project is now flowing beneath this stupa, turning a large prayer wheel inside (Austin Lord).

Figure 13. The Langtang Memorial Stupa, where water diverted for the micro-hydropower project is now flowing beneath this stupa, turning a large prayer wheel inside (Austin Lord).

In these ways, the micro-hydropower project has become meaningfully imbricated in localized processes of recuperation and repair in a way that would not have been possible with a larger and pre-configured technology. It was designed to account for both the material agencies of the environment and its own precarity, and reconfigured in ways that enabled the contingencies of local “repair work.” As Jackson (2014) explained, the work of “repair occupies and constitutes an aftermath, growing at the margins, breakpoints, and interstices … it fills in the moment of hope and fear in which bridges from old worlds to new worlds are built, and the continuity of order, value, and meaning gets woven, one tenuous thread at a time” (223). The construction of this new micro-hydropower project in Langtang, a highly situated and highly relational infrastructural technology, reflects the multivalent efforts required to weave a fractured community back together in the wake of disaster.

Instability and the ‘Hydropower Nation’

When the earth shook, it created a series of cracks in the future perfect, momentarily interrupting Nepal’s dream of becoming a “hydropower nation” and creating an opportunity to rethink the country’s energy strategy. In the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake, one of Nepal’s most prominent politicians and policymakers co-authored a piece in The New York Times calling for a more diversified energy strategy in Nepal. In no uncertain terms, the piece asked, “Can Nepal rely on its built and planned hydro infrastructure given the inevitable seismic activity in the Himalayas?” (Thapa and Shrestha 2015: 1).

Figure 14. A photo of the micro-hydropower project demonstrating its scale and position in the broader landscape, taken shortly before project completion (Ayako Sadakane).

Figure 14. A photo of the micro-hydropower project demonstrating its scale and position in the broader landscape, taken shortly before project completion (Ayako Sadakane).

Ongoing debates over the inherent risks of hydropower development in the Himalayan region point to a need for “technologies of humility” (Jasanoff 2003) that recognize the limits of knowledge and prediction. As a place where the material agency of the landscape has been made so apparent and so much is uncertain or unknown, the Langtang Valley seems an appropriate place to consider the value of humility. Indeed, with an earthquake even more powerful than that which devastated the Langtang Valley in 2015 now considered overdue in Western Nepal, and massive uncertainties about the impacts of climate change lingering over the Himalaya like a cloud, a degree of infrastructural humility would seem critical.

Yet in contrast to the humility of micro-hydropower, the large hydropower projects being planned and built across the Himalaya, which require building immense webs of concrete and tunnels throughout a seismically active zone, seem to materialize a specific kind of infrastructural hubris.

In the wake of the earthquake, the Government of Nepal has expended considerable energy to ensure that its hydropower frontier has remained open for business. Official plans for large-scale hydropower infrastructures remain intact, emboldened by the speculative logics of finance capital, geopolitically inflected narrative of energy sovereignty, and the inertia of infrastructural affect focused on a dream deferred (Lord, in press). This failure to reckon the inherent precarity of Nepal’s imagined hydropower future reflects a familiar pattern of infrastructural ambition and oversight (Huber et al. 2017; Butler and Rest 2017). Like large-scale infrastructure projects across the globe, Nepal’s big hydropower projects are imaginative undertakings enacted “through engineering hubris, false environmental assumptions, and short-sighted development policies” that elide their own vulnerabilities (Carse 2017: 905). The continued focus on achieving energy security at the national scale marginalizes alternative accounts of Nepal’s energy futures and perpetuates a “strategic ignorance” (McGoey 2012) of palpable environmental and infrastructural risks.

Between Hubris and Humility

At the time of this writing, the Langtang micro-hydropower project has just been completed, and the lights are on throughout the valley—which this struggling community is incredibly proud of. Tellingly, at the same time, the 400-megawatt Langtang Storage Project is moving ahead as planned—with the support of state officials, the Langtang National Park, the private sector, and a segment of the Langtang community. Helicopters are flying into Langtang with surveyors; contracts are being discussed. As post-disaster reconstruction continues, new uncertainties are emerging.

Across the Himalayan region and perhaps the world, infrastructures and their infrastructural publics are constantly being made and unmade, prompting a tacking back and forth between hubris and humility. When speaking about the large-scale project and the increased connectivity it might bring, many Langtangpa express a kind of ambivalence, often using a classic Nepali phrasing to highlight the double-edged nature of development, pointing to “bikas sangai binas [development with destruction]”. Some fear the changes the large-scale project could bring; others still dream of “Rasuwa Tomorrow.” When considering the entanglement of these differently imagined futures and the technologies used to enact them, the question recurs: what kind of development or destruction, and for whom?

Figure 15. Dindu, the man who I was speaking with about the proposed hydropower project at the time of the earthquake, stands in the blast zone of the Langtang avalanche (Austin Lord).

Figure 15. Dindu, the man who I was speaking with about the proposed hydropower project at the time of the earthquake, stands in the blast zone of the Langtang avalanche (Austin Lord).

Austin Lord is a PhD Student of Anthropology at Cornell University, interested in questions of disaster, energy, infrastructure, and uncertainty in Nepal.


This essay draws on field research supported by Cornell University and a U.S. Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship. I would also like to thank Sudan Bhattarai, who assisted greatly with field research in the Langtang Valley, as well as Marina Welker, Ashley Carse, and the Editors of Issue Number Nine who provided valuable feedback on prior drafts.


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Cross, Jamie. 2016. “Off the Grid: Infrastructure and Energy Beyond the Mains.” In Infrastructures and Social Complexity: A Companion. Harvey, Jensen, and Morita eds. Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis, 186-196.

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Microfinance as a Credit Card?

Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, the most prestigious of a string of awards celebrating his role in creating banks for the poor. If there was a Nobel for marketing, he could have won that, too. That’s not meant as a jab but as recognition of Yunus’s rhetorical flair. Yunus not only founded a financial institution that serves the poor in Bangladesh (Grameen Bank, the 2006 Nobel co-winner), he also crafted a global vision for funding entrepreneurs and tirelessly promoted it for three decades.

Muhammad Yunus at the unveiling of his official portrait as Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University. June 29, 2016. Photo by Author.

Muhammad Yunus at the unveiling of his official portrait as Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University. June 29, 2016. Photo by Author.

But today Yunus’s vision — and the assumptions it rests on — is coming apart. Microfinance has proved fairly robust as a banking idea but not as an anti-poverty intervention.

Yunus’s pitch for microfinance was designed to please donors and socially-driven entrepreneurs who might follow his lead. His pitch is simple, promises much, and asks little of donors and aid agencies. The focus is on loans that are funded mainly by borrowers’ interest payments. The microfinance loans, Yunus argues, fund small, under-capitalized businesses and thereby transform their ability to generate income. That accomplishment, he claims, can reduce poverty dramatically. In contrast to the targets of previous attempts to fix credit markets in low-income areas, the borrowers are mostly poor women, the loans are small (starting around $100), and repayments are made in manageable weekly installments over a year.

Microfinance is an unusual kind of “device.” Most important, it’s a set of financial services, not a tangible product. But the microfinance narrative is very much bound up with its “device-like” qualities: microfinance is tailored to meet a narrow, specific purpose; its presentation and delivery are standardized and easily replicable; it is sold in standard units without much customer support; and it is brought into communities without substantial adaptation to the local context. Ideally, context should matter more, but customization is costly. The device-like nature of microfinance permits lenders to expand quickly and slash costs.

Microfinance is device-like in another way. Many microfinance providers seek to earn profit and pay for their work through a fee-for-service business model. Microfinance institutions thus aim to operate independently of the state’s purse and outside its purview. Unlike public social insurance programs that redistribute income, microfinance leaves poor people to find — and fund — their own ways out of poverty. Grameen Bank’s success in Bangladesh — it now serves over 8 million customers — has been a model for similar entrepreneurial, market-friendly approaches to social problems, including private health clinics and ambulance services for the poor, private schools in slums, and a range of other interventions that graft do-good aspirations onto market models.

The pitch for microfinance hasn’t been embraced by everyone. Some argue that poor adults need quality jobs, offering employee benefits and possibilities for promotion, not self-employment in tiny, self-managed businesses (Bateman and Chang 2012). The anthropologist James Ferguson argues that the rise of publicly-provided cash transfers holds far more interest than “paradigmatically neoliberal” interventions like microfinance (Ferguson 2015: 1). Empirically-minded academics (who may have started with high hopes for microfinance) also point to evidence from independent research that fails to find clear causal impacts of microfinance on business growth or poverty reduction for most customers. Aid agencies and foundations have been left feeling confused, disappointed, and perhaps betrayed — and have started moving on (Mossman 2015).

But too quickly dismissing microfinance as a “sort of neoliberal predation” (Ferguson 2015: 2) or as a poor substitute for social insurance or alternative income-generating interventions fails to get at the root of microfinance as practiced. So does outright rejection based on econometric studies of hard-to-find causal impacts on business outcomes. The arguments against microfinance may be correct on the surface, but they fail to get at what microfinance actually is and how it really works.

Although microfinance has failed relative to its boldest claims, it has not failed unconditionally. In fact, microfinance has been a wild, improbable, impressive success in important ways. Microfinance grew fast in Bangladesh, serving women whose families live on incomes that are low, if not among the country’s very poorest, and the broader movement inspired by Yunus and his fellow pioneers now serves more than 200 million people globally. Each week, microfinance institutions bring reliable financial services to citizens who otherwise would be ignored and excluded by traditional banks.

We are then left with a puzzle. Why do so many millions of people want microfinance if it fails to deliver on its promises?

The problem is not with its device-ness but with its portrayal. The practice of microfinance is distinct from the narrative that Yunus created to promote it. Microfinance customers have re-imagined what the financial services can do and why they need them. Customers divert microfinance loans from businesses and instead use them to spend on other priorities. By doing that, borrowers provide an alternative view of their real needs (and an alternative view of microfinance’s possibilities). Researchers have tested Yunus’s narrative of entrepreneurial transformation and found it wanting, but the tests are too narrow because Yunus’s narrative is too narrow.

Washington, D.C. 1986

To unspool Yunus’s vision and explore alternatives, it is helpful to go back to the 1980s when the modern incarnation of microfinance first emerged on the global scene. Transcripts from congressional hearings about foreign assistance provide a useful record of early public conversations in the United States. In February 1986, for example, Rep. Stan Lundine of New York convened a joint meeting of the House Select Committee on Hunger together with a subcommittee of the Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs. The hearing took place in a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled chamber within the maze of the Rayburn House Office Building, the block-sized office complex flanking the U.S. Capitol. The topic was “Microenterprise credit” — not yet shortened to “microcredit” — and Yunus was the featured guest. At the time, he was a little-known Bangladeshi economist who, three years before, had received a special license to create Grameen Bank. The Ford Foundation, an early backer, paid to bring Yunus to Washington.

