The Poop on Poop in India

By Priska Prasetya

Uncomfortable though it might be to consider, poop—a generally accepted English word for a plentiful natural resource—can stimulate endless opportunities around the world for farmers. 

Every individual on the planet—some more or less—generates 250 grams or slightly more than a half-pound of excreta each day, a rather amazing factoid considering 1.3 million people in India. That’s 335 million kilograms (or nearly 520 million pounds) of poop over 24 hours. Considering this enormous scale, India’s ‘poop’ could well be one of the most important resources for the future.

That’s a lot of natural, nutrient-packed fertilizer to grow green, lush fruits and vegetables, and it’s a major reason I am in the business of helping to feed the world. 

My job is that of Business Developer for the WASTE Foundation’s Circular Economy of Sanitation, based in the Netherlands and working in India, among other countries. 

We work in cooperation with the Securing Water for Food (SWFF) program and with India’s Rural Development Organization Trust (RDO), making strides in fulfilling the potential of turning fecal sludge into non-chemical induced compost. In India, only a third of the country’s urban houses are connected to a sewer system. In the absence of proper sewerage networks, the “Clean India Campaign” recommended on-site sanitation systems, such as pit latrines and septic tanks. Such containment structures generate fecal sludge, the slurry that contains both solid and liquid waste accumulating in on-site sanitation systems.

What circular sanitation business opportunities can be created by linking sanitation with agriculture and energy sectors?

This leaves several important questions: What do you do when your septic tank is full? Where does your poop go? 

After fecal sludge is contained, there are other elements in the sanitation chain that need to be addressed, including emptying, transport, treatment, and reuse or disposal. 

That’s where we come in. 

Unfortunately, fecal sludge from on-site sanitation systems in India is often emptied out and disposed of in untreated water, agricultural fields, or forests, which is hazardous to public and environmental health. This means that addressing only toilets and achieving Open Defecation Free (ODF) status—which is something India has worked toward—is not sufficient without proper fecal management. 

In the SWFF program, which is funded by USAID and the governments of the Netherlands, Sweden, and South Africa, we involve the entire sanitation chain in the circular economy. My focus lies in looking at the entire sanitation chain, and in doing so, I pose the question: What circular sanitation business opportunities can be created by linking sanitation with agriculture and energy sectors?

Actually, there are quite a few.  

For the last several years, much of my work has taken place in the Nilgiris District in India. This is where I work closely with veteran agriculture and rural development specialist, Rajkumar Sampath, of the RDO Trust in Tamil Nadu.   

Since 2017, the SWFF program has promoted science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water, making more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.

Under our program, we go beyond the ‘toilet’ and sanitation. We establish linkages between the sanitation and agriculture sectors by collecting, transporting, processing fecal sludge with organic solid waste for the production of ‘co-compost’ that is used by vegetable farmers to improve the soil. 

The overall objective is to establish a local circular economic model in sanitation for agriculture that is scalable and—with private financing and a market-driven approach—can advance green growth.  Two treatment sites with co-compost production have been established under the program since 2017 in the district, and we are seeing positive experiences by farmers. 

A recent independent evaluation by SWFF showed that 90 percent of the farmers in the program responded positively to using co-compost. Additionally, the farmers have observed better yield in terms of size, color, and taste of the vegetables. 

At the same time, substantial crop diversification can be seen. Crops like flowers, strawberry, fenugreek, and capsicum were introduced after gaining access to the co-compost innovation.

This doesn’t mean the picture of co-composting is entirely rosy. There are hurdles, and we at WASTE, the SWFF program, and the RDO Trust are working hard to overcome them. 

For one thing, we are working to convince farmers that fertilizer from human waste is a natural and nutrient-enhanced way to ensure bountiful crops.  Also, we must find less expensive ways to separate the organic waste delivered to the co-composting from that which is non-organic and to find marketable uses for both. 

But that’s what innovators do. We solve problems. 



USAID, Sweden through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and the Governments of The Netherlands and South Africa invested $34 million in Securing Water for Food (SWFF) to promote science and technology solutions that enable the production of more food with less water and/or make more water available for food production, processing, and distribution.

This story was developed through the SWFF Social Impact Storytelling Initiative which was established to document innovator journeys and social impact as they work to improve the way water is being used for agriculture. #socialimpact #innovation #agriculture #water