IWMI Success Stories

Transforming human waste into an economic opportunity in Ghana

Imagine if the human waste we produce every day could be put to productive use, and even had economic value?

In Ghana, an innovative initiative led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) has been devising ways to extract economic value from a material — human excreta — considered useless across much of the world. In this West African country of more than 30 million people, a significant share of human waste is discharged into waterways surrounding villages, peri-urban areas, and cities — often barely treated. But sanitation experts, policymakers, and community leaders believe they may have landed on a solution with transformative potential.

Seventy six per cent of households

in Ghana drink water that is contaminated with faecal matter.

(Source: UNICEF Ghana)

Island on the Volta Lake, Ghana. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

Gauging the extent of Ghana’s urban health challenges

As Ghana continues to experience rapid urbanization, significant strain has been placed on the limited sanitation and wastewater disposal infrastructure in the country’s cities. Consequently, the discharge of fecal sludge and untreated wastewater into local waterways has become commonplace, not only posing threats to environmental health — untreated wastewater contains high nutrient loads that degrade water quality — but also threatening human health as well.

Each day, humans excrete in the order of 30 grams (g) of carbon, 90 g of organic matter, 10-12 g of nitrogen (N), 2 g of phosphorus (P) and 3 g of potassium (K). Most of the organic matter is contained in the feces, while most of the N (90%) and P (70-80%) is contained in urine. Potassium is distributed equally between urine and feces.

Most health challenges come from poor sanitation,” observes Olufunke Cofie, an IWMI Principal Researcher and Country Representative in Ghana. “Diarrhea, and diseases like cholera, dysentery — they are a result of poor sanitation. If we can improve sanitation and remedy hygiene challenges, then certainly we will see positive health outcomes.

Meanwhile, fast-growing urban areas in Ghana and elsewhere face related challenges as well. As cities become vast nutrient sinks due to limited wastewater treatment capacity, for example, pollution of local water sources can deepen freshwater scarcity issues, particularly in cities across the Global South.

But cities have the ability to reduce such pollution if innovative solutions are explored, particularly those involving circular economy approaches. Such approaches encourage closed loop thinking, which means nutrients are returned to the soil and utilized, rather than simply pumped into waterways or the sea.

Water is at the very center of climate change. Climate change is water change. And water is, of course, very much related to sanitation. The key challenge is the scarcity of water, as sanitation practices are limited. How do we wash our hands or clean feces without water? We must consider mitigation and adaptation when it comes not only to climate change, but also to water treatment.

Olufunke Cofie

Indeed, in lower-income countries, many affordable options exist to support the use of reclaimed water and treated fecal sludge for productive purposes. And in Ghana, recycling reusing wastewater and recycling fecal sludge is not only good for the environment, it is necessary for the country. The majority of Ghanaian farmers struggle with soils that are poor in nutrients and organic matter.

In peri-urban and rural areas, some farmers attempt to tackle this problem by applying human waste directly onto their fields as a raw form of fertilizer, following traditional practices. But these practices pose potential health risks when the microbial contaminants (pathogens) within the untreated waste come into contact with crops grown for food, increasing the likelihood of illness among consumers.

How IWMI has harnessed outside-the-box thinking to create a durable solution

Over the course of 12 years of research, IWMI, along with the recently concluded CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and other partners, have refined an idea that promises to transform human waste into a safe fertilizer to facilitate agricultural production. So how does it work?

First, fecal sludge is taken from household and public toilets and passed through a multistep treatment process whereby the fecal sludge is allowed to dry naturally to solids while the  liquid portion passes through a sand filter before it is released back into the local environment.

Composting organic urban waste in Ghana. Photo: Josiane Nikiema / IWMI
Composting organic urban waste in Ghana. Photo: Josiane Nikiema / IWMI

The remaining nutrient-rich, dry solids are then mixed with organic food waste. The decomposition of this mixture (produced via co-composting) is facilitated through a process of heaping and regular turning, allowing for good aeration which aids the decomposition process. Crucially, the decomposition process also naturally generates heat, which is hot enough to destroy pathogens in the waste. This sanitizes the waste mix.