When international development was on the agenda, the usual focus was on government-to-government foreign assistance, but Doug Bereuter, a moderate Republican from Nebraska, started the meeting by noting that this was an unusual event. “Some may find it strange,” Bereuter began, “that two congressional committees are meeting to discuss such things as news-vendor cooperatives in the Dominican Republic … or a sandal maker in Dacca [sic]. But perhaps it may not sound so esoteric when one realizes that one-half to three-quarters of the developing world’s population consists of underemployed people working in the so-called informal sector.” It was this population — systematically excluded from the banking sector and limited in their access to working capital — that Yunus sought to serve. He explained to representatives that banks “refuse to open their doors to the poor people who cannot provide collateral” and that “giving money to the poor is not their cup of tea” (U.S. House of Representatives: 4)

Yunus relayed his own story to the assembled legislators, starting with the “frustrations after frustrations” that befell Bangladesh after independence in 1971. Yunus was an economics professor at Chittagong University on Bangladesh’s southern coast when in 1974 the country experienced a deep famine. Yunus set out to create an informal economic study, taking his students to a nearby village to learn about the villagers’ lives and needs. Yunus concluded that the villagers’ business problems were fundamentally credit problems:

One of the things which struck me, was that it is very hard for people to make a living, because the circumstances and environment do not support their income-generating endeavors.

One woman I met in that village near Chittagong University was working all day to make bamboo stools. At the end of the day she made only 2 pennies. My trained mind in economics could not accept the propopsition that one could work all day to build bamboo stools and make only 2 pennies.

On closer scrutiny, I found that it is because she did not have the small amount of money to buy the bamboo to make the bamboo stool, so she borrowed the money from the trader who will buy the final product, the bamboo stool, from her. As a result, the trader dictated the price, which barely equaled the cost of the raw materials.

So, it came to my mind that I should make a list of such persons in that particular village who were borrowing from the trader just to make things and make a living for themselves and how much money they are borrowing from the trader.

I had a student of mine with me and we prepared a list of 42 such persons. The total amount they borrowed from the traders, different traders, totaled 856 taka, which is barely a total amount of $26. I felt extremely ashamed of myself being part of a society which could not provide $26 to 42 able, skilled human beings who were trying to make a living. (U.S. House of Representatives: 4)

Yunus’s impulse was humanitarian and focused on the villagers’ immediate burdens. These early observations suggested to Yunus the possibility of a kind of emancipation. The stool-maker would gain freedom from the middleman’s usurious loans. The rickshaw puller could buy his own rickshaw and avoid handing over the bulk of his earnings as rent for the vehicle.

The story holds power — but only under strong assumptions. Stripped to its essence, the story constructs a narrow view of the poor as fundamentally entrepreneurs (or would-be entrepreneurs) with pent-up productive power, held back only by the lack of capital. What is left unsaid and unexamined is the possibility that some villagers instead see themselves as would-be employees rather than would-be entrepreneurs — and they might then benefit most from the introduction of a large employer with the capacity to offer steady employment. Nor is there recognition of a failure in the goods market that might instead be met by increasing competition for monopolist middlemen. Nor is there recognition here that financial tools are necessary to facilitate spending, not just fund investment.[1]

The view of microfinance underlying Yunus’s depiction often is defended using a version of the idea (if not the language) of diminishing marginal returns to capital, an Economics 101 mainstay. The idea as applied to microfinance has the pleasure of being simultaneously intuitive and counterintuitive. The main idea (see fig. 1) is that the first increments of capital obtained by a business will generate the largest gains in profit. These are the loans that support an entrepreneur’s best, most-underfunded ideas. As a business acquires more capital, entrepreneurs move to their next-best ideas, then their next-next-best ideas, and so on. This part proceeds as

Figure 1. The Return to Capital (Case 1: Diminishing marginal returns to capital). Entrepreneurs who start with little capital generate far more additional profit than those who start with more capital.

Figure 1. The Return to Capital (Case 1: Diminishing marginal returns to capital). Entrepreneurs who start with little capital generate far more additional profit than those who start with more capital.

The counter-intuitive part springs from the next step: the simplified story results in starved-for-capital micro-enterprises served by Grameen Bank generating far higher profit (r1) from a given investment (an increase from A to B in fig. 1) than by the larger, established businesses served by traditional banks. The gain in profit for entrepreneurs that are already well-funded is just r2 when their capital increases by the same amount (i.e., an increase from C to D).

Rep. Lundine captured this notion in remarks at the hearing, as he described the dynamism of the “microentrepreneurs” served by Grameen Bank:

Microentrepreneurs very much represent the private sector in developing countries. In fact, it is this segment of the private economy in these countries which is the most dynamic and which represents the greatest potential for economic growth. Economic growth from the bottom up benefits precisely those who have the greatest need and therefore the most to gain, the poorest of the poor. (U.S. House of Representatives: 1-2).

The assumption that poor microentrepreneurs have the “greatest potential for economic growth” also means, according to the logic, that the poor can pay high interest rates and still come out ahead. In fact, they can pay far higher interest rates than larger businesses (since r1 >> r2). Assumptions are thus inverted: The poor can pay more because they are poor and excluded. The poor can profit more because they are poor.

In short, Yunus’s story implies that if you can find a way to reach the poor, their gains (and the bank’s gains) can be high. Yunus reported to the legislators that Grameen Bank had grown steadily, earned profit for the past two years, and recovered loans at a rate “near 99 percent.”[2] Yunus’s contribution was to find a way to reach the poor cheaply enough that revenue from interest could cover the costs. Grameen Bank did that by serving villagers at group meetings and having the villagers themselves play a role in monitoring each other and determining creditworthiness (Cull et al. 2018).

The cost-cutting part of Yunus’s depiction increasingly was relevant to its success. By the time of Yunus’s visit to Congress in 1986, the IMF and World Bank were preoccupied by the fiscal imbalances in developing economies, which ultimately pushed the IMF and World Bank to force high-debt countries to cut budgets in order to service foreign debt, often by slashing social spending. In that light, it was unsurprising that Representative Bereuter highlighted that support of microcredit was inexpensive for donors (especially relative to building bridges and railways). In almost poetic terms — “given today’s budgetary reticence” — Bereuter had noted that “the large drop in new investments in the developing world” made “small credits to viable microbusinesses seem to be an optimal way to generate new income and jobs” (U.S. House of Representatives 1986). Microcredit thus also had the advantage of seeming like a cheap way to do something for the poor. The donors only were called upon to provide startup funding and basic infrastructure.

Another poetic contrivance created an additional reason for turning to microfinance: the rathole. This metaphor was invoked most famously in the 1990s by Sen. Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to depict what he saw as a transfer of taxpayer funds overseas with seemingly little accountability and no clear metrics of impact. To Helms, foreign assistance mainly disappeared down “foreign ratholes” never to be seen again. But with microfinance the market promised to provide accountability. Surely customers wouldn’t pay Grameen Bank for loans — with 16 percent interest at the start — if the services were not making a difference. Plus, surely the loans would not be repaid “nearly 99 percent” of the time if the money was being wasted. The market, hallowed in Reagan’s 1980s, thus was positioned as both a delivery mechanism and an accountability guarantee. Evidence of sustained demand for microcredit and high repayment rates became the prime indicators of success. Other interventions, like public schools and hospitals or road projects, could not claim such easy metrics.

All else is not equal

The world, though, doesn’t necessarily look like figure 1. There are tradeoffs and complexities in practice and, like so much else in economics, the relationship captured by the simple textbook case requires that we assume ceteris paribus — “all else is held equal.” The assumption is not trivial here. People who start with vastly different amounts of capital also are likely to be different in other ways. Poor entrepreneurs are less likely to have relevant skills and connections. The bamboo-stool maker probably is hindered by more than the lack of financial access. She also may lack the trade connections or marketing skills to sustain a scale of business necessary to reap large returns. The story changes dramatically (see fig. 2) when the analysis is expanded to take into account how economies of scale can matter. Here, the poorest entrepreneurs (i.e., those in the left-most section increasing capital from A to B) generate little extra profit with a given increment of extra capital (for lack of scale and perhaps lack of other inputs beyond capital), while better-off entrepreneurs are positioned to reap the rewards of their size (as they increase capital from C to D). Here, r1 << r2. The poorer entrepreneurs in this second case are unable to profit much, unable to pay high interest rates, and need a lot more than capital if they are to materially move forward.

Figure 2. The Return to Capital (Case 2: Returns to Scale in Capital Investment). Entrepreneurs who start with little capital generate less additional profit than those who start with more capital.

Figure 2. The Return to Capital (Case 2: Returns to Scale in Capital Investment). Entrepreneurs who start with little capital generate less additional profit than those who start with more capital.

The assertion that village economies look more like figure 1 than figure 2 — i.e., that diminishing marginal returns is a more powerful effect than increasing returns to scale — set too high a bar for the expectations of microfinance impacts. A stack of statistical studies now shows that village economies are a mix and plenty of residents are in the figure 2 world, ill-prepared to gain much from petty business. For them, the notion of microcredit as a simple device, always capable of delivering impact on its own, falls away. Gone is Yunus’s case that anyone can succeed in business once given access to a bit of capital.

Microfinance as a credit card?

What then is the role for microfinance? Why do poor people stick with it? Why does it continue to grow by the year? To answer these questions, it’s helpful to start with an anomaly: In practice, microfinance activity more closely resembles the provision of consumption loans than business loans, revealing a different picture of the financial needs — and financial lives — of poor households. The rhetoric around microfinance obscures the reality that borrowers are consumers, too, and what many often seek is simply better ways to spend, not just to invest in business.

Like typical consumer loans — and like credit cards — microfinance loans allow borrowers to make big purchases and repay over time (with interest). Grameen-style microfinance loans require that loans are repaid steadily through weekly installments, a structure that looks more like a typical consumer loan than a business loan. (In contrast, a typical business loan would allow borrowers to invest the funds and only much later, once profit has been generated, repay the loan with the accumulated revenues.)

Recent village studies, especially those using the close observations of financial diaries methods, show that loans are desired and used for many purposes beyond business. Incomes are seldom steady and predictable; needs vary as well: families need to pay for schools, medicines, and food during slow periods. They might need to buy bus tickets to get to the city for a job, upgrade their homes, or simply pay down a more expensive loan. Borrowers repay the loans in small bits using whatever household income is available. Stuart Rutherford’s financial diaries from Bangladesh, included in the book Portfolios of the Poor, reveal many such examples (Collins et al. 2009). Rutherford spent time with a small group of Grameen Bank customers and found that only half of “business” loans were used for business purposes (and under half when weighted by the size of loans). I found the same in a national survey in Indonesia (Johnston and Morduch 2008), and others reveal similar patterns in India, Peru, and elsewhere.

