Breadline Africa eradicated pit toilet exposure for 11,000 South African children – Marion Wagner 

Since 1993, Breadline Africa has revolutionized education by converting shipping containers into functional learning spaces. Addressing critical safety concerns, they’ve raised R22 million to replace hazardous pit latrines in rural schools, saving young lives. By July, 24 schools will have new flush and dry toilets, benefitting 11,000 children. CEO Marion Wagner highlights the urgent need, with 35,000 schools still affected. Next, Breadline targets period poverty, continuing their impactful mission in South Africa.

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Extended transcript of the interview  

Linda van Tilburg (00:44.238)

In the introduction, I’ve touched upon the work that Breadline Africa engages in. Could you elaborate on the range of initiatives the organisation undertakes? 

Marion Wagner (00:53.06)

Over the last 30 years, Breadline Africa has very much focused on improving educational outcomes for young children and one of the key aspects that we found, particularly with preschools, was the lack of infrastructure. By providing the infrastructure, we’re often able to help preschools get registered and provide a safer learning environment and then we branched out into primary schools as well, providing libraries and feeding kitchens. 

Last year with the death of yet another child in a pit toilet, we started looking at how we can tackle this and start replacing pit toilets in primary schools as well since we’re doing it at preschools. So, it’s become quite a strong focus of ours in the last year, along with the infrastructure still at the preschool level. We’ve now gone into primary schools and started replacing these unsafe toilets.

Linda van Tilburg (01:46.702)

So, for people who might not know what a pit toilet is, why are they a hazard?

Marion Wagner (01:52.932)

A lot of the schools have been around for over 100 years and the toilet solutions were really just large dugout holes, often three metres deep and the seats or planks or anything they could find, cut-out buckets, or maybe even sometimes there’s nothing there, planks of wood were placed on top of these open pits that the children would then use.

Over a period of time, as you can imagine, they just start filling up with sludge and the smell is quite horrendous and it becomes very unsafe. Young children, particularly, have to balance on two pieces of wood or balance on a rotting plank where there is a cutout toilet placed on it and it has happened where the whole thing has given way and the child has fallen into the faecal matter, which acts like a clay.

It pulls the child down and then with a lack of oxygen in that chamber as well, it’s a most horrendous, torturous way for any child to have to die and quite a few children have fallen into pits. Many have died, and many have been pulled out as well. On top of that, the structures that surround these pit toilets, which sometimes look like bunkers, or just very plain plastering with a tin roof and have collapsed on the children as well. 

So, there’s an urgent need to address these pits because not only is it the safety aspect of the child falling in, it’s the fear element of that child having to use the toilet. These children are terrified. So, the children then resort to open defecation instead of going into using the pits. Then on top of that, you’ve got snakes, flies and everything else and no hand washing facilities because very often there’s no water available.

So, these children have to come out of these environments. We saw one last week where the sewage was literally flowing out. The children have to walk with their shoes and socks through the sewage, use the pit toilet, and come out, and there’s no hand washing either. So a lot of children miss school because of the hygiene factor, the upset stomachs. Not only do they pass that on to each other, but to teachers and then to family members at home as well. With a lot of the pit toilets that we’re seeing there’s also because of the ageing infrastructure, there’s no doors.

So there’s no dignity and then young girls, or young girls, when they’ve got their periods tend to miss a week of school every single month. They don’t come to school. So, you have this period of poverty and high absenteeism, which obviously explains why up to 50 % of children drop out of primary school when they don’t matriculate. So,  it’s a huge factor of dignity and safety and it really should be the right of every child to be able to use a toilet safely, even if it’s not a flushing toilet, but the safety aspect and the hygiene and the dignity is so important.

Linda van Tilburg (04:46.734)

You have raised R22 million to replace pit toilets. What kind of difference have you made with that?

Marion Wagner (04:58.148)

By the end of July, we’ll have completed 24 schools. We set ourselves the target of 240 schools over 18 months but obviously, that requires quite a lot of fundraising. We’re absolutely thrilled that we’ve raised over R20 million already and have done 10 % of the schools that we set out to. So the 24 schools that we’ve done, we’ve provided in the region about 550 toilet facilities, a combination of low flush toilets, urinals, or dry toilets where there’s absolutely no water supply at all. And that’s to date, since last year, it has impacted over 11,000 children.

Linda van Tilburg (05:38.702)

So is the availability of running water then a problem?

Marion Wagner (05:43.908)

It is particularly in the rural areas, a lot in the Eastern Cape, you’ll find there’s just no access. Even an hour from Durban International Airport, we find that they’ve maybe a standpipe and there’s a little bit of water coming out of the standpipe, but there’s definitely no sewage system, no mainline sewage. We haven’t come across any even within an hour from big cities. Then of course the access to water in the Eastern Cape, particularly in the Highlands, there is absolutely no water.

