Uber, but for Poop


Everybody poops, but not everybody has to deal with a cartel when trying to dispose of it.

This is a widespread problem for residents of Dakar, capital of Senegal. The city's sanitation relies heavily upon septic tanks and latrine pits, which have to be routinely emptied. If not drained on a frequent basis, the latrine systems overflow, wreaking (or reeking?) havoc on residents.

Roaming the city are large tanker trucks equipped with industrial pumps to extract human waste. Driving these trucks are individuals known as "toilet suckers." These men work together as an association with fixed prices and a collective noncompete agreement. In other words, they are a cartel. The truckers congregate at central locations in various communities in Dakar, where local residents can approach them about their services. Costs range from the equivalent of $40 to $60 depending on the size of the pit.

For many residents in Dakar, 46 percent of whom live below the poverty line, paying for this service eats up a significant chunk of their incomes. A lot of people are reduced to—for a lack of better words—illegal dumping, where they drain their own pits and bury the waste in holes they dig, usually in alley ways.

A black market for illegal dumping has emerged in which entrepreneurs—colloquially named "father shovels"—offer this service at a much lower rate than the trucker suckers.

The suckers argue their high price is justifiable because of transaction costs. They spend half their days "negotiating" in parking lots, they say, and the other half driving around to the various job sites. They also incur costs due to police corruption, since cops in the city often see them as targets for bribes.

Government intervention was tried to address this problem. Publicly funded campaigns highlighted the health risks associated with illegal dumping. Sewage inspectors investigated illegal burial sites and issued fines. None of these methods proved effective in reducing the practice.

What actually helped to solve the problem was technology.

Innovations for Poverty Action, a nonprofit that sends teams of economists into developing nations, arrived in Dakar in 2011 to research and potentially address the challenge of illegal dumping. Spearheaded by Molly Lipscomb, assistant professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, this group created a program that directly connected consumers and individual truckers using a rudimentary phone system. Call it Uber for poop—Poober if you will.

"Do you hate it when people call this Uber for poop?" Robert Smith, host of Planet Money, asked Lipscomb during a recent podcast. "No, no," she replied. "You know, Uber is a very well-functioning market, and I think they've done great things for transportation. So if this is Uber for poop, that's great."

How does Poober work? Lipscomb's team first reached out to the truckers to introduce the idea that competitive bidding could actually be more profitable for them on an individual basis. Those who volunteered to participate in the program provided their contact information, which was then funneled to a local call center.

The dispatchers there developed a strategy to take inbound requests and gather information from customers looking to empty their latrines. When calls came in, agents at the center would send a text message detailing the job lead—location, size of pit, etc.—to 10 randomly selected truckers. The truckers in turn would have an hour to respond to the text with a price, and the lowest bidder would be awarded the job. An advertising campaign was launched to inform residents of the new service.

The final results are currently being analyzed and tabulated by Lipscomb and her team, but she hints that overall prices for customers declined by roughly 7 percent on average. Truckers win as well thanks to the reduced transaction costs—less time waiting for job leads, less mileage driving all over town for jobs, and fewer shakedowns by local police due to more targeted routes. Overall, this is a net gain for both the supply and the demand sides of Dakar's waste disposal market.

If successful, this program can be rolled out to other surrounding communities who struggle with the same issues. The days of Senegal's poop cartels are likely numbered.

NEXT: Brickbat: Dig This

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  1. Dakar is the new Somalia.

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  2. The Omni Processor pilot plant by Janicki Bioenergy is located also in Sengal. Has anyone heard how that is working out?

    Bill Gates drinks poop

    And maybe Trump was speaking literally when talking about shit-hole countries.

    1. You know that by that standard, you drink poop too. Every city on the planet treats their wastewater and pours it into the nearest river. When it’s done with standard sewer treatment (American/European standards, mind you), it’s significantly cleaner than riverwater or lakewater, and all the bacteria are dead. Bringing it up to drinking level of quality is actually quite easy, as you can feed it directly into the drinking water plant, and it’s easier to treat than the surface water that you normally have to process.

      1. Yes I know, I’ve worked in plumbing my entire life. It’s partly why I am interested in whether these Omni-processors are working because from what I remember there were questions of whether this would be profitable and therefore could be built across the developing world.

      2. Yes I know, I’ve worked in plumbing my entire life. It’s partly why I am interested in whether these Omni-processors are working because from what I remember there were questions of whether this would be profitable and therefore could be built across the developing world.

        1. Interesting that in the video he says “the sanitation system we have in the developed world cannot work in the developing world. We need a simple solution”

          And then they propose a complex system of taking sewage sludge, drying it in a flame tunnel, condensing the water vapor to use as drinking water, burning the resultant dried sludge and using the heat to generate electricity…..

          VS the “developed” solution of collecting sewage in huge settling ponds to separate out the solids and then dumping the solids in a compost heap to eventually be used as fertilizer on sod farms or simply discarded in landfill.

          Still, it is a cool solution. Especially if it ends up being energy positive… produce enough electricity to pay for the system and it is a pretty big win, I suppose.

      3. Not quite right. Coastal areas feed the cleared water into salt water sounds and inlets, and’or into offshore outfalls. Also, many areas, including the county where I live, prohibit direct transfer of treated sewer water into drinking water handling facilities. They DO, however, have installed a completely separate water piping system that distributes treated waste water for maintaiing parks, landscaping at government facilities, and a few high volume users of process water for manufacturing, etc. It NEVER goes directly into the potable water system.
        Our domestic water system gets its water from a number of natural springs and pumped wells. The water is among the best municipal water I’ve had anywhere, but my home is on my own well. So I NEVER get theirs.

  3. How about Amazon for poop instead? Just start warehousing, boxing, and shipping the stuff. Think of the jobs!

  4. Poober? Oh, you mean Lyft.

  5. So is it the “toilet suckers” or “father shovels” that bottle this and sell it as Dakar Noir?

    1. My housemate has Darkard Noir (knockoff of Drakkar Noir) and Old Spice Swagger. I call them Drunkard Noir and Stagger.

  6. I was sure this was going to be about LA. I have heard the city has a similar app, but it is to report the feces to the sanitation department.

    1. No, for that you have to travel about 400 miles north, but don’t bother. Street turds abound, but that’s not even the worst of being there.

  7. “Sewage inspectors investigated illegal burial sites and issued fines. None of these methods proved effective in reducing the practice.”

    Yeah, you shoot a few of these bastards and leave the bodies, this shit will stop in a hurry, literally.

  8. When I saw the headline, I thought someone in SF or NYC actually started a company that allows an app user to locate a nearby privately owned bathroom and use that bathroom for a fee in exchange for a mutual rating system, thereby monetizing the bathrooms of all those people in NOLA, SOHO, SOLA, COLA, and all the other expensive neighborhoods to monetize their bathrooms and partially offset the exorbitant rents.

    Guess that would have been more like airbnb for poop.

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