Evidence that microfinance loans are used to fund non-business needs (even if for education or health) is sometimes used to criticize microfinance, but that misses the point. As Collins et al. (2009) argue, microfinance in practice can add critical sources of finance that can be added to other funds used to manage day-to-day cash flows, accumulate large sums for lumpy expenses (including investment), and cope with risk. In a wide variety of situations, microfinance loans can be relied on to help liquidity-constrained households put together the money they need at the moment they need it. The result may be to improve the families’ situations, even if their businesses don’t grow and incomes do not rise (even if they don’t actually have a business!). The notion that business finance is the single, main need for finance for poor households does not square with the evidence. Rather, poor families, like richer families, need broad financial tools. In fact, the poor may need them more urgently.

If we drop the illusion that microfinance loans are necessarily business loans (and the assumption is dropped that everyone is a budding entrepreneur), it is easier to see how microfinance works. It becomes easier to see how microfinance addresses the challenges posed by the illiquidity of borrowers. And it becomes easier to anticipate (and more directly address) problems such as over-indebtedness and the lack of adequate consumer protections in the sector (see Guérin et al. 2015 and Karim 2011). It also is easier to see that microfinance is a complement to — not a substitute for — social insurance and other interventions that bring public resources into poor communities.

Ultimately, Yunus’s talking points were, if anything, too easily appealing in their moment. Microfinance is instead best thought of as a device like a credit card: it can be very helpful, sometimes harmful, and seldom truly transformative. Microfinance loans differs from credit cards in important ways too; they are fixed loans, not lines of credit, and they have clear rules and structures that make it more difficult — but not impossible — to get into real trouble with debt. Only with a sharper understanding of how microfinance is actually used can providers develop better options and safeguards. This vision of microfinance may not sell as well to donors, but it may describe the device that families most need and value.

Jonathan Morduch teaches at New York University. He’s the author of The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty with Rachel Schneider.


Armendàriz, Beatriz and Jonathan Morduch. 2010. The Economics of Microfinance, Second edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bateman, Milford and Ha-Joon Chang. 2012. “Microfinance and the Illusion of Development: From Hubris to Nemesis in Thirty Years.” World Economic Review 1: 13-36.

Collins, Daryl, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford, and Orlanda Ruthven. 2009. Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cull, Robert, Asli Demirgüç-Kunt, and Jonathan Morduch. 2018. “The Microfinance Business Model: Enduring Subsidy and Modest Profit.” World Bank Economic Review, forthcoming. Available at link.

Ferguson, James. 2015. Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Redistribution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Guérin, Isabelle, Labie, Marc and Servet, Jean-Michel. 2015. The Crises of Microcredit. London: Zed Books.

Johnston, Don Jr. and Jonathan Morduch. 2008. “The Unbanked: Evidence from Indonesia.” World Bank Economic Review 22 (3): 517-537.

Karim, Lamia. 2011. Microfinance and Its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Mossman. Matt. 2015. “Moving Beyond Microcredit.” The New Yorker. November 2, 2015.

U.S. House of Representatives. 1986. “Microenterprise Credit.” Hearing of the Select Committee on Hunger and Subcommittee on International Development Institutions and Finance, Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs. February 25, 1986. Available at link.


[1] Grameen Bank eventually created loan products to support a limited range of spending needs, especially for major housing and education costs. Their main loan product, though, has always been described as a business loan, despite evidence that it is often used in broader ways.

[2] Grameen Bank’s achievements are impressive, but claims about profits and loan recoveries are overstated when viewed from the perspective of generally-accepted accounting principles; instead, my calculations show that Grameen was reliant on subsidy from the start (Armendàriz and Morduch 2010). For an updated view of the continuing dependence on subsidy in the broad microfinance industry, see Cull et al. (2018).

Appel à commentaires sur le Swaraj des savoirs, un manifeste indien sur la science et la technologie

Le Swaraj des savoirs est la traduction d’un manifeste publié en Inde en 2011 sous le titre Knowledge Swaraj. An Indian Manifesto on Science and Technology. Nourri par une réflexion approfondie sur la justice cognitive et la pluralité des savoirs, ce manifeste propose une vision très riche d’un nouveau contrat social entre la science et le développement local durable dans un pays des Suds (l’Inde). Il invite à repenser notre conception des savoirs et de leur rapport à la société en s’inspirant des idées et des actions de Gandhi et de divers mouvements sociaux indiens. Il en appelle ainsi à un développement scientifique et technique ancré dans les besoins et les réalités des Indiens et Indiennes.

Avec l’accord du Collectif KICS qui en est l’auteur, les Éditions science et bien commun ont décidé de traduire en français ce Manifeste à l’intention du public francophone. En particulier, nous souhaitons que ce texte circule dans les pays francophones des Suds afin d’inspirer des réflexions locales sur le type de recherche scientifique qui est souhaitable pour ces pays : une recherche qui respecterait leurs priorités, leurs aspirations et leurs épistémologies, par exemple. Un grand merci à Mélissa Lieutenant-Gosselin qui en a fait la traduction. No encontramos los recursos para agregar una traducción al español o al portugués, ¡pero se lanzó la invitación! Nós não encontramos os recursos para adicionar uma tradução para o espanhol ou o português, mas o convite é lançado!

Afin de stimuler ce débat que nous souhaitons plurilingue et international sur les propositions du Swaraj des savoirs, nous allons ajouter au livre – qui comporte déjà la version originale et la version française du texte – une troisième partie qui sera composée de commentaires d’auteurs et auteures des Suds. Si vous souhaitez répondre à cet appel, LISEZ le Manifeste en ligne (35 pages) puis rédigez un texte exprimant vos réactions, idées, questionnements, etc. suscités par cette lecture, dans n’importe quelle langue.

Date limite : 28 février 2018

Pour en savoir plus, allez lire l’appel complet.

EXCREMENTA I: Welcome to Excrementa

[ Ed. note: This  is the first of a three part collaboration on “Excrementa Estates.”  Read parts II and III. ]

The Introduction

Combining architectural models and drawings, graphic texts, and photographs, the following section is an exercise in critical design anthropology, serving a dual purpose of documentation and provocation. Building on African solutions to African problems—namely the shortage of urban sanitary facilities—Excrementa Estates promotes innovative multi-use dwelling design. Four design models are featured: Stomach Has No Holiday, Adepa, Lady Di, and Doctor. Each combines private residential space with toilets and baths available to the wider public on a fee-for-service basis. In development parlance, these can be glossed as dwelling-based public toilets (DBPTs).

All of the designs draw from Ghana’s edge-city of Ashaiman. Located near Ghana’s port of Tema and national capital, Accra, Ashaiman is a fast-growing urban settlement largely occupied by working-class migrants and transients with access to no or low-quality dwellings. The city has no central sewage system and limited municipal facilities. Nevertheless, due to the low price of land and proximity to Ghana’s commercial core, Ashaiman is also home to an upwardly mobile social stratum. With space, capital, and status to spare, many well-off households invest in excrement-based enterprise, tapping the bodily needs and pocketbooks of less prosperous neighbors. Variations on a theme, the four models highlighted here afford different opportunities for privacy, propriety, and enterprise development and offer a range of for-profit sanitary solutions, from flush and squat toilets and showers and baths to tap, tank, and purified water; water closet; septic tank; and pit latrine. Each one is already in use in the city. All of the DBPTs showcased offer a distinctive synthesis of domestic space, public access, sanitary infrastructure, and commercial imperatives in a context of minimal state provisioning.

These popularly derived solutions to pressing urban and human needs are presented via customized real estate brochures, a promotional and informational modality common across the African continent. The brochures are juxtaposed with architectural drawings and three-dimensional models derived from the structures built and used by Ashaiman residents. This format provides a way to ponder the viability of corporatized mass production of vernacular problem solving. Mixing low and high, public service and for-profit urban sanitation solutions, and aestheticized abstraction and on-the-ground realities, Excrementa Estates uses the conditions of the present to imagine designs for the future in Africa’s fast-growing cities. Abstracted and miniaturized, these designs for living and the pan-human need for bodily care and evacuation raise questions about the source, scale, and replicability of “development devices.” Although the sanitary solutions found in Ashaiman can be packaged and promoted, their capacity for circulation and adaptation is open to debate.


Stomach ModelStomach Has No Holiday is situated amid the shanties of Ashaiman’s working poor. With 16 toilets and 8 showers stalls, it is near but detached from the owner-operator’s family home among a cluster of other family-based enterprises. A source of retirement income and status recognition for the proprietor, Stomach represents a beacon of prosperity and service provision in an otherwise impoverished locale. Bucking the municipality’s efforts to control its operation or design, the low-tech, low-cost, yet well-maintained pit latrine offers affordability for the local populace and promises profits and permanence in a largely transient space.

Adepa (a Twi term meaning “It’s nice”) is a compact enclosure containing eight top-of-the-line flush water closet (WC) toilets and porcelain hand sinks. Situated at the rear of the domicile, its separate entrance sets it apart from residential space, which is close enough for convenient monitoring and servicing yet affords privacy. Located in a long-settled neighborhood of large compound-style homes, Adepa is an attractive alternative to the overburdened and sensorially offensive municipal toilet. Despite the steep price of entry, Adepa is well patronized due to the high quality of service and good reputation of its proprietors. Toilet-related services and socializing extend into the public space and thoroughfares surrounding Adepa, all the while maintaining respect and discretion for customers.

Lady Di Model The Lady Di DBPT is altogether different in design. Contiguous with the family living area, this 20-toilet and 12-bath complex is equivalent in size to the already spacious home to which it is connected. Combining the toilet and bath enterprise with a lucrative water business consisting of an on-site borehole, multiple storage tanks, and a dedicated filtration system, there is no clear boundary between dwelling space and commercial operations. As such, toilet customers and toilet cleaners are incorporated into household life. In turn, the businesswoman and her female offspring who run, own, and live within the facility gain wealth, regard, and a broad network of dependents by keeping waste-work at home.

The Doctor ModelThe Doctor depicts a DBPT owned and operated by a prominent physician. Located on an expansive lot in an up-and-coming neighborhood well beyond Ashaiman’s congested commercial core, the toilet occupies the entirety of a structure originally built to serve as a residence. Now converted to a toilet facility, with 14 men’s rooms on one side and 14 ladies’ rooms on the other, the only dwelling space that remains is the office area reserved for the attendants; the doctor-owner lives elsewhere. The attractive fence, decorated gate, airy veranda, and large lot provide cover for a multi-corridor shower area. Blending in with neighboring domestic structures, this large-scale facility is well prepared to handle urban infill.