Sludge processing. Photo: Eric Nartey / IWMI
Sludge processing. Photo: Eric Nartey / IWMI

In Sub-Saharan Africa,

80–95% of the population

use onsite sanitation systems that require regular emptying.

Two fishermen on the Weija Lake, Ghana. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

Based on market demand, the treated sludge material could be commercialized in its basic form. However, it could also be enriched with minerals to enhance its nutrient content, and may be converted into pellet form to create Fortifer™, a safe and effective organo-mineral fertilizer with the potential to be competitive on the Ghanaian market.

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Most often, recommended wastewater treatment plants require a lot of energy, and if we’re trying to conserve then we look at alternatives. We also need to come up with sanitation practices that are less dependent on water.

The Fortifer™ compost pellets, which meet the international safety standards set for composts by the World Health Organization (WHO), are easy to handle and transport. Evidence also suggests that the pellets are more effective than powder in facilitating gradual nutrient release into the soil over time, potentially reducing the number of required applications.

As highlighted in the diagram below, there are many different ways waste can be converted into a productive material. In addition to human excrement, for example, animal manure and organic components of municipal waste can also be transformed to nutrient-rich material that can be used as plant fertilizer, soil conditioner, animal feed, and other useful products.

A sanitation chain encapsulates all aspects of fecal matter, ranging from the collection of the excreta to the treatment of the waste to the use of whatever end product the fecal matter has been transformed into.

Thankfully, diverse solutions exist all along the sanitation chain to facilitate waste reuse, says Cofie, who adds that “other things we can rethink include composting, combusting, and incinerating (or charring) waste to make it usable as fertilizer, or converted into energy, such as biogas.”

Exploring market potential for a new type of fertilizer in Ghana 

There is indeed a need within the country for fertilizer that is both sustainable, effective, and affordable. In the past, leading factors preventing Ghanaian farmers from making greater use of fertilizers have included high prices, lack of suitable credit offerings to secure fertilizers when needed, and a lack of convenient places to buy fertilizer.

For that reason, as IWMI, WLE, and partners developed Fortifer™, potential key customer groups were simultaneously identified, including Individual farmers growing plantation crops, smallholder farmers in organized groups, and farmers in irrigation schemes linked to the Ghana Irrigation Development Authority.

Urban farms produce

up to 90%

of the fresh vegetables consumed in cities: the majority of vegetables are irrigated with polluted water.

Red chili pepper, Tuba Irrigation Scheme, Ghana. Photo: Hamish John Appleby / IWMI

After extensive, multi-season field trials conducted by IWMI, WLE, and partners, Fortifier™ has proven effective in contributing nutrients and organic matter that promote the growth and yield of a wide range of cash crops, including okra, tomatoes, green peppers, cabbage, lettuce, maize, and rice. Moreover, farmers who participated in the field trials have also consistently stated their willingness to pay for locally produced organic fertilizers such as Fortifer™, further hinting at the product’s untapped market potential.

Transforming waste to fertilizer

“Made through processing of human and organic solid waste, the product is a safe, nutrient-rich compost which the production plant will sell in powder and pellet forms,” Cofie says.

“This product kills two birds with one stone: It is a material we need for enhancing the soil organic matter for crop production, but also helps to manage waste output which would otherwise cause environmental pollution.”

Acknowledging potential limitations with the current business model

The sanitation sector in Ghana and elsewhere offers many opportunities for social business models that can improve living conditions, and Fortifer™ is one of those products. After all, not only does Fortifier™ treat human waste, it also provides an opportunity that can spur job creation, strengthen public health, and limit environmental contamination all at once.

However, to ensure widespread uptake of Fortifier™, leveraging both public and private capital will be necessary, but the attractiveness of the business model will depend on the potential for cost recovery through sales of products. Why? Because for some smallholder farmers, alternative options can be cheaper and highly subsidized in some regions. Consequently, the incentive to begin regularly using Fortifer™ may not be immediately obvious to some potential customers.

