Towards Brown Gold: Re-imagining off grid sanitation in rapidly urbanising areas in Asia and Africa

Funded through the GCRF Off-Grid Cities and Sustainable Energy call, “Towards Brown Gold” seeks to address the challenges of marginality, sanitation and wastewater management in five growing towns in Ethiopia, Ghana, India and Nepal. 

Good sanitation is pivotal for human wellbeing, productivity and health but the situation in rapidly urbanising areas is often characterised by poor or unsafe excreta disposal, inadequate faecal sludge management (FSM), lack of adequate infrastructure for sewage and wastewater collection and treatment. This combined with poverty and intersecting gender, class and related exclusions make safely managed sanitation in our expanding urban areas an urgent global challenge 

Our starting point for this project is that such challenges can also be an opportunity to rethink and reimagine off- grid towns as a fertile ground for innovations that are people centred, inclusive, sustainable, equitable and also contribute to economic growth. Faecal sludge is rich in water, nutrients, and organic compounds, but usually this “brown gold” remains hidden in the sludge.  

The project’s interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary team bring together social science, law, engineering, microbiology and creative arts expertise to help facilitate bottom up processes and innovations co-produced between user communities, private entities, state agencies, civil society and other policy stakeholdersThrough circular economy approaches and intersectional analysis, wwill explore how shit can move away from being a taboo to being seen as “brown gold’. Our intention is that these innovations help address the sanitation crisis, enhance offgrid economies and improve the well-being of poor and vulnerable women and  men, and marginalised communities such as Dalits, migrants, sanitation workers and refugees. 

The programme will examine four primary questions 

  1. How do local communities perceive, experience and live with offgrid sanitation challenges and how do these lead to processes of marginalisation?  
  2. Which kinds of socio- technical and institutional processes/innovations are required to re-imagine shit as ‘brown gold’ in ways that are environmentally safe, economically viable and also tackle social exclusions?  
  3. How can these locally appropriate innovations around resource recovery and reuse be facilitated to be socio-culturally acceptable, and socially inclusive? What are the trade-offs?  
  4. What kinds of policy, business and regulatory frameworks enable/disable the uptake, scaling up and sustenance of these innovations?

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Image of Lyla Mehta

Lyla Mehta

Professorial Fellow

Image of Shilpi Srivastava

Shilpi Srivastava

Research Fellow

Recent work


Equality for sanitation workers is key to transforming waste into Brown Gold

Sanitation workers in the Global South are some of the most marginalised people in the world. People from stigmatised castes, such as Dalits and Harijans, make up the majority of the sanitation workforce in India and Nepal. The children of manual scavengers can seldom escape sanitation work,...

Dr Amita Bhakta

19 May 2022


The mirage of water in Kuttanad: a photostory

Kuttanad, in Kerela, India, is a tourist hotspot surrounded by water and wetlands. Yet its water resources have come under considerable pressure in recent years and have become contaminated and depleted. On World Water Day 2022, we use photos to highlight the everyday challenges faced by...

22 March 2022


New IDS research project seeks to re-imagine ‘shit’ as ‘brown gold’

A new IDS-led research project seeks to re-imagine sanitation in rapidly urbanising areas in Asia and Africa to help address the sanitation crisis, enhance off–grid economies and improve the well-being of poor and vulnerable women and men, and marginalised communities such as Dalits,...

24 November 2020