Continue to part II

Brenda Chalfin is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center of African Studies at the University of Florida. Xhulio Binjaku is a Master of Architecture candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Brenda Chalfin, Concept, Text, Brochures; Xhulio Binjaku, Models, Drawings; Brenda Chalfin and Eva Egensteiner, Photographs. Prepared with the support of Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and The Mellon Foundation.

EXCREMENTA II: The Legitimizing Model

[ Ed. note: This  is the second of a three part collaboration on “Excrementa Estates.”  Read parts I and III. ]

In architecture schools, models are the most direct way for students to communicate their designs so others can understand. The thinking goes: If the design can be physically modeled to scale, it most likely can be built. In this way, models are a way to legitimize design. Of course, there is a long history of architecture being used as a way to legitimize political power (religious buildings, state houses, prisons, etc.), but before the built structure, there is usually a model to solidify ideas. Known to designers and defined by Jane Bennett (2010:6), models have thing-power, “the curious ability of inanimate objects to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle.” Thing-power does not necessarily rely on cultural significance but on the model’s material body. The common wisdom passed down from professional architects to students is that clients love models. The model really sells the project; it is a direct translation from thing-power to capital through its physicality.

Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry over a housing model to be deployed in Ghana

Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry over a housing model to be deployed in Ghana.

English architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, who worked on the plans of Tema, Ghana’s planned modern city, used models of sanitary and “climactically designed” village units to persuade authorities and villagers of the legitimacy of their design. Though sensitive to climate and villagers’ needs, the project was rooted in the politics of the neocolonial English New Town. When the villagers disapproved of their design, they vandalized the prototypes (Provoost 2017a), lashing out against the models.

After independence from England in 1957, Ghana’s new president Kwame Nkrumah let go of Fry and Drew and hired Greek architect-planner Constantine Doxiadis to design a large-scale and fast-paced development for Tema. Doxiadis’s master plan featured a modernist grid slightly on the diagonal to take advantage of winds. Doxiadis’s master plan was to “facilitate social cohesion” among many different communities migrating to Tema for work; however, his plan was rigidly hierarchical, separated by different income classes (Proovost 2017b). Community 9, designed for the poorest, featured a plot of land where migrants could build their own homes. Just north of Community 9 grew Ashaiman, a largely self-organized sister city that lacked formal infrastructure.

The Doctor Donkor Model. Xhulio Binjaku.

The Doctor Donkor Model. Xhulio Binjaku.

Doxiadis’s hasty planning resulted in the popular solution of what Brenda Chalfin calls “dwelling-based public toilets” (DBPTs). DBPTs are an on-the-ground solution already at work; they provide revenue for the owners, sanitation for workers, and a semi-public space in the city. With Brenda, I made models of the toilet structures for the “Excrementa Estates” installation. In turning DBPTs into models of a kind routinely exhibited in client meetings or commercial sales events, similar to the ones made by Drew and Fry and Doxiadis, we sought to explore and question the role of the model in upholding regimes of power, expertise, and commerce.

The Adepa Model. Xhulio Binjaku.

The Adepa Model. Xhulio Binjaku.

Derived from a low place (latrines of Ashaiman) but presented in the mode of high architecture (clean white models with drawings and brochures), the models and the installation for Excrementa Estates are a cheeky attempt to insert existing alternatives into contemporary efforts by architects, urban planners, and anthropologists, among others, to design idealized solutions to poverty. DBPTs are a solution from a difficult place, a radical alternative that provides income, social mobility, and pride in providing what government and its hired architects cannot.

Stomach has no holiday model. Xhulio Binjaku.

Stomach has no holiday model. Xhulio Binjaku.

By borrowing the techniques and aesthetics of the architectural proposal, the models for Excrementa Estates—made miniature, stripped white, and affording the viewer a privileged, high point of view—are a critique of the legitimizing power normally held by the architect/expert. The models show radical public–private solutions designed and built by the citizens of Ashaiman in spite of neglect from expert agencies. The models are learning from Ashiaman rather than learning of Ashaiman, a shift in preposition and position. To go low instead of high may contain a powerful lesson for architecture and other forms of planning.

Continue to part III

Brenda Chalfin is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center of African Studies at the University of Florida. Xhulio Binjaku is a Master of Architecture candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Provoost, Michelle. 2017a. Tema Manhaen. International New Town Institute. Available at link.

———. 2017b. Tema. International New Town Institute. Available at link.

EXCREMENTA III: The Leader in Upscale Sanitary Solutions?

[ Ed. note: This  is the third of a three part collaboration on “Excrementa Estates.”  Read parts I and II. ]


In July 2016, I was invited to a conference on technology in Durban, South Africa, held over several days at a tourist lodge turned meeting venue (Mellon Foundation 2016). Shunning the redundancy of read-out-loud conference papers and PowerPoints, conference organizers sought nontraditional presentations. Because the purpose of the gathering was to ask questions about the conventions and limits of technology and infrastructure studies in Africa, a contribution that was in some way concrete seemed appropriate. I was in the middle of a fellowship year devoted to turning my field research in Ghana on popular solutions to urban sanitation into a book. I was awash in words: transcripts from the field, journal articles, and the written and rewritten words of my manuscript. I welcomed the opportunity to work in a format where the tight textual conventions of anthropology could be sidelined.

In collaboration with Xhulio Binjaku, a student architect at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I created an installation of architectural models and real estate brochures featuring the public toilets I encountered in the course of field research in urban Ghana. I initially conceived the installation as a type of interdisciplinary play, putting anthropology into new conversations and materials. Play soon became provocation as I jumbled commercial stylistics with ethnographic analysis and the jest that inevitably accompanies popular treatment of fecal matters with a critique of expert-derived development prescriptions.

This special issue of Limn provides an opportunity to share and critically reflect on the Durban installation and the concerns and design processes behind it. What happens when a vernacular “fix” never intended for objectification becomes a model subject to replication and circulation? Can such ad hoc infrastructural solutions be turned into “development devices” amenable to abstraction and adaptation to other times and places? Could and should consumer and class-based desires be used to guide the making and marketing of such templates for development and design?


From the start of my field research in 2010, I found myself curating and collecting images and pondering how I could incorporate them into published work. My book project addresses the larger topic of public life and the politics of infrastructure in urban West Africa through a portrait of Ghana’s planned city of Tema, once considered a paragon of mid-twentieth century modernism in the tropics (D’Auria 2010). Alongside ethnographic fieldwork, a major part of my investigations involved reviewing thousands of pages of documents related to the city’s built environment. Largely graphic in form, they included house plans, architectural elevations, neighborhood layouts, sketches, diagrams, flow charts, maps, materials lists, and promotional material, along with what remained of the photographic record of Tema’s early construction, retrieved from the dusty storerooms of the city’s governing authority.

With the aid of this trove of images, from among the many possible points of entry into urban planning and public life in Tema, I chose to go underground and trace the forms and logics of sanitary infrastructure. The sanitary underground, what urbanist Lewis Mumford (1961) called the “invisible city,” was by all means a tangible, visceral component of urban experience in Tema, even if not fully knowable or entirely functional.  Besides early sewerage plans, engineering specs, and logs of sewage volumes and system bottlenecks, there were complaint ledgers and tax schedules, and remnants of repair tenders and contracts.

Conducted over the course of a half-dozen visits to Ghana from 2010 to 2015, my fieldwork and archival studies showed a striking juxtaposition. Marking the aspirations of Ghana’s newly won national independence, Tema at its founding in the late 1950s embodied the sanitary standards of Euro-American high modernity (Harvey 2003; Melosi 2001). This included a citywide gravity-borne sewage system serving individual homes, each equipped with private water closets provisioned with identical imported fixtures. For more than 50 years, the original infrastructure remained in place. With heavy use, strained maintenance, and limited investment, the sanitary order I encountered a half-century later was in a state of grave disrepair. Reflecting Tema’s expanding population and footprint, urban residents from an array of occupations and class strata had devised a range of alternative approaches to large-scale human waste management across the city, supplementing and substituting for municipal provisioning (Chalfin 2014, 2017).

Alongside the top-down schemes of mid-century urban planners and civil engineers, I found bottom-up solutions relying on diverse technologies, layouts, and fee structures, catering to different neighborhoods and constituencies (Chalfin 2014, 2017). Designed, built, and run by urban residents, these “popular infrastructures” operate largely outside the regulatory grasp of municipal authorities despite their value to a broad swath of urban dwellers. Some of the most intriguing sanitary arrangements I came across were located in Tema’s sister city of Ashaiman. Settled in the late 1950s to house casual laborers essential to the construction and operation of Tema’s port and industrial core, Ashaiman quickly became a commercial hub and migrant catchment area in its own right (Amarteifio et al. 1966). Though under the auspices of Tema’s municipal authority until 2008, investment in basic public services in Ashaiman was minimal, sanitation, sewerage, and public toilets included. As a consequence, human waste management across Ashaiman was and remains largely a function of self-organization.

Providing a forceful example of what Graham and Marvin (2001) call “splintering urbanism,” distinguishing Ashaiman from other systems of sanitary self-provisioning, the city contains a vast array of what I label dwelling-based public toilets (DBPTs). These are not the conventional, standalone commercial toilets in places of public thoroughfare. Rather, as the accompanying models drawings and images demonstrate, the individuals who own and operate the toilets fully incorporate them into domestic and dwelling spaces despite the facilities’ considerable sizes, with 8 to 20 seats and numerous technical entailments from water cisterns to large underground sewage holding tanks and sometimes biogas hook-ups. Most significant, situated within private residences by choice, these public sanitation systems are widely available to an otherwise underserved urban populace for a small fee per visit. In the face of gaps and lapses in state services, the designers cum proprietors of these vernacular infrastructures turn them into means of respectability and bodily relief for their customers, and a source of profit and public recognition for themselves.


Taken as a “type” all its own, Ashaiman’s DBPTs offer a compelling alternative to both the modernist ideal of private toilets in private homes and the developmentalist reality of public toilets in public places for the unplumbed urban dweller. They equally depart from the emerging array of sanitary novelties devised by humanitarian donor designers, from the Without Water Closet and Urine Diversion Toilet to the neo-chamberpot Dignity Toilet or the biodegradable Eco-bag (Redfield and Robins 2016). Ashaiman’s DBPTs instead represent what might be called a “fourth way” that innovates the possibilities of public toilet facilities and extant sanitary technologies. Those who devise and use Ashaiman’s varied DBPTs, moreover, are unabashed in their embrace of conspicuous consumerism, status aspiration, and profit making. As lifestyle choices integral to the persons and communities the toilets serve, these DPBPTs mark a radical departure from the utilitarian aesthetics of humanitarian design as well as the private house–private toilet mantra of public health experts.

