According to the recent census, the country’s population has grown from 13 million to 17.6 million since 2008.
This increases pressure on sanitation facilities, especially in cities and other urban areas which are receiving people leaving rural areas in search of better economic prospects.
In Lilongwe City’s Area 22, hairdresser Aisha Osman is among millions of rural Malawians still using pit latrines.
When it is full, she abandons it to open a new one. Others use chemicals to lower the levels.
“If not well managed, the latrines pollute water and air,” she says.
At worst, solid and liquid waste seeping into water sources causes sanitation-related infections that account for half of patients treated in the country’s health facilities.
However, most latrines in the country are not safely emptied.
The breakdown in waste management is made worse by unsafe pit-emptying practices, shortage of sewage treatment plants and illegal dumping.
In Blantyre City, Grivin Nyaka has stepped in to close the gap.
Emptying one pit at a time, the director of Royal Sanitation Solutions makes money while keeping the city a little cleaner.
He explains: “We ventured into the business having noted the challenges faced by people in Ndirande Township where we lived.
“When pit latrines are full, people either abandon them or empty faeces into nearby streams. Others shovel the sludge into wheelbarrows or buckets and dump it in rivers.”
The sanitation crisis is flourishing along Nasoro River in the populous township where riverside households bury pipes in the riverbank to channel urine and faeces from riverside pit latrines into the water. This often occurs during the rainy season when most latrines spill.
Nyaka designed gulpers for emptying pit latrines in households where vacuum trucks cannot reach.
The pumps suck feacal sludge into drums, which are transported to designated city sewerage treatment sides.
Despite high demand for the service, he says, pit emptying remains low and most people are reluctant to pay for it.
Yet the benefits are immense.
Nyaka reckons: “As people build homes for the rapidly growing population, cities, especially high density townships, are running out of space for latrines.
“Pit emptying saves the land where people build new latrines to replace the old ones. It has the potential for re-use. Besides, building a new toilet every two to five years can be more costly than just emptying.”
Mzuzu-based Mr Clean, real name Yona Mkandawire, started emptying latrines in 2003. In 2010, he bought the first truck emptying pit latrines.
Mkandawire, whose trucks empty toilets throughout the Northern Region, has been trying to figure out how to put human waste to good use.
“I have experimented with maize, oranges and other crops at the dumping site. For seven years, I used compost manure made from human waste and discovered that it improves crop yields, but the maize matures late,” he explains.
Similarly, Nyaka’s business produces manure. A bag weighing 25 kilogrammes fetches K4 500.
But Wilfred Kadewa, environmental resource management specialist at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), urges Malawians to stop looking at waste as waste but as a resource.
He reckons human waste can be used to boost agriculture and produce methane gas for cooking.
Both the Department of Energy and energy activists tout biogas as an alternative source of cooking energy likely to save trees.
According to the department, the country’s waning forests are going up in smoke at an alarming rate because up to 96 percent of the population cooks using firewood and charcoal.
“Several studies have been done on other types of waste such as cow and pig waste and not so much on human waste, but the process is the same,” said Kadewa.
The expert recommended ecological sanitation (eco-san) toilets, which are specially designed to ease the harvesting of sludge for manure and gas production.
He states: “The sludge can easily be taken to either solid waste facilities or a crop field.
“In one of our studies, we recommended for improved designs of eco-san toilets for safe and proper removal of sludge. Eco-san toilets are the way to go to ease pit emptying and sludge re-use.”