Urine Makes Money - Productive sanitation story from China

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Speech to the pupils

Country: China

Urine from school toilets as fertiliser - a business for farmers


The project was part of the foundation's 'Children's Virtue Training Program', that aims to improve the quality of education. SOHO China Foundation built 10 UDDT blocks in 2009 and an additional 21 blocks in 2010 in 31 schools located in different areas of Tianshui city in China. About 20,000 students and teachers are using these toilets. On the basic of this program, the commercial venture 'Tianshui Sweetest Apples Company' was formed, that uses the urine from the school UDDTs to fertilise apples farms and sell the harvest.

The beginning – the establishment of the UDDT blocks:

Between 2008-2012, SOHO China Foundation built Urine Diverting Dry Toilet (UDDT) blocks for students and teachers in the countryside of Tianshui city of Gansu province. The project was part of the foundation’s “Children’s Virtue Training Program”, that aims to improve the quality of education in the hometown of Mr. Pan Shiyi, the director of SOHO China. Instead of water flush toilets, separated UDDTs for boys and girls and hand washing facilities were established.

“The UDDT blocks are as clean as the hotels we can see on the TV. There are mirrors and hand-washing water, also. In the class of virtue training, the teacher shows us the virtue cards, cartoons and teaches us to sing songs, dance and play games. We have come to understand that we are living for bringing joy to the others and communicate with each other with the greatest love, harmony and friendship.”,writes a pupil of Wotuo Primary School in a letter to Mr. Pan Shiyi. The virtue training program is vital to guarantee the appropriate operation of the toilets.

Initially, SOHO China Foundation planned to build water flush toilets for hundreds of schools in Tianshui city. However, too many problems occurred after starting the operation of the first flush toilets in ten schools built in 2008, such as the lack of water, expensive water and maintenance work. In 2010, Zhang Xin, CEO of SOHO China and wife of Mr. Pan Shiyi, wrote in her blog “We only build dry toilets this year. Tianshui has little Shui.” Tian means sky and Shui means Water in Chinese.

The way to the usage of urine as fertilizer: With some experiences due to the China-Sweden Erdos Eco-town and some knowledge about ecosan, I became a volunteer at SOHO China Foundation, teaching students and teachers on how to use and maintain the first 10 UDDT blocks completed in 2009. As I had the ambition to establish a profitable and sustainable eco-toilet project for promoting UDDTs in China, I quickly started looking for farmers, who were willing to use the urine for their crops. Surprisingly, all visited peasants laughed at my idea of reusing human waste as fertilizer. Although they knew that the taste of urine fertilized crops was much better than the chemically fertilized ones, they said that chemical fertilizer would result much better yields.

At the same time the schoolmasters showed no interest in using the newly-built UDDTs, claiming that the pit latrines were much better, because they had no budget for human waste removal.

A big lesson I learned in Erdos is that a sustainable project should be profitable and sustainable by itself by turning the human waste into money to pay for the operation cost to some extent. Thus, I decided to set up an eco-agriculture experiment for the farmers, encouraging them to take the urine from the UDDTs at their own cost, expecting that they earn more money by growing crops with urine as fertilizer. My first step was to verify the capacity of the urine by measuring the yield of urine-irrigated crops. In 2009, my brother and I started to grow 3,000 m2 of vegetables, fertilized with urine from a 600-people school. In 2010, we convinced a farmer to apply urine to his apples trees and two more farmers to grow chilly and maize.

However, at last the farmers gave up using the urine, complaining about the high transportation costs to the fields or orchards. All the neighbouring farmers liked the taste of the vegetables, but they still refused to use the huge amount of urine: the first school UDDTs were constructed in a way that handwashing water was collected together with urine in one tank. With this feedback, I asked SOHO Foundation to revise the toilet design and to store handwashing water in a separate tank. Between 2010 and 2011, 21 UDDTs with the new design were built.

Urine transportation

I suggested SOHO China Foundation to wait before building 100 more school UDDTs, as I was not confident to convince the school masters to use them, before I turned the waste into money, solving their budget problem. Dr. Mao, who successfully grows apples in Shan Xi province, encouraged me in the decision to stop talking about the advantages of ecosan with the peasants, who could not afford the urine transportation, and to act by myself. With only little revenue (3,000 Yuán) I sold vegetables and some apples in 2010, than I have continued to grow only apples. In 2011, I paid another orchard owner for transporting about 40,000 litres urine to irrigate about 100 apple trees. 4,800 kg of apples were harvested and sold to middle class consumers in big cities. The profit for the two of us was so good, that all peasants in the village expressed willingness to irrigate their apple trees, on the condition that I pay the urine transportation fee and buy all their apples.

In early 2012, I set up my own apples business. Mr. Pan Shiyi published my 2011-apple-story on his blog in March, whereupon 1200 customers placed orders on us before the harvest. Working with about 30 farmers and using the urine from 31 UDDT blocks, the turnover of 2012 and 2013 was 1.4 and 1.3 million Yuán. Since 2011, over 6,000 customers have purchased my products and there are over 25,000 fans in my blog.

With this undertaking, you and your supporters, staff and collaborating schools and farmers, you all together really are closing the loop between safe sanitation, healthy nutrition and environmental protection, thus stopping the depletion of mineral resources, the erosion of soil fertility, and the contamination of water.”says Elisabeth-Maria Huba. My successful apple business is the fruit of the virtue training program of SOHO China Foundation.

My 5-year experiment has proved that Chinese individuals are willing to support the Ecosan businesses at their own cost and the best approach to promote ecological toilets is to supply the market with crops fertilized with the human and animal waste in the future.

During the coming five years, I will focus on the financial and economic issues of the project by setting up a stable relations with good customers.

The key lesson of the story:

As the case study shows, to get to know the partners (in this case students, teachers, farmers) experiments and to give appropriate reactions to them, are essential success-elements of any project.

Contribution to the SuSanA sustainability criteria

Environment and natural resources: Not only the water saving was resolved, but also the substitution of harmful fertilizers to an environmentally friendly one.

Technology and operation: The UDDT is a sustainable and an appropriate technology in areas without reliable water supply.

Financial and economic issues: It is possible, to establish a business, which is environmentally friendly and profitable at the same time.

Socio-cultural and institutional aspects: With good communication between the possible participants and with fast reactions to the occurred problems a great solution became achievable.

Project details

Type of project: The toilet project is just one part of the Children Virtue Training Program sponsored by SOHO China Foundation

Project period: since 2005

Start of operation: The UDDTs started in 2009

Project scale: At a cost of about 18 million RMB (=nearly 2.9 million U.S. Dollars), 46 toilets were built between 2008 and 2012, serving 35,000 students and teachers, 15 water flush toilets and 31 UDDT blocks

Address of project location: Tianshui City, Gansu Province, China

Planning institution: SOHO China Foundation

SOHO China Foundation is committed to supporting not-for-profit initiatives related to education in China, the area which we feel is most underfunded and underserved.

Executing institution: SOHO China Foundation and my company, Tianshui Sweetest Apples Company

Supporting agency: Tianshui Education Authorities



Chen Xiangyang

Manager of Tianshui Sweetest Apples Company


Helen Huang

Manager of SOHO China Ltd Engineering Department