Selectively reassembled for this issue of Limn, Binjaku’s and my contribution to the Durban conference showcased these realities in a site-specific installation titled “Excrementa Estates.” It included three-dimensional architectural models, two-dimensional layouts and projections, and photograph-rich brochures detailing four of the more than 150 DBPTs currently in operation across Ashaiman. My foremost aim was to objectify what can be called “African solutions to African problems” by posing the promise of vernacular infrastructure for development design. With public health campaigns around the world driven by the United Nations Millennial Development Goals of eradicating open defecation (United Nations 2006), Ashaiman’s DBPTs suggest a viable alternative. In sync with the social mores, living conditions, and incomes of the urban underclass, they are marked by wide availability, easy access, and relative affordability.

Ashaiman’s DBPTs likewise represent a better option than the oft-noted ideal of home-based facilities exclusively for residential use. A bourgeois rendering of sanitary modernity not too different from that envisioned at Tema’s founding, the World Health Organization and the World Bank are still promoting this approach as the best sanitary model for the Global South (World Bank 2014). However, it has met with only limited success due to the difficulty and high upfront cost of installation across the vast number and variety of urban dwellings and the sheer impossibility of ensuring access for all. This is especially so in urban areas such as Ashaiman, where a large portion of the population is transient and permanent accommodation is never assured.

Excrementa Estates exhibited in Durban, South Africa, 2017.

Excrementa Estates exhibited in Durban, South Africa, 2017. Photo by Author.

In the Durban installation, a slideshow juxtaposing Ashaiman’s present-day sanitary realities with the original plans for the city of Tema accompanied the models, pamphlets, and posters of Excrementa Estates. Also included were images taken from recent promotional material from a new class of upscale planned communities in Ghana. In these neoliberal “New Towns,” with names like Apollonia, Heaven’s Gate, and Mirage, the promise of class mobility and domestic status symbols are key selling points. Featured in Limn, these ideals are deliberately reiterated in the illustrated brochures of Excrementa Estates, formatted to resemble popular real estate offerings. Though the dust and disarray of the booklets’ snapshots of actual urban living contrast with the clean surfaces and air-brushed messaging of the real-life real estate marketing material, their impulse is largely the same. Affirming the project’s plausibility, the advertising banner I printed in Ghana for the Durban event, reading, “Excrementa Estates: West Africa’s Sanitary Frontier,” was not considered out of the ordinary by the graphic designer who assisted with production and layout.

Highlighting the capitalization of property rights across the continent, the Durban conference was held at a small conference center and lodge located within a sprawling golf resort and residential development in the lush hills on the city’s outskirts. In addition to accommodating meetings, the lodge hosted the resort’s real estate sales. Its reception area included a plush, catalog-laden showroom containing house plans, price charts, and maps of the development’s numerous subdivisions. Nearby, a modest meeting room was reserved for the installation. Stocked with drinks, snacks, pads, and pens, it was appointed with the same warm lighting and mahogany furniture as the showroom. Giving further credence to Excrementa Estates’ resemblance to an actual real estate showcase, the architectural models were placed on the glass-topped table surrounded by their associated brochures. The large-format floorplans of the four structures were posted on the textured beige walls. These design elements helped convey a more serious point: the prime proponents of DBPTs will likely be upwardly mobile peri-urbanites with capital to invest in lucrative home-based enterprises. Class driven and profit based, though Ashaiman’s DBPTs have the potential to raise the quality of life for the many, the installation seeks to make clear they cannot be separated from the economic success of the few.

Reiterated by the very context of display, instead of couching Ashaiman’s sanitary prototypes in the guise of philanthropic good works, the installation marked the shared late-capitalist context of urban real estate development and humanitarian interventions. Attuned to these realities, the models and motifs of Excrementa Estates deliberately challenge the ethos of abjection that informs mainstream humanitarian design. Garnering awards for merging artistry and instrumentality, there is no doubt that many of the humanitarian devices that have emerged from the expansion of the development industry are marked by considerable elegance reflective of the modernist aesthetic of functional efficiency (Bell and Wakeford 2008; Redfield 2012). Yet, focused on Agamben-esque (1998) “bare-life,” humanitarianism by definition shuns gaudy excess, making little allowance for the superfluities of humor and pleasure, and, most of all, waste. Countering these principles of parsimony, the installation’s imagery highlights built forms overflowing with life, registering desire, disgust, shame, and delight.


As an exercise in the nascent field of design anthropology, an uneasy translation of disciplinary knowledge was required to put these elements in dialogue. There was the fundamental challenge of hands-on three-dimensional construction. I willingly outsourced the task to Xhulio Binjaku, an architecture student at MIT and a University of Florida graduate who was already knowledgeable about my research and well informed about architecture in Africa. As much an epistemological impasse as technical problem, the fact remained that model making is not part of the mainstream of cultural anthropology. Besides the well-known anthropological penchant for textuality and conventions of “writing culture” (Clifford and Marcus 2010), the very act of modeling—stripping a complex, historically determined form down to its bare essentials—is antithetical to anthropological investment in context and specificity. Whereas distillation of the core elements of a social formation for purposes of analysis and comparison is well accepted, reduction in the service of replication and transferability is not because it compromises the anthropological precepts of cultural relativism and historical specificity.

My goal, however, was to have it both ways and leverage the aesthetic and analytic power of a miniaturized mobile model while staying true to critique and context. Harking back to Geertz’s (1973) classic distinction, there was the lure of bringing into conversations about human development in Africa not just “models for” derived from technical abstractions and ideal types with the Global North as reference point. Injecting “models of” drawn from on-the-ground conditions into the humanitarian mainstream, the design templates derived from Ashaiman provide an opportunity to see “the real” as more radical than purely imagined alternatives. The abstractions, amplifications, and erasures entailed by modeling also make it possible to put aside particularities of time and place to see infrastructural configurations as functional wholes beyond the cobbled-together attributes of individual parts, persons, and ad hoc uses and repairs. Though models by definition are simplifications, they privilege integrity over idiosyncrasy. In this way models can be powerful agents of legitimation as they call out singular solutions for recognition and contemplation and amplify their unique features and potential impacts by rendering them “legible.”

Despite these attractions, ethical questions loom large. Who gets to model? Who has the skill and authority to make and circulate models? Who gets to claim that something is worth modeling? Even more consequential is the question of to whom the models belong: Are the models themselves a form of intellectual property, or do they encapsulate the intellectual investments that stand behind them? Are they attributable to a single, deliberate author, or are the origins much more diffuse? In the face of a rising market for workable, replicable, and adaptable humanitarian devices and interventions, these are real concerns. For the models presented here, at the very least, we seek acknowledgment of their multiple sources: location, owner-operator, ethnographer, photographer, model-maker.

Also looming is the question of the very propositions these models encode. Although Ashaiman’s DBPTs promote the satisfaction of basic bodily needs in the face of limited wealth and considerable government constraint, they differ substantially from the broader catalog of humanitarian solutions in terms of scale. As this issue of Limn well illustrates, humanitarian interventions increasingly center on the design and distribution of little devices. Along with the generic emergency tents and tarps, there is, however, a rising prevalence of prefabricated field hospitals and “out of the box” schoolrooms and feeding centers, with every element designed and detailed from top to bottom (UNICEF 2017). Between the penchant for “little” or “large,” capitalist “excess” or modernist “parsimony,” Excrementa Estates captures design possibilities that emerge through living.

Brenda Chalfin is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center of African Studies at the University of Florida. Xhulio Binjaku is a Master of Architecture candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Brenda Chalfin, Concept, Text, Brochures; Xhulio Binjaku, Models, Drawings; Brenda Chalfin and Eva Egensteiner, Photographs. Prepared with the support of Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and The Mellon Foundation.


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The Humble Cookstove

Across rural India the hand-crafted, biofuel cookstove, or chulha, has remained a ubiquitous feature of domestic life. Chulhas are generally cheap or free to construct and repair, are typically hand built from materials like stone and clay found in the local environment, and they use locally available fuels—solid, “mundane bioenergy” (Chatti et al. 2017) such as wood and crop residue—to heat water and cook food. They are an egalitarian technology. With a biofuel stove people need not depend on cash, fuel distribution networks, or hard-to-repair technologies to cook a daily meal. Meanwhile, both the activity of cooking on the chulha and the hearth itself are imbued with social and cultural significance. Fuel procurement and cooking may be experienced as drudgery but equally as sites of (primarily women’s) autonomy and skill. The stove is a potent symbol of warmth, nourishment, and care; it imparts a delicious flavor to flatbreads (roti) and offers an important source of heat. Yet, for more than half a century, humanitarian-minded people and organizations have been preoccupied with the use of “biofuel cookstoves.”

Biofuel as Problem

Biofuel stoves are targeted as wasteful, dirty, and dangerous. Experts agree that cooking with biofuel is an activity that requires development intervention and modernization, even though users themselves may prioritize other needs. One clear point of consensus is that cooking with biofuels indoors, over open flames, is very harmful to respiratory and pulmonary health (Smith 2000). At the household level, burning biofuel indoors is linked to emissions of smoke and particulate matter that harm the lungs, heart, and eyes. At the ecosystem level, fuelwood collection is linked to deforestation and the degradation of forest resources, as well as increases in the vulnerability of women to injury and sexual violence. At the planetary level, burning biofuel is linked to atmospheric carbon and global warming.

Despite an intense and longstanding focus on rural cooking practices, there is no consensus regarding appropriate solutions. Some argue that from a health perspective, the only viable and just solution to the problem of biomass cookstoves is a massive investment in new infrastructure capable of bringing clean energy to rural people who have little expendable income (Smith 2002). In this view, all people should have access to clean cooking rather than to incrementally improved stoves that may reduce smoke but compare poorly with existing chulhas in functionality and durability.

Others argue for continued efforts to improve biofuel stoves. One reason is pragmatic: it is unlikely that the poorest people in the world will obtain access to alternatives any time soon, so biofuel gathered from the environment will continue to be the primary cooking fuel used by many for some time (Jagger 2017; Jagger and Jumbe 2016). A second reason to continue improving biofuel cooking technologies is that from a climate perspective, replacing renewable and locally sourced biofuel with fossil fuels—whether gas or electricity from coal-fired power plants—is hardly a desirable goal (Kikkeri 2017). If we factor in—rather than bracket out—the energy used for fossil fuel extraction and efficiency losses at every transfer point as it moves from source to household consumer, it becomes less clear that the use of locally available biofuel is a big problem. Rather than shifting to fossil fuel energy, it may be better, some say, to focus on reducing the stove emissions harmful to health and climate.

