Trialling Pee Power technology in Uganda – Part 2

In the first part of his reporting from Uganda, James Walker, an MSc Environmental Management student from UWE Bristol, explained how the first overseas trial of Pee Power technology – developed by the Bristol BioEnergy Centre (BBiC), within the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) – was taking place in a girls’ school in Kisoro. Here, he explains the results of his research, which included asking the students for their reactions to, and views on, the technology. 

The Pee Power field trial at the Seseme Girls’ School in Kisoro, Uganda was monitored for four weeks. Overall, it was a success both technically and socially. The power output exceeded expectations, and ample lighting was provided outside the latrine block and inside each cubicle, which were otherwise pitch black at night.       

The post-installation questionnaires aimed to capture what the girls thought of Pee Power, and whether they saw it as a way of tackling the sanitation problems they face, and the critical issue of non-partner sexual violence (NPSV) – both emerged as key issues from the first round of questionnaires.

This questionnaire yielded some interesting results. Significantly, 86% said that the Pee Power lights made them feel safer at night. Yet, this only goes so far – 55% still did not think it was safe to go to the toilet alone at night. This points to a wider societal problem about NPSV in a ‘toilet context’ which cannot be eradicated by simply providing lighting, although this can play a role in making women safer.

There was clear evidence of social acceptance of the technology: 83% said they would like Pee Power rolled-out to their village; 98% said they liked the idea of using urine to create electricity; 90% said they preferred using the two cubicles that fed Pee Power’s microbial fuel cell stack over the other three cubicles which drained into a septic tank.

The focus groups were facilitated by a female social worker – she is a former student at the school and her sister is studying there now. She is also involved in local church and community groups, and all the girls knew her by name. Therefore, the participants were comfortable speaking with her. This was not just important when concerning sensitive issues such as toilet use, but for the sake of open discussion in general. The girls were reluctant to speak openly with me, and would not go much further than one word answers confirming that they liked Pee Power.

The baseline questionnaires revealed that the students do not think their villages have enough latrines, and not all families have their own latrine (unimproved sanitation). They view household latrines as desirable and think it should be an obligation. They also agreed that access to water is a problem – they suffer shortages at school and have to walk long distances to fetch water for the home. The girls queue in the evenings at the school tap at a rainwater harvesting tank, and sometimes there is not sufficient supply. The building of more tanks is seen as a solution to this.

They also discussed their attitudes towards, and experiences of, Pee Power – and it can be seen as a unanimous success. Having lights inside and outside the latrines – whether they are powered by electricity, solar or Pee Power – is welcomed as being both safer and more convenient.

However, the use of Pee Power goes beyond simply providing light. As the only latrine block is located in that corner of the school, it would take some girls 5-10 minutes to walk there from their dormitories. Some would urinate and defecate in the open, closer to their dormitories, to avoid the long walk to the latrines. Pee Power encourages them to walk to the latrine block where the technology is installed and add to the power source, rather than going outside. They see Pee Power as a means of lowering the cost of electricity at the school, and hope this will result in lower school fees, so they prefer to use the latrines.

Therefore, Pee Power is reducing open defecation at the school, and improving public health and the safety of the students. With the continuous lighting, the girls not only feel safer from a male attacker, but also are safer from other things that may be lurking in the dark. The lighting inside the cubicle allows the user to see if there are any snakes around. Also, as the users can see what they are doing in the latrine, it is a lot cleaner.

The students enjoyed meeting the team, and said the experience “created friendship”. The experience meant that they met people from England, Scotland and Nigeria, and learnt more about the world.

The technology interested them – not just Pee Power, but lights operated by a sensor was a new to them. One girl said she ran away from the latrine the first time the PIR-operated light came on, as she was shocked by it. Their curiosity was understandable, and they wanted to learn more about it. They were given a brief introduction to it in a talk to all 300+ girls whilst sat outside at break-time. Being in such a large group may have put some off asking questions, and a lot of them were left wanting to know a lot more. Many of the girls are bound for higher education and many were interested in science and were curious about this new intriguing project.

When asked how Pee Power could be improved, the answer was simple: they want more of it. They wanted it extended to other schools and villages. Their logic was that if it is available in homes, classrooms and dormitories then electricity bills would be lower. This could result in the school lowering fees, making it easier for families to pay them. Although this is not yet technically possible, it shows a great social acceptance of, and positive attitude towards, the principle of creating electricity out of urine and the benefits that could result from that. They also wanted to be taught about it, so they can operate it in the future and build their own stacks to service their homes and communities.

They said “many thanks” for bringing them Pee Power.

A press release from UWE Bristol on the trial can be read here.