Measuring growth of plants fertilized with fecal pellets. Photo: Josiane Nikiema / IWMI
Measuring growth of plants fertilized with fecal pellets. Photo: Josiane Nikiema / IWMI

Production of Fortifer™ requires specialized expertise and an adaptive approach beyond the typical waste management. Meanwhile, promoting the adoption of Fortifer™ requires knowledge around the correct price, availability of credit-based transactions, an understanding of the nutrient content, and training to correctly apply the fertilizer.

Sharing this knowledge through workshops run by trusted third party entities, such as government authorities, has been effective in Ghana to date. Studies have shown that other farmers and countries would expect similar engagement from trusted third parties before committing to a roll out of the product.

The approach to treat fecal sludge while also producing Fortifer™ is now tested by IWMI and Partners in five countries, with more to follow. The list of current countries includes Sri Lanka, Ghana, India, Bangladesh and Burkina Faso.

IWMI’s role is not to replicate Fortifer™ production in other countries, but rather raise awareness of its potential for improving fecal sludge management and to provide knowledge support to local institutions who could take this to scale in given context.

Despite limitations, Fortifer™ offers a promising solution for growth, profit, and environmental sustainability. Going forward, the commercialization of waste-based fertilizers like Fortifer™ can generate significant benefits by developing waste-based economies and ensuring that smallholder farmers have reliable access to affordable, environmentally friendly fertilizer — now, and well into the future.

To read more about Fortifer, visit our website, or read our summary sheet: Where there is muck there is gold.


Country Representative: Olufunke Cofie, Country Representative – Ghana, Regional Representative – West Africa. O.cofie@cgiar.org

Research Group Leader: Josiane Nikiema, Research Group Leader – Circular Economy and Water Pollution. J.nikiema@cgiar.org


Eleanor Ross – Strategic Communications Specialist

Russell Sticklor –  Senior Communications Consultant

Graphic Design:

Isis Palay – Communications Consultant

Pradeep Liyanage – Digital Graphics and Multimedia Specialist

Web Layout:

Dominique Perera – Manager, Web Communications


The authors would like to thank Olufunke Cofie, Josiane Nikiema and the Ghana office for their insights and their help in writing this story.

Key funders

Key partners

  • Projects in partnership with Jekora Ventures Ltd. (JVL) and Tema Metropolitan Assembly (TMA)
  • In collaboration with the Training Research and Networking for Development (TREND)
  • With technical support from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Institute of Industrial Research) (CSIR-IIR), and the Water Research Institute (WRI).
  • The authors would like to thank the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agricultural Research Institute (GNARI) in Ghana, the Centre of Excellence for Organic Agriculture in Makandura, Sri Lanka, and the RUAD Foundation in the Netherlands.
  • The authors would like to thank the Wayamba University in Sri Lanka, the University of Ghana, Valley View University (VVU) and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana, and the Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany.
  • The authors would like to thank the municipalities of Kumasi, Tema, Sekondi-Torakodi, Tamale and Yilo-Krobo in Ghana, as well as the Kurunegala Municipal Council in Sri Lanka.
  • The authors would like to thank the Board of Directors for their advice and insights.
  • Last but not least, we would like to thank IWMI Staff and Consultants who were instrumental in implementing the Fortifer technology and opening the Fortifer Plant in Ghana.

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Economics and equity

At IWMI, researching underlying economic and social trends helps us understand why people migrate. They also explain the impact of remittances and loss of agricultural labor, as well as consequences of migration on gender roles and food and water security. For instance, communities with higher levels of income inequality, or relative deprivation, may experience greater levels of out-migration compared to consistently low-income communities. In addition, migration changes intra-household gender-labor composition, which can change the access of smallholders to water resources, affecting the functioning of community-based institutions and consequently household and local food security. IWMI also focuses on circular economy, a strategy to recover and reuse waste, to boost food security and understand how interventions can encourage refugee and host communities to retain scarce resources.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Urban & rural transformation

