At least 2.2 million people in South Africa don’t have access to flushing toilets while, against this backdrop, pit toilets are putting school children at risk — with several students dying after falling into pit toilets at school.
But this could soon change if Monni Mokwena has her way.
The 25-year-old, from Bakenberg village in Mokopane, Limpopo, grew up without a flushing toilet; an experience that has turned her into an innovator.
She was working as an administrator for a property and maintenance company in Pretoria when she noticed that water bills were particularly high. Meanwhile, tenants in some of the flats she visited were complaining about the cost of running water.
Mokwena’s aim was to find ways to cut costs, which led her to the realisation that toilets use a lot of water. She dug deeper, and discovered that the toilets used today were actually invented more than 400 years ago.
So, she decided to design a new one — this time aiming for it to use as little water as possible.
"I realised that the mountain of the ‘S-shaped’ pipe at the back of the toilet is the one that makes the toilet use a lot of water,” Mokwena told Sowetan. “This was created to prevent the smell from coming back to the house. We've cut that mountain."
Her invention — called the “swallowing toilet” — is fitted with a pipe that automatically stops more water than needed from flowing through the toilet when it’s not being used.
The pipe is also shaped like the letter “S”, but it blocks water except for when the toilet is being flushed.
It uses 400 millilitres of water per flush, compared to the 13 litres used by traditional toilets. This means that people using traditional toilets get through an estimated over 70 litres a day just by flushing the toilet.
[NEXT] Being from an area with poor sanitation and no access to water, Mokopane born, Monni Mokwena designed a water saving toilet called the 'Swallowing Toilet' that has gained her recognition. Stay tuned for her story at 16:45. #ProgressiveLimpopo#TheUltimate326pic.twitter.com/OWAfJjbrwF— Capricorn FM (@CapricornFM) July 11, 2019
And while the swallowing toilet is only at the research stage at the moment, the invention has already caught the attention of potential investors.
Mokwena pitched her invention at the Engen Pitch and Polish competition at the beginning of July. Pitch and Polish is "an Idols-type competition" where inventors and entrepreneurs sell their ideas to an audience that plays the role of bankers and inventors, according to the Pitch and Polish website.
It’s held in seven provinces and culminates in a final pitch, featuring all the winners from regional competitions. Mokwena won the Johannesburg pitch.
She credits her village life with helping her see the value of innovations that enhance the quality of life.
In this case, access to clean and running water, and how this in turn affects the quality of sanitation facilities.
As she told ENCA: “[Bakenberg] has poor sanitation and no access to running water, and using pit toilets has disadvantages as we have seen kids drowning.”
She also hopes that her innovation will help cut the costs of accessing water, especially for rural communities.
"I am a rural girl. Toilets are a serious problem in our community. My grandmother still spends a substantial amount of money of her pension to pay people who get her water from far,” she told Sowetan.
Mokwena added: "Our toilet uses so little water that even rural communities could use it. About 20 litres of water can be used to 'swallow' for the whole family for a week.”
For now, the toilet is in five homes as part of her research but she hopes to attract investors.
“All I want now is money to enable us to commercialise the product,” she added. “We want to have a plant to manufacture the 'swallowing toilet' so as to create jobs.”