A clean bill of health

How one Leeds student used engineering knowhow and dogged determination to help a community. 

When Edoardo Bono first travelled to Madagascar on a family holiday a few years ago, he was struck most by the Indian Ocean Island’s stunning scenery, unique ecosystems, the variety of its wildlife and its warm and welcoming people. 

It was later, when the engineering student travelled again to the island from his home in Turin, Italy, he learned that around 85 per cent of the country’s 23 million population did not have a toilet and in some areas few people had access to clean water. When he asked for the bathroom, the locals pointed towards the forest or the beach. Women risked attack as well as snake bites when they ventured out in the night to relieve themselves. Infant mortality was high, life expectancy low, and diarrhoeal illness endemic – with run-off including human excrement infecting the rivers and streams where people washed themselves.

Edoardo wanted to put his engineering knowhow to good use. He talked to the community elders and government about the benefits and logistics of a plan to start the installation of a water sanitation system in one village on the outlying island of Nosy Iranja. He then set about building the first of what he hopes will be basic squat toilet cubicle with a sink and fresh clean water supply plus septic tank and soak-away mechanism for each of 300 homes.

“They knew all about the problem and its knock-ons for the economy as well as health, and were happy to have help from someone,” says Edoardo. “My plan was to provide facilities that were made from local materials – apart from concrete, which we have to import.
“In the pilot scheme we have so far installed 17 private toilets, and it’s going very well. The home owners puts their own roof on and paint the walls and door, so they are involved and we keep our costs down.” 

Edoardo began an MSc in Water Sanitation and Health Engineering at Leeds in 2015, and has been able to call on the expertise of colleagues at the University. So for he has travelled to Madagascar a dozen times to oversee his project.

Stunning scenery warm and welcoming people, Edoardo and friendsStunning scenery, warm and welcoming people. Edoardo and friends. 

The cost of each toilet installation is £120 - with Edoardo working on a voluntary basis and paying all his own expenses. The scheme has involved not only helping to train three local builders in how to replicate this specialist work and spending weeks at a time living in very basic conditions, but also fundraising to keep the project afloat. “To begin with friends gave money and I organised little events in Turin to raise cash, but I’ve also applied to various sources of funding in Italy. It’s complicated and time-consuming,” says Edoardo. “Whenever I’m in Italy I also earn money for the project by tutoring students in Maths.”

He set up the non-governmental organisation Help For Optimism (H4O) to administer the project, raise money and publicise the work, and a Dutch charitable foundation came in with some cash in return for information from Edoardo on his sanitation system – which they hope to replicate in Nepal. 

Separate cubicle and a water sanitation system will have a positive impact of people's health. Separate cubicle and a water sanitation system will have a positive impact of people's health.

Alongside the sanitation work that will measurably change the lives of thousands of people and improve public health in Madagascar, Edoardo decided, in partnership with the government, to develop and raise money for the installation of a clean water supply to the only hospital on the Madagascan island of Nosy Be.

Currently there is no water most of the time. He also noticed that while children on the islands had good teeth, those of people in their 20s and 30s were bad. Where toothpaste was used at all, it was an inferior product that was expensively imported. An affordable, high quality and locally produced source of disinfectant soap was also needed. So, in typically determined and pragmatic fashion, Edoardo got the pharmacy department of the University of Turin to help out with methods and quality control and sourced a good supply of raw materials from Madagascar’s main island. Now four young women work full-time on a sustainable soap and toothpaste project.

“I want the ideas that are working in Madagascar to go into global development,” says Edoardo. “There’s no reason why they can’t be used elsewhere, but what we need now is consistent funding. My goal is to give local people the competency and sustainability to carry on by themselves.”

Sustainable soap and toothpaste project.Sustainable soap and toothpaste project. 

Recently, Leeds named H4O as its volunteering project of the year for 2016. Greg Miller, head of student placement at Leeds, says that upwards of 3,500 of the University’s students are involved in volunteering each year with projects that improve the community whether on a local, national or international level.

“The volunteering ethos is very strong at Leeds. While hundreds of organisations benefit from the energy and ideas of these bright young people, the students themselves gain a great deal by feeling involved in the wider community.

“Many of student volunteers are helped by the Leeds for Life Foundation, which is funded by Leeds alumni donations to the Footsteps Fund and by Santander. The Foundation gives grants to students whose projects will help others and add to their own skills.” Some opportunities are Students’ Union led and others such as Students into Schools were started by the University itself. While some focus on projects like Eduardo’s in Madagascar, others create benefits closer to home.

“Whether working with a small environmental or social project, a school or national or international charity, volunteering helps students to learn about team work, critical thinking, civic awareness. It also gives both practical and communications skills, promotes cultural awareness and a local version of a global perspective.

“When they leave Leeds and go into the world of work, they take all of this with them.”

Words: Sheena Hastings 
Images: Edoardo Bono

This story first appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Leeds magazine.