How human waste could power Nigeria's slums

Story highlights

  • Microbiologist says he has simple solution to sanitation problems in Lagos
  • Conversion of septic tanks to biogas generators treats sewage and generates power
  • Despite recognition, inventor says there are still cultural and political barriers to development
In the crowded slums of Lagos, Nigeria, untreated sewage mingles with the chaotic network of pipes that deliver water to the city. Those who can't afford a local borehole or a private vendor know better than to take their chances with the taps -- most preferring to go thirsty instead.
That's according to Olatunbosun Obayomi, a Lagosian microbiologist and inventor who has lived in the city all his life.
But now Obayomi thinks he's found a solution -- one that not only tackles the slums' sanitation issues, but creates free, clean energy in the process.
"With a cheap retrofit, household septic tanks -- the source of the sewage -- can be converted into biogas generators," said Obayomi, 29, whose concept has earned him a TED fellowship, a Nigerian Youth Leadership Award and growing international acclaim.
"The idea of turning waste into energy has been around for centuries. My innovation is simply applying the chemistry in a practical way by using the resources we already have," he explained.
In most homes in Lagos, toilet waste is stored in rudimentary septic tanks beneath the ground. Here it decomposes into a poisonous compound, before being sucked out by a tanker that deposits it all in a nearby lagoon.
"Unfortunately, the system of water pipes is very disorganized, and they often pass through the same place where the sewage is dumped," said Obayomi. "And it's not uncommon for poorly constructed septic tanks to leak directly into the drainage system."
But rather than attempt a wholesale overhaul of Nigeria's waste system, Obayomi's approach makes use of the existing septic tanks -- equipping them with new waste entry pipes that remove oxygen from the decaying process.