As agricultural opportunities fluctuate in rural areas, migration, particularly to urban areas, is an adaptation technique to secure incomes and alternative livelihoods. Income generated by migrants is often sent back to family as remittances to support communities at home. At IWMI, we assess linkages between rural and urban areas, as well as the role of agricultural knowledge systems and food and water security. We recognize there are complex push and pull factors such as individual aspirations, economic opportunity, social norms, climate variability and government policies which drive migration and affect rural communities, particularly youth. Our work follows a ‘positive migration’ philosophy, framing migration as an adaptation technique and socio-economic choice (in many cases) rather than a problem to be solved, and focuses on establishing safer, more regular migration by supporting changes to migration governance in sending regions.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Climate adaptation and mitigation

Covid-19 disruption & adaptation

Covid-19 has caused a rupture in migration logistics and exposed inequities in the migration system, yet drivers of movement remain. Government lockdowns and closed borders due to the pandemic curtailed movement for migrants, posing complex problems for migrant hosting and origin countries. There have been significant economic shocks, with a sharp decline in unemployment for migrants and an inability to send money home through remittances to support family. Some migrants face social stigma for returning home without an income, particularly if families relied on loans to support their journeys. Consequences have been severe for informal migrants who lack government protection in their host countries. Migrants, particularly those living in crowded, lower-income neighborhoods, have been experiencing stigmatization related to the spread of Covid-19. We look at the impacts of Covid-19 on migration governance and rural areas across seven countries, development planning in Ghana, migration challenges in Southeast Asia, and community-based disaster management and resilience building in South Africa.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Water, climate change and agrarian stress

Migration, water and climate stress are inextricably linked to rural development. Water stress and climate variability can act as a driver of fragility, intensifying pre-existing political, social, economic and environmental challenges. Initiatives designed to address migration-related challenges must tackle inequalities and the exclusion of women, youth and marginalized groups; governance opportunities to better manage water and natural resources and technology and innovations to help communities escape socio-ecological precarity and thrive despite climate challenges. IWMI intends to build climate resilience by implementing projects which tackle gender-power inequalities in the face of dynamic, economic-social-ecological challenges. Our work brings together affected communities, institutional stakeholders and social actors to manage water in response to climate variability and agrarian stress, striving to address complex physical and social variables.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Climate adaptation and mitigation

Gender, intersectionality and social inclusion

It is critical to center gender and intersectional identities when unpacking migration phenomena. Gender as a social construct guides social norms and relations, including the decision-making processes and mechanisms leading to migration. We recognize that the intersections between race, age, class, sex, caste and region shape the migrant experience.

IWMI strives to offer transformative approaches and solutions for women, youth and marginalized groups, regarding them as equal partners in our work rather than passive end-users.  For example, within communities that experience male out migration, socio-political systems are restructured to make women, youth and other groups active agents in their own agri-food transformation. Migration patterns contribute to the feminization of agriculture, and women may experience a greater burden of responsibility coupled with an increased ability to access and control resources and policies to build sustainable livelihoods. Acknowledging social complexities helps researchers and communities understand migration trends and address structural power imbalances to build a more equitable world.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Innovation bundles

Farmer-led irrigation development is about much more than installing a pump in a field. It requires access to financing, labor, energy, and input and output markets, so that investments in irrigation translate into sustainable returns. IWMI uses a systemic approach to understand the farming system as well as the factors in the enabling environment that prevent women, men and youth from engaging in and benefitting equitably from farmer-led irrigation. We partner with farmers and the public and private sectors to test contextually relevant innovation bundles that combine irrigation technology such as solar pumps with financing mechanisms like pay-as-you-own or pay-as-you-go, agricultural inputs and agronomic techniques. We also look at ways to improve on-farm water management and nutrient use efficiency and reduce evapotranspiration through digital advances and agricultural extension. We integrate the scaling of innovation bundles into agricultural value chains to enhance the impacts on farmers’ irrigation investments, incomes and livelihoods.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