So, if they’re lucky, they’ll get a water tanker that can go there and provide some drinking water for the children. But certainly, that’s not water that we could use to flush the toilets. So, we have an option of having a dry toilet system and then a low flush system as well, which is then connected to a septic tank.

Linda van Tilburg (06:28.078)

So, you seem to be chipping away at this problem. How big is it? How much work is left?

Marion Wagner (06:34.852)

It’s a difficult one. When we started with the government addressing this at the same time, we believed that there were under 1000 schools. But what we’re seeing now, it’s more like 3500 schools and they are predominantly in  Limpopo, the Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal. Those are the most challenging schools with ageing infrastructure. There are schools that have absolutely no toilet facilities at all.

But the ones that we focus on are the unsafe pits. So, they may have ventilated improved toilet systems that the government may have put in. Those are safe, they’re not desirable, but they’re safe. The ones we focus on are the ones where there are either no toilets or where there are unsafe pits and then we make sure that before we go, those pits are completely closed up. So we’ve seen in the past where new toilets have been put in place, but the old pits were left open as a reserve or in order to throw rubbish into those pits and that’s the ones where some of the children have died. 

So we make sure that before we leave a site, if the pit is unsafe and no longer used, the pit is filled in, and a concrete slab is put on the top, so there’s no way that a child could possibly fall in and the old structures are knocked down and then the rubbish is removed. So, they get brand new toilet facilities without the danger of having the old ones left behind.

Linda van Tilburg (07:54.862)

What are your other focus areas? Do you still have the schools in the containers?

Marion Wagner (08:00.388)

We do have a lot of classrooms and that’s mainly the preschools where we place classrooms and we use the converted insulated shipping containers and also prefabricated structures. But, since COVID shipping containers have become quite scarce and quite pricey and that’s where we’ve moved a lot to prefabricated [buildings] and actually interesting enough, today we launched the first-ever biomass preschool.

So, that was made completely out of recycled low-carbon emission products. That was the first of its kind. So we’re always looking for innovative building materials with a low footprint or recyclable material. So yes, we do the classrooms, the kitchens, the toilets and libraries. That’s the main area of focus and it’s really all about how to keep children in school, how to get children’s school ready to start off with, how to improve those educational outcomes once they’re in school as well, and how to keep them safe.

Linda van Tilburg (08:57.838)

Where does the money come from? Do you raise funds from corporates, from private individuals?

Marion Wagner  (09:04.324)

Both, and from foundations as well. So, we’re really lucky to have a database of individual donors in South Africa, the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands. and then in South Africa, we have received huge support from corporates through the CSI funding and also from some of the foundations, private foundations, as well as some of the larger foundations. That’s where individuals that have that same burning passion as us like Mark Barnes who joined us as a partner last year as a voluntary fundraising partner and through his connections we’ve been very lucky to get a lot of the funding that we have.

Linda van Tilburg (09:45.838)

You come from the corporate world, what motivated you to switch to the nonprofit sector?

Marion Wagner (09:54.724)

It is, but it’s so much more rewarding. when you come from a corporation, obviously everything works differently and you have a lot of people. We’re a very small team of people. We’re only 17 people, but we work with fantastic partners and with suppliers. I think one of the differences is, that last week we were in KZN looking at a school that was in urgent need and two days ago we broke ground at that school and in two and a half weeks that school would be completed. So, It’s a very quick turnaround. It takes under three weeks to complete a school. It’s so tangible. It’s working with something that is so life-changing and so meaningful. So, not saying that corporate work isn’t, but it’s a lovely, refreshing difference that it makes when you work in the nonprofit world and just seeing the life-changing impact on the young children is incredibly rewarding.

Linda van Tilburg (10:50.798)

What kind of expertise can someone like you bring from the corporate world to the non-profit sector?

Marion Wagner (10:57.892)

I think every nonprofit has to run as a business. So I think business knowledge and applying business principles, making sure that you try and cut out costs, streamlining operations, improving efficiency, all of those good business principles and governance are incredibly important. I think in the past, many nonprofits were started by people with passion and some funding and that’s been incredibly remarkable that they’ve done that. But I think having the corporate experience and looking at ways of how you can scale up and get access to funding is definitely an advantage.

Linda van Tilburg (11:42.35)

So what’s next for Breadline Africa?

Marion Wagner (11:46.5)

The area that we want to look at even further is looking at the whole menstrual health challenges and health aspects of the child because while we provide the infrastructure working with partners, for example, they can buy testing, because they can’t read, can’t learn. We also have fantastic partners that do feeding because again a hungry child isn’t going to learn. But the whole menstrual health area we are exploring, because of this period of poverty, children don’t have access to sanitary pads. We’ve now been talking more about the recyclable sanitary pads that we hand out, but then you also hear that there are children who actually don’t even have underwear. So, the recyclable sanitary pads are one thing, and now it’s the underwear that you can now buy, the sanitary underwear that can be washed and reused. So, that’s an area that we would like to look at further to try and help young girls particularly get through schooling with their dignity intact and not miss school.

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