To this end, many actors with varied goals have tried to change the way rural people cook in developing countries by engineering, manufacturing, and distributing improved stoves. All such stoves aim to improve the lives of the energy deprived, and their intended beneficiaries are those people whose search for gathered—not purchased—fuel is a part of daily life (Yadama 2013) and who lack access to the cooking technologies preferred by wealthier families the world over, namely electricity and liquefied petroleum gas.

The Enduring Project of Improving Stoves in Rural India

In some regions of the world, improved biofuel stoves have diffused successfully. In rural India, however, massive efforts to replace the chulha with improved, clean, and efficient cooking technologies have not led to their widespread adoption (Chandrashekhar 2015; Khandelwal et al. 2017; Subramanian 2015). Among the countless improved stoves that have been introduced here we single out two distinct branches of design: the “smokeless chulhas” and the “high-efficiency cookstoves.”

The smokeless chulhas reduce smoke inhalation by redirecting smoke out of a house through a chimney. In the early 1980s the Indian government funded training programs to construct and use one such smokeless chulha, the “Nada Stove,” designed by Madhu Sarin and her Haryana village partners. The training programs, though ambitious in number, lacked sufficient resources and resulted in chulhas that were too tall, pot openings that were too small, and chimneys that didn’t provide adequate draft to make the stove function properly. In addition, the introduction of chimneys in communities with thatched roofs introduced dangerous new fire risks (Chandrashekhar 2015). Reflecting on the process, Sarin (1986) described how village women were already improving their stoves, but when the government got involved, the massive scaling up and standardization of these improvements led to failure. In personal communication with us she further observed that the diversity of chulhas found throughout India is testament to the ways that poor rural users have long been modifying stoves, even if outside experts do not recognize such efforts as technological innovations. Non-literate village women are, and always have been, technological innovators.

Fig. 1. This high-efficiency cookstove manufactured by Envirofit increases cooking efficiency but requires smaller diameter fuelwood, causes certain foods to cook unevenly or burn, and exposes children and cooks to burn risks. Spider webs and dust seen in the side view indicate this family has decided not to continue using this stove.

Fig. 1. This high-efficiency cookstove manufactured by Envirofit increases cooking efficiency but requires smaller diameter fuelwood, causes certain foods to cook unevenly or burn, and exposes children and cooks to burn risks. Spider webs and dust seen in the side view indicate this family has decided not to continue using this stove.

By contrast, “high-efficiency cookstoves” such as the Envirofit stove (Figure 1) reduce emissions and wood usage by restricting the addition of wood to the fire, limiting heat loss, concentrating flames, and improving airflow (Dalberg Global Development Advisors 2013; Sinha 2002). These improved cookstoves often introduce other kinds of problems. Reductions in the size of the fuel opening to minimize heat loss, for example, require chopping large pieces of wood into smaller pieces, a time-consuming and laborious task. Adjustments intended to concentrate flames decrease the flexibility of the stove to accommodate cooking utensils for different meals. Stoves made of solid metal expose cooks and children to burn risks. Some models are so complex that villagers cannot fix them without specialized tools, resources, and knowledge. Most are too expensive for villagers to buy; for households living on a dollar a day, a high-efficiency cookstove can cost up to a month’s income.

Where these new technologies have entered homes, generally due to the efforts of governments and nonprofit organizations, there is little evidence of long-term use. These efforts have raised questions about how best to measure “adoption.” For example, research on long-term use in real-world settings suggests that the potential benefits of improved cookstoves based on testing in lab conditions “go up in smoke” when these new technologies fall into disrepair and disuse (Hanna 2016).

Puzzled by the persistence of efforts to replace the chulha in the face of repeated failure, we (Khandelwal et al. 2017) decided to step back and take a big-picture approach to understand this intense focus on stoves over and above other problems faced by the rural poor. What we found is that a variety of actors have centered on a set of intertwined goals: improving health, solving a fuelwood crisis, stemming deforestation, empowering women, and addressing climate change. As new concerns have arisen over the last hundred years, these have not displaced previous goals but rather accumulated over time.

The chulha is a condensed symbol with many different meanings. Cooking interacts with other aspects of rural life: technology, housing design, women’s labor, availability of biofuel, seasonality and region, livestock grazing, labor migration, and cash income. Thus, it is inherently difficult not only to standardize improved stoves that will work in different contexts, but also to measure their impacts over time and across locations. Lab-based and top-down efforts to improve stoves have been frustrated by such complexities.

The Big and Small of Improved Stoves

In January 2017 we (Khandelwal and colleagues) visited the Biomass Cookstove Test Centre at Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture and Technology in Udaipur, Rajasthan. This is one of four such centers funded by India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy that certifies manufactured stoves for both business ventures and nonprofits. During our visit we watched an engineering student who had just passed her doctoral defense demonstrate the stove she had designed for use in rural India. In the next room a “no photography allowed” sign hung above neatly arranged rows of improved stoves, an indication of the proprietary interests attached to these models.

These improved stoves are all designed to be household technologies. They are small in size, portable, relatively simple, typically lightweight, and modestly priced. In India they are the flipside of the large-scale, capital-intensive projects such as mega-dams and power plants built to provide energy services to urban populations but provoked critique and resistance for ignoring environmental concerns and the rights of those they displace (Baviskar 1995; Birkenholtz 2016). They are humanitarian goods in that they are inexpensive, scalable devices designed to alleviate suffering and save lives; they are also little development devices in that they envision social transformation by modernizing rural kitchens to improve human health, standard of living, and forest resources.

Stoves can be both gifts and goods. As with solar lights and other technologies made for socially distant others, improved cookstoves slide easily between the categories of humanitarian gifts subsidized or given for free, and the humanitarian goods designed, patented, and sold by national and multinational corporations in the name of social entrepreneurship (Cross 2013).

Although some experts push for a market approach to improved stoves, many of the stoves manufactured by private companies are sold to humanitarian and development organizations that then offer them as gifts. Yet regardless of whether they are sold or given away, the improved stoves designed by experts who are socially removed from users continue to face the same obstacles to adoption and replicate the same lack of follow-through. Improved stoves are typically promoted by outsiders in a top-down mode rather than produced in response to demand on the ground. They are often promoted by powerful agents to save lives or to improve the welfare of people who lack access to modern energy infrastructure, such as those residing in rural areas or in hastily constructed refugee camps. Humanitarian and development efforts are plagued by lack of long-term investment because donors prioritize short-term projects, resulting in a chronic lack of attention to the repair and replacement of improved stoves.

There are many reasons that well-intentioned efforts to diffuse improved stoves have not succeeded in India, even when they can demonstrate (in a lab setting) reductions in fuelwood use and/or harmful emissions. These reasons have been well documented in myriad case studies. They include cultural dissonance, a mismatch between the goals of stove promoters and those of rural people, the poor performance of stoves that do not live up to big claims, the burden of buying new cooking vessels or chopping wood into smaller pieces, underestimation of the benefits of traditional chulhas that are easily built and repaired, and a poor implementation process (Khandelwal et al. 2017).

The Small and Nonintrusive Mewar Angithi

Given the problems encountered with smokeless chulhas and high-efficiency stoves, the staying power of the chulha is not surprising: it is naturally insulated to avoid burning a curious hand and to reduce heat loss to the surroundings, it is built to accommodate common cooking surfaces (tavas and pots) and meals perfectly, and it doesn’t require excessive chopping of wood.

There is one inefficiency of the traditional stove, however: limited airflow. Placement of wood on the dirt floor of the stove limits the air available for combustion. During meal preparation, ash accumulates and smothers firewood and embers that break off from the wood. The energy in unburned embers is not effectively used for cooking, so more firewood is needed per meal; these embers also emit more smoke and harmful air pollutants as they smolder in the stove.

Is it possible to improve the three-stone hearth while preserving those aspects embedded in the cultural economy of the rural kitchen? This is the question that motivated a team of engineers and social scientists in a University of Iowa research group who, although fully cognizant of the problems plaguing improved stove programs, did not dismiss outright the potential for technological innovations introduced from the outside to improve people’s lives.

Based on the principle that efficient combustion produces less smoke, they designed the Mewar Angithi (Figure 2), a simple steel grate inserted into existing chulhas (Udaykumar et al. 2015). Named after the region of Mewar where it originated, the insert improves airflow by creating a channel between the stove floor and firewood. This separates ash buildup that can smother unburned wood and catches larger embers, allowing them to combust more completely.

The engineers showed that without introducing any new obstacles, this simple addition to existing stoves compares in wood savings and particulate emissions reductions with the most efficient natural draft high-efficiency cookstoves on the market. Most important, the Mewar Angithi is affordable for most villagers at a cost of only a dollar, flexible in that it can be used with existing cooking technology, and durable because it lacks moving parts and delicate materials.

Fig. 2. The Mewar Angithi, a simple metal grate insert, is designed to improve airflow to flames to improve combustion efficiency and reduce wood usage, cooking times, and particulate emissions.

Fig. 2. The Mewar Angithi, a simple metal grate insert, is designed to improve airflow to flames to improve combustion efficiency and reduce wood usage, cooking times, and particulate emissions. Source: Rebecca Kauten (top).

In tests conducted at the Biomass Cookstove Test Centre in Udaipur, the insert reduced wood usage by 63% and soot production by an impressive 89%. Seeing these results, all researchers involved were eager to deliver the device to villages and conduct more field tests. Could these results be produced in real kitchens? Could this reduce the time women spend collecting wood or smoke-related illness?

In 2015, Kayley Lain and Sailesh Rao arranged the distribution of 1,000 Mewar Angithi units in five Rajasthani villages to test the performance of the device in the field. A local steel fabricator produced the units and a nongovernmental organization (NGO) partner, the Foundation for Ecological Security, managed the distribution process. Testing these units in homes revealed an average of 33% reduction in wood usage in seven households. Particulate matter reductions as high as 51% were observed in one household with an average reduction of 33%, although these measurements involve many more variables than wood consumption and will require considerably more data to reduce uncertainty in these figures.

The engineering team conducted additional hybrid lab/field tests at the University of Iowa by building and testing a chulha using utensils brought from Rajasthan in an enclosed structure meant to replicate household conditions in a village; this method produced more data than observing daily cooking in village homes, but was more realistic than testing in ideal lab conditions. These tests showed a 31% reduction in large (~10 μm) particulate matter, which is in line with field data.

