UBER, BUT FOR POOP.

Author:Stooksberry, Jay
Position::TECHNOLOGY
 
FREE EXCERPT

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...

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