Gender and social inclusion

The barriers facing women and men in accessing irrigation technologies are not the same. Neither are the benefits. Social, cultural and religious norms influence inter- and intra-household power relations. These, in turn, affect access to resources such as land, credit, information and training. IWMI carries out cross-dimensional analysis of gender and social inclusion in policy, financing, livelihood assets and access, institutional approaches and interventions as well as gender-based technology preferences. For example, we work with farmers, financial institutions and the private sector to address gender-based constraints in credit scoring and enhance women’s purchasing power. But benefitting from farmer-led irrigation does not stop at accessing and adopting technologies; enabling women and resource-poor farmers to participate in input and output markets is equally important to ensure that investments in irrigation result in improved nutrition and economic empowerment. Other ways we enhance gender and social inclusion include tackling agency issues around financial management and literacy, livelihood diversity and social capital as well as access to infrastructure, extension services and market linkages.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Environmental sustainability

Population pressure and increasing water competition in a changing climate require us to take stock of the availability and use of water across scales. Water availability not only influences farmers’ commercial prospects but also irrigation-related enterprises and agri-businesses. Greater water scarcity could jeopardize irrigation and agricultural markets while excessive water use can lead to declining ecosystems, water quality and soil health. IWMI advises development partners and the public and private sectors on all aspects of water resource availability and use through a variety of advanced modeling and remote-sensing products and tools, including Water Accounting+solar irrigation mapping and internet of things. These are complemented by multi-criteria analysis to evaluate the potential of irrigation expansion, taking into consideration environmental flows. With our private sector partners, we are leveraging converging technologies, such as sensors on solar pumps that capture usage data, to encourage better resource management and governance.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

Adaptive scaling and partnerships

The ability of farmers to engage in or expand irrigation depends on the prevailing socioeconomic, ecological and political contexts, which are often complex, non-linear and changeable. Overcoming systemic barriers to farmer-led irrigation development while taking advantage of existing opportunities requires scaling processes to be adaptive. This means diverse actors feed off, adapt to, support, cooperate, compete and interact with each other, forming different multi-actor networks and engaging in collective action to undertake various functions in the scaling ecosystem. IWMI works with farmers and public and private sector partners to co-design and pilot contextually relevant innovation bundles and their scaling pathways or strategies, influence policies and accelerate the transition to scale of innovations with demonstrated early impact.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

Financing ecosystem

A lack of affordable credit, particularly for women and resource-poor farmers, is one of the main barriers to expanding farmer-led irrigation in low- and middle-income countries. But credit alone is not enough. Financing for irrigation equipment must be embedded in a wider financing ecosystem that bundles credit with inputs and services, market information and access, and technology such as digital payment. In several countries, irrigation equipment suppliers are stepping in to provide financing directly to farmers. In doing so, they increase their own risk. To address this issue, IWMI works with farmers, private companies, finance institutions and development partners such as the World Bank Group to analyze whether credit-scoring tools are inclusive. We also help to identify gaps in the financing ecosystem and de-risk the private sector from testing innovative end-user financing mechanisms that take into account farming system typologies, financial and social capital and crop seasonality.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion

Human capacity development and knowledge exchange

Scaling farmer-led irrigation requires strengthening human capacity and knowledge exchange among all actors and stakeholders involved. IWMI takes an action research approach, working with national and international research institutions, governments, extension agents and public and private organizations to co-develop the scaling ecosystem and strengthen capacity to drive scaling networks and collective action. We support the development of or reinforce national multi-stakeholder dialogues with the aim of sharing scaling experiences and realizing win-win collaboration, interactive learning and capacity development. Other modalities for capacity development include hackathons, innovation research grants for bachelor’s and master’s students, private sector scaling grants and innovation internships with private companies. These all serve to stimulate local and contextually relevant innovation, close the research-private sector divide and enhance job readiness among young professionals.

This focus area contributes to the following One CGIAR impact areas:

Nutrition, health and food security Poverty reduction, livelihoods and jobs Gender equality, youth and inclusion Environmental health and biodiversity Climate adaptation and mitigation

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