Lain and Rao surveyed village users six months after distribution and heard responses such as, “When I use the Mewar Angithi, smoke doesn’t make my eyes water while I’m cooking.” Many reported shorter cooking time (presumably due to hotter, more efficient fires) and reduced wood use. In a sample of 80 households in Rajasthan who received these inserts, 71% reported using it daily, and none of the devices were damaged in any way (this was a serious problem with more complex improved stove designs). Some women reported that they do not collect wood as many times a week as they did before they received a Mewar Angithi. Those who chose not to use their inserts cited insufficient information upon receipt of the device or small chulha openings that could not accommodate the insert they received. Users reported the small device introduced no inconveniences and required no changes in their cooking practices. Compare this with the many obstacles imposed by improved stoves such as the Envirofit high-efficiency stove (described above).

Modest Devices as Model

The Mewar Angithi is a modest or humble cookstove device in several senses. First, much like the Zimbabwe Bush Pump described by de Laet and Mol (2000), it is small in ego and heroism. Inspired by common knowledge about elevating firewood to promote better airflow, this simple design claims neither patent nor ownership, nor is it imposed with admonitions of “dirty” cooking or grandiose claims about modernity.

Second, it is a technically simple device based on sound combustion principles; users should be able to easily observe how it works to improve airflow by allowing ash to fall through the holes of the insert and then, if necessary, modifying it by bending it to fit a smaller chulha.

Third, the process of implementation is also minimally disruptive to current cooking practices. Unlike the Bush Pump, this insert requires very little training and its adoption is at the level of household rather than village; this suits the Bhil households in southern Rajasthan because they are dispersed across the landscape and cooking occurs at the household level. Users can also easily remove the insert if desired because installation only requires placing it in an existing stove (right-side up).

Fourth, it has the potential to be a “fluid” technology with vague and shifting boundaries (de Laet and Mol 2000). It is easily adapted (to fit a small stove) and reproduced with minimal capital and technical knowledge, which makes it unsuitable for humanitarian entrepreneurship and market logics (Redfield 2016). It is also very much like the grates integral to many improved wood-burning stoves, so it simply takes one feature of many improved stoves that can be inserted into any chulha to “improve” it. In principle, it can be made with clay rather than steel.

The design is simple and flexible enough to be manufactured and diffused in localities around the world, which can also provide economic opportunities in small communities. Fabio Parigi and Michele Del Viscio have already sparked insert manufacturing at a school in Nyumbani, Kenya, where students were able to make their own stove inserts with tools available to them in the village (Parigi et al. 2016). Ongoing efforts to collect data about cooking practices and impacts should improve our understanding of the insert’s ability to reduce harmful emissions and wood consumption. However, its fluid characteristics also make it difficult to measure impacts on health, environment, and social relations.

The Indian chulhas that remain ubiquitous throughout rural India, despite humanitarian efforts to render them obsolete, are custom made for each home and vary depending on climate, regional food, size of utensils, and other factors. One reason for the failure of previous improved stove programs is that standardization and scaling up introduce their own problems. Small, technically modest devices such as the insert are more likely to support a foundation of indigenous and local participation in the process of generating and applying new technical knowledge.

the Mewar Angithi at work. Photo by Donna Cleveland.

the Mewar Angithi at work. Photo by Donna Cleveland.

A small, steel fireplace grate that can be inserted into most existing stoves or adapted to fit is more likely to diffuse via influence; this means technical adjustment to fit user needs can be an organic part of the diffusion process. Though we have called it the Mewar Angithi, this device, which carries no patent or trademark, can also simply be called a “stove insert” or “stove grate.” This little device, modest as it is, makes a bold claim about how people might design and diffuse humanitarian goods in ways that have the potential to democratize “expertise” and undermine the market logic that has shaped both humanitarian and development efforts to modernize cooking practices in rural India.

The Humble Future

Despite renewed efforts to transform the cooking practices of people in rural India, we suggest that humble cookstove interventions will remain important.

In 2016, India’s Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas rolled out the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana program, which offered free connections and subsidies for gas cylinders to families living “below the poverty line.” Though this scheme is ambitious and will no doubt move many households away from biofuel, the shift will be neither easy nor total. Women in remote parts of rural India, for example, must rely on men’s help to take gas cylinders to towns on public transport or motorcycles for exchange, but their men may not consider it worth their time to get the refill. By contrast, women do not need to rely on men to collect fuelwood.

If India’s past holds any lessons, those who have gained the least from large-scale infrastructure projects related to energy due to their geographical, political, and/or economic marginalization are also least likely to benefit from the government effort to make clean cooking fuel (“clean” at the point of cooking) available to all. Many Bhil villages in southern Rajasthan, our research suggests, will continue to cook with biofuel on their chulhas for some time to come.

Meena Khandelwal is a professor in anthropology and gender studies at the University of Iowa. She is writing a book about the cookstove-fuelwood-gender nexus in India which calls for cooperation between science and humanities to better understand complex real world problems. Kayley Lain spent some time in India while earning her degree in engineering and certificate in sustainability from the University of Iowa in 2017. She is currently leading wilderness trips for Old Town Outfitters in Antigua, Guatemala.

Video Credits:

Video created by Donna Cleveland, Editor in Chief at iPhone Life and co-host of Women & Radio Podcast,


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“Water is life, but sanitation is dignity”

The IkoToilet, meaning “Here is the toilet” in Swahili, is a Nairobi-wide public–private sanitation intervention that aims to address the lack of adequate sanitation options across the city. The core of IkoToilet’s model—pay-per-use public toilets—is by no means new. By turning the basic need into an experience of leisure and consumption, however, the IkoToilet aims to challenge the idea that the toilet is an unsuitable place to visit, use, let alone to hang around (Thieme 2010). IkoToilets are intended to provide a significant step-change in the quality of public toilets and to seed a drastic rise in common expectations concerning construction, maintenance, and cleanliness of public toilets.

Each IkoToilet facility is owned by EcoTact, a social enterprise that “invests in innovations to solve sanitation crisis in Africa and beyond.” Each IkoToilet has the same distinctive design, same construction, same color scheme, same branding, and, in theory at least, is maintained and cleaned to the same high standards. In addition to the toilets, IkoToilet facilities may also include a row of shoe-shining stations and a small kiosk for the sale of snacks and drinks that are rented out to “micro-entrepreneurs.” Each IkoToilet also includes “billboard” space, with advertising placements available above, outside, and inside the toilet. Revenue from microenterprise and advertising contributes to EcoTact’s return on investment.

Reinventing the Toilet

With more than 50% of people in the world now living in cities, one of the starkest paradoxes of modernity is reflected in the statistic that more people in the world today have access to a mobile phone than a safe and clean toilet (United Nations 2013). As such, the toilet has become both the symbolic and material locus for addressing water and sanitation poverty, framed by United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal 6.

The toilet has put the “unmentionable” (George 2008) on the map of development and humanitarianism. It has concentrated calls for collective attention in a singular, tangible object. For development organizations, an emphasis on the toilet has been effective in raising a broader set of questions and problems, from the spatial, material, and embodied practices of sanitation and the concerns for personal privacy, safety, and separation from disease vectors to the diversity of toilet designs. Most important, attention to the toilet as an object has called for the design and distribution of new toilets—“little development devices”—that can provide access to improved sanitation while further deferring large-scale infrastructural development in cities already marked by considerable uneven urban planning.

In the last 10 years international concerns with water and sanitation have turned Nairobi into a laboratory for the toilet. In the city’s low-income settlements inadequate sanitation is normalized, a social fact captured by the common refrain, “Diarrhea ni kawaida (is normal)”. The toilet has become the quintessential technical development problem in search of a fix (Li 2007), with toilet projects spanning the field of design, engineering, and digital technology. The toilet sits at a confluence of concerns with infrastructure and planning, hygiene, and social patterns of cleanliness, health outcomes, and the provision of cleaning services and has come to occupy new constellations of government and nongovernmental actors. Across Nairobi development practitioners, community activists, academics, and, increasingly, social entrepreneurs (business people who identify themselves with “social innovation” or “social business”) now “give a shit” about sanitation. Here the reinvention of the toilet is no longer simply a public health imperative or an ecological design challenge; it is also a business opportunity.

In Nairobi, a combination of approaches has produced a portfolio of privatized, imperfect, but functioning alternatives to nonexistent or inadequate government infrastructure and delivery (Bohnert et al. 2016). Yet, because these interventions are all public, communal, or shared toilets, they have all been obliged to confront and work off of existing infrastructures and social norms. These interventions all depend on communities taking an active role in improving their sanitation options. They all need to work within (not necessarily presume to undo or move beyond) the very real urban constraints and pragmatic coping strategies related to compact and modular living.

Mathare alley way between houses, 2010. Photo by: Claudia Pursals

Mathare alley way between houses, 2010. Photo by: Claudia Pursals

These interventions have practically and rhetorically turned the toilet into a development device. A range of off-grid toilets—from Ecotact’s IkoToilet hardware-franchise model to an eco-sanitation model (Sanergy’s Fresh Life Toilet)—have shifted attention away from the possibility of large-scale networked infrastructural improvements toward the everyday micro-politics of sanitation (Thieme 2015). These toilets reflect particular claims about the ability of specific market-based interventions to address sanitation poverty and have set in motion a series of narratives that make these claims travel globally.

But what kind of toilet should be promoted?

The Sanitation Problem

In December 2009, a group of private sector individuals, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and community-based entrepreneurs gathered at the PanAfric Hotel in Nairobi for a meeting hosted by the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme to discuss the management of public and community toilets in the city of Nairobi. “Water is life, but sanitation is dignity,” said the moderator in his opening remarks.

Two years later, in February 2011, more than 100 residents from Mathare, one of Nairobi’s oldest and largest informal settlements, gathered in a community hall for an event hosted by a citizen-led geographic information systems (GIS) mapping initiative called Map Mathare to define their priorities. Run as a participatory workshop, the breakout groups reported back with various themes that were then clustered, and finally the facilitators asked that two dominant themes be identified so all the trained community “mappers” could start plotting the GIS points of the landmarks representing these two themes. Near the end of the three-hour workshop, note cards were pinned to the wall in the front of the room representing the two preferred areas of concern within each breakout group. Each card mentioned health as one, and water and sanitation as the other.

How can the lack of adequate sanitation infrastructure in the city and especially in Nairobi’s low-income residential areas be addressed? These two events reflected the gaps in perception and experience as institutions and grassroots groups set out to address Nairobi’s “sanitation problem.”

The event held at the PanAfric Hotel stressed two points: the heightened demand for more public and community toilets, and the increasing interest in enterprise-led approaches to tackling challenges of urban poverty. Although the individuals present at the meeting came from different sectors, with the private sector as a minority, the consensus was that, as one person brazenly put it, “Shit is big business!”

