What is Sanitation Innovation? An interview with Peter Morgan.

Peter Morgan is one of my heroes. To me, he is a giant in the world of WASH innovation, responsible for many groundbreaking technologies over a career which has spanned more than half a century. Since we met in 2012, Peter has inspired me with his work as 'a quiet garden tinkerer', through his gentle and humble approach to asking questions, and searching for solutions.

I interviewed Peter in June 2022.

Anthony & Peter in Johannesburg 2012.

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. Here I am copying one of my heroes, from the body language to the scruffy jumper (I still need to work on the hair though!).

 

AK: Peter, you are fondly known through the world of ‘WASH’ as a life-long innovator. From your Blair latrine (known outside of Zimbabwe as the ‘VIP' latrine) to your work with affordable rural water pumps, to ecological sanitation, it seems your innovative spirit burns as bright as ever. As you approach the grand old age of 80, how do you keep going? PM: As one gets older, you must remain active in some way. I live in a country where many of my technical developments are used by large numbers of people, so my interest is maintained. I have no qualifications in WASH and am a zoologist by profession, so I have come to see the world of WASH from the outside. I have many interests outside WASH. A lot of technical developments have started off in the garden. It is a good place to test and experiment with ideas in private. Sometimes they may work and at other time they do not work. That is the nature of experimentation. Some people call this research, I call it tinkering in the back yard! AK: I have heard (from colleagues in the WASH sector) that innovation is "a good thing as well as a bad thing”. I have seen and heard the word ‘innovation’ splashed around (especially on project proposals) as a buzzword like ‘sustainability’ and ‘inclusivity’, but I am not always convinced that those who splash it around know what it means. What does innovation mean to you, and is there a universal definition of ‘innovation’?

PM: I presume innovation means doing something which can either be a further development of something which exists, or it is a new development. This has been common in the field of technical developments and inventions. Perhaps it is a new way of addressing a problem. It is sometimes an advantage to come into a discipline from the outside where one is not fixed into ideas which have been taught in school or the universities. It gives one the freedom to looking at things in a different way. The technical requirements in development depend largely on the target to which the development is aimed. In my case it is low tech. because that is more suitable for the rural poor. But even low tech. things can go through a process of upgrading. In my own case some of the technical developments were not described in the texts of the time, such as the spiral tube waterwheel pump or the Blair Pump. The spiral tube invention had been lost to science and this was a sort of re-invention using what one had thought out oneself. The same applies to the Blair Pump. In other cases, like the Blair toilet, my background in zoology made a significant contribution as the concept depends on mimicking the termite anthill ventilation and the behavior of flies. My supervisor at the University was an entomologist who had specialized in the study of insects and ants. Biological principles also had a significant effect on my work in ecological sanitation.

AK: I describe myself as an innovator because I like to try things differently when addressing a challenge that traditional solutions fail to address. I describe myself as an entrepreneur because I like to take on the risk in getting innovations out into the world for others to use. History will judge which description is most apt, and perhaps in my case, it will be neither. You are certainly an innovator, but are you an entrepreneur? Can you be one without the other?


PM: No I am not an entrepreneur. As I have viewed it, an entrepreneur is person who sets up some sort of business mainly for making profit by exploiting a potential market. That has never been an objective of mine. Many others have used the ideas I came up with and used it to make a profit for themselves. I have given everything I know away for free. Many people would regard this as foolish. They are probably right.

AK: You & I have talked many times about failures in the WASH sector, and how big institutions like development banks have failed in terms of 'mega-programs’ which do not deliver sustainable WASH services, but which also undermine local stakeholders. Moreover, I am convinced that the status quo WASH program paradigm is not a viable vehicle to spark and nurture innovation, and therefore I created the Sanitation Innovation Fund. However, creating the perfect environment to spark and nurture innovation can be as elusive as innovation itself. If we put you in charge of ‘Innovation for the global WASH sector’, what would you do to support innovators?

PM: I would support innovators by allowing and promoting their ideas to be tested in the real world first. The main force linked to innovation is not money but ideas coming out of the mind. Then, you must find an organization who has money and is prepared to fund an idea. In fact, the initial development of an idea can cost very little, as it is born in the mind of someone. Testing it out in the real world can cost money, but not much. In my own case, I belonged for 20+ years in a research organisation (Blair Lab) which funded innovations. Also, I had the advantage that it was a part of the government Ministry of Health. So, as an individual I had much on my side. Had the same ideas been born by individuals outside government or outside research organizations, they would have found it more difficult to get money to try things out.

Some (or maybe many) organizations do not like experimenting. When I left government and worked with a locally established NGO one of its aims was to try and do development work. So it is a case of finding an NGO who is prepared to try new ideas. But as in our case, new ideas within the WASH sector must be approved by Government. As you are finding - getting money to do things can be tricky, whilst at the same time countless billions are spent on war weaponry. I guess Bill Gates was one opening but I never had any contact with him or the millions he spent on so-called development. His top prize was an innovation which used human waste to make drinking water. A technology which has use in just about one place - the moon! Millions of dollars have been spent on sanitation technology development, but as far as I know very little of it came to anything. I may be wrong. I think organizations that do training and education in the field are a good route.

If I was asked to be put in charge of an organization for promoting Innovation for the global WASH sector, I would refuse it. That is the job of a bureaucrat or person good at raising money and being bureaucratic. I am not such a person.


AK: On your website (https://drpetermorgan.com/homelaboratory.html) you say that "failure can be part of success, as in the end, ideas develop in response to the search for an answer to a problem – and it is the search which can bear fruit and even find treasure”. However, ‘failure' is still a dirty word for most. What words of encouragement do you have for WASH innovators who think they are failing, or who are told they are failing?

PM: Doing things or research which leads to a negative answer can be very helpful as it redirects the journey one takes in developing things that eventually work. One learns from mistakes one has made along the path of development. Things that fail in the first instance can be thought of as lessons which contribute to success in the end. Albert Einstein once said “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” As far as giving words of encouragement to WASH innovators who think they are failing or are told they are failing.


The real test comes not from their own thoughts or the words of others, but the test by those who would use such innovations. This is the greatest test of all.


Peter Morgan, June 2022.


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