In contrast, at the grassroots community event in Mathare, the issues raised stemmed from a deeper reflection. Mathare’s toilet blocks are a metonym for many of the surrounding problems related to urban services facing this mosaic of impoverished and marginalized neighborhoods. In the discussion, community members reflected on the multiple aspects of the sanitation challenge (including issues of land tenure, infrastructure, and social behavior) as well as a recognition that it would never be enough simply to agree on the need for more toilets. Here public toilets and the toilet block were part of a commons. As David Waithaka, founder of the community-based NGO Mathare Association, put it, “In Mathare there are very few things that can be said to serve the public good. There is no community hall; there is no secondary school. But one of the things that you could say, it is ours, it belongs to us, is the public toilet.”[1]

These two events reflect the ways in which the problem of sanitation is being mobilized in Nairobi. The development sector presents sanitation as a site of entrepreneurship, and sees market opportunities including job creation and private service provision. Meanwhile, sanitation activists see opportunities for community mobilization, claiming basic urban services as a human rights issue. Although sanitation entrepreneurs operating in the hustle economy “make do” under conditions of adversity and see the absence of public services as an income opportunity for private providers (Thieme 2015; 2017), sanitation activists mobilize against and call out the absentee state (Appadurai 2001).

Tabitha taking a break following a community clean on World Toilet Day. Mathare 2010. Photo by: Sasha Turrentine

Tabitha taking a break following a community clean on World Toilet Day. Mathare 2010. Photo by: Sasha Turrentine

The Public Toilet

In the single-room homes of Mathare, the toilet is a luxury good and a distant reality. For most low-income households, the home is purposefully modular. The “bedroom” becomes at different points in the day the kitchen, the sitting room, the work station for in-home businesses, the after-school homework study area, and the site of assembly for self-help groups discussing their saving scheme. The bathing corner is used for cooking one minute, washing your feet the next. The toilet is set apart from the home not only because it is more convenient, but because it is also considered more hygienic to keep your ablutions far away from your dwelling, despite the very real security concern, particularly for women and children, of a long walk to the nearest toilet after dark (Amnesty International 2010).

These shared or “public” toilets (a reality for most of Nairobi’s citizens) reveal the multifarious considerations related to the building, maintenance, management, access, and financing of ablution blocks, along with the often less documented but crucial everyday investments of social life that make a common resource work for and serve the needs of multiple end users (Thieme 2015).

First, the public toilet block serves as a proxy for the self-contained toilet that people in the community don’t have at home, turning private bodily practices into a shared affair.

Across Nairobi’s low-income settlements the toilet has come to showcase moments of “excessive attention” (Simone 2010:40), whether through externally sponsored rehabilitation schemes or protests aimed at symbolizing dire infrastructural dilapidation. From Mathare to Kibera and Korogocho, the rehabilitation of public toilets has been a highly visible affair, undertaken with sponsorship from the German Embassy, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Programme, as well as local NGOs. Despite the commemorative plate on the outside wall featuring a date and the name of a sponsor, these sanitation prestige projects often appear to give little thought to their sustainable management, and they are often ill maintained or falling apart.

Meanwhile, against the backdrop of rapid and often makeshift urbanization among low-income urban citizens, toilets and the sanitation commons have become highly politicized spaces in Nairobi and beyond (McFarlane et al. 2014). In South Africa’s “poo wars,” for example, protesters against township sanitation poverty dumped human waste on the steps of City Hall to make public the inadequate and often ignored infrastructural politics (McFarlane and Silver 2016; Redfield and Robins 2016; Robins 2013).

In Nairobi too, toilets in informal settlements have become an integral part of urban poverty politics. In neighborhoods like Mathare, toilets have come to exemplify the deliberations and potential tensions related to the commons; the demolition of that “public good” becomes grounds for political mobilization.[2]

A Beautiful Toilet

In 2008 EcoTact installed an IkoToilet in Mathare, the first and only installation to date in one of Nairobi’s low-income settlements. The Mathare IkoToilet was launched with much fanfare, with the company claiming that the community would discover the benefits of “hygienic public utilities” if one builds a “beautiful toilet” ( and would pay for monthly membership. It was established on what EcoTact described as a “more equitable” membership model rather than a pay-per-use model. Under the model, households were invited to buy a “membership card” for KES 100 (USD $1.35), which allowed them a month’s access to the toilet. The toilet was meant to be self-sustaining, with revenues from memberships and UV-filtered municipal water sales paying salaries and other operating expenses. EcoTact pitched the IkoToilet as a community hub for other economic and social activity, with the prospect that it would open up other revenue and impact opportunities.

The location of the IkoToilet in Mathare, however, was far from ideal. In such a densely populated community, finding a plot large enough to build an IkoToilet was no small feat.

Being selective about its location would have delayed the project for years and would have certainly driven up costs, so the toilet was built in an area called Kosovo, off a secondary road, behind three rows of homes, where it was poorly visible.

Some 300 meters away from this location was an open field that the neighboring community had always used for free (if risky) open defecation. Without a significant marketing/education/awareness campaign to sensitize the community, potential IkoToilet members, to the dangers of open defecation and the benefits of a clean, high-quality toilet, that field remained the community’s primary toilet and undercut IkoToilet. The assumption that everyone would recognize the IkoToilet as a significantly better, “more dignified,” safer, and ultimately less expensive option was overly optimistic.

Ecotact’s challenges in Mathare appeared to demonstrate that improving sanitation in a low-income urban settlement could not be approached only from an infrastructure, “hardware” angle (Kar 2005). Yet the impact of its IkoToilet, measured against the company’s objective of raising the profile, awareness, and expectations of public toilets, was positive. The installation in Mathare generated national and international discussion about public sanitation. By 2010, EcoTact had built 40 other IkoToilets across Nairobi, including installations in Nairobi’s central business district and other high-traffic, high-volume, higher-income areas. The company pointed to IkoToilet’s success in these areas as proof that its toilets could be positive communal points and centers for various economic and social activities, and its reputation grew.

The Fresh Life Toilet

A more recent and perhaps more comprehensive solution to Mathare’s “sanitation crisis” has been led by another Kenyan-based eco-sanitation social enterprise: Sanergy. In 2011 Sanergy received funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through their Reinvent the Toilet Challenge to build a “sustainable sanitation value chain model” in two of Nairobi’s largest informal settlements (Chonghaile 2012). In line with the terms and conditions of the Reinvent The Toilet Challenge, Sanergy’s prefabricated toilets (known as Fresh Life Toilets) do not require connections to water or sewer infrastructures and are set up as local franchises, with local residents (known as “Fresh Life Operators”) purchasing and operating the facilities, and with mobile waste collectors (known as the “Fresh Life Frontline” team) collecting filled “cartridges” and replacing them with empty ones, ensuring the regular removal of “shit”.

The team behind Sanergy studied IkoToilet, and their model is designed to be a holistic solution by both installing new shared toilets in neighborhoods with high demand, removing the waste from the community, and promoting job creation in local economies with high rates of underemployment.

Fresh Life field officers and customers have raised other questions about the installation and maintenance costs. In addition to those costs, a common grievance is that some local residents are uncomfortable “shitting in a blue plastic barrel” where their waste remains “in place” until it is collected, and having to pay a higher fee than they are accustomed to. Other local residents have remarked that Sanergy’s claim to produce “organic waste” at the end of the value chain is an unrealistic expectation, with farmers outside the city unlikely to want to buy fertilizer “made from the shit that comes from the slums.”[3] Two Sanergy Fresh Life toilets were built inside a primary school in Village 4A, one of the poorest areas of Mathare. One third of all the school’s children are orphans; when I visited the school in 2016, the head teacher explained that a benefactor paid for the installation of the toilets, but the school was struggling to meet the annual service fee because most children do not pay school fees.

Here Sanergy faces a dual challenge: turning a public health need into a market with a payable demand, and confronting the cultural taboos associated with human waste (Thieme 2015).

Bottom-Up Innovation

One common thread across these and other private sector–led sanitation interventions in Nairobi is a concern to produce “empowered” sanitation subjects: people who might serve as beneficiaries, customers, entrepreneurs, community health officers, “natural leaders,” or facilitators in partnership with sanitation companies. In some cases, the end user is a citizen recipient of the right to better sanitation. In other cases, the end user is an agent of improvement. In all cases, the end user becomes a “consumer-client” of a given facility, service, or product offering.

As they navigate these roles, people’s responses to the problem of sanitation necessarily vacillate between public and private action. In questions of maintenance, management, and payment it can appear a matter for consensus. Public, shared, or communal toilets are inextricably tied to community economics and the quotidian, often invisible, labor involved in maintaining these sanitation commons. Collective action might involve establishing a willingness to pay a private sanitation provider, or resolving the disputes that inevitably occur when any group of people share a common resource (Thieme and DeKoszmovszky 2012). Meanwhile, everyday sanitation practice no longer only involves making a choice between defecating in open spaces or in a shared latrine; it now also involves oscillating between the private actors who sell or provide sanitation as a service in the absence of fully public infrastructure.

As little development devices, the toilets installed in Mathare are shaping and reworking sanitation experiences and relationships. But these toilet projects might, in turn, shape future innovations “from the bottom up” by providing a useful extension and reorientation of current critiques of market-led development discourse and practice.

Nairobi’s sanitation solutions set out to render formerly public services as privately delivered goods, producing entrepreneurial subjects, turning social needs into market demands, and appending public health messages to consumer products (Cross and Street 2009). But they also demonstrate how, if they are to be successful, future interventions at this nexus of public health and social entrepreneurship must address people’s perceptions and experiences of sanitation spaces, from the shared latrine to the sites of open defecation. In Nairobi, the low-income public toilet is not just an engineering challenge or an entrepreneurial project; it is a place, situated within the broader struggles of the ablution block.

Tatiana Thieme is an urban ethnographer and Lecturer based in the Department of Geography at University College London. Her research focuses on urban “hustle” economies in precarious urban environments, and urban political ecologies of waste and sanitation in the Global South. This article is based on ethnographic research conducted in Nairobi between 2009 and 2010, and subsequent fieldwork in 2011, 2012, 2016, and 2017.


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[1] Interview with David Waithaka in front of Kambi Motto public toilet, Mathare, May 18, 2010.

[2] The Member of Parliament (MP) of the constituency in which Mathare is situated, for instance, made public toilets integral to her political platform.

[3] These insights are based on a series of unstructured interviews and informal conversations with the Fresh Life field officer, a primary school head teacher, and public health community organizer in Mathare during field trips in 2012 and 2016.

Expect the Unexpected

Underlying my contributions to Information and Empire is academic work extending back several decades over much of my academic career (with many breaks for other projects). I have had the satisfaction of seeing conclusions based on imperfect evidence confirmed by … Continue reading