While we fret over our first-world problems, there are nearly 2.5 billion people without access to something we’ve long taken for granted in the United States—adequate sanitation. And it’s a deadly problem: An estimated 1.6 million children die yearly from diarrheal disease as the result of inadequate sanitation.
Makeshift solutions such as the “flying toilet” (a plastic bag discarded in the street) have become the norm in Kenya and other parts of the world, and result in disease. However, David Auerbach and his team at MIT spinout Sanergy believe they’ve found an alternative—by sparking entrepreneurialism as a way to combat the problem.
The nonprofit startup began as a Development Ventures class at MIT and early on incubated at the MIT Media Lab. But Auerbach says the initial inspiration came on a trip to gain a better understanding of the sanitation challenge within Kenya’s urban slums. “We saw that people in the community were extremely entrepreneurial and determined to change their community, but didn’t have the right technology or the right business model,” he said.
It was there that Auerbach and his colleagues, Ani Vallabhaneni and Lindsay Stradley, realized the potential for a franchise model for selling toilets.
Sanergy designs and builds low-cost toilet units, dubbed Fresh Life Toilets, and then sells them to local entrepreneurs who become franchise partners. The franchisees charge for usage of the toilets, and can make up to $40 a week by running two toilets. Every franchisee gets training, marketing support, and a daily waste collection service.
In 2011, Sanergy received $100,000 as a grand prize winner in the MassChallenge startup program. The startup has since raised funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, social enterprise fellowships, and governments. Sanergy isn’t sharing the total amount of funding it has received, though one grant, $1.5 million from USAID, has been disclosed.
Broadening its reach
Sanergy’s goal is to create a franchise model that can be taken to any country. “The model needs tailoring to each country we go to, but we think that if we get the unit economics right, it can be taken anywhere,” said Auerbach, though as of right now the company plans to stay focused on Kenya.
When Sanergy provided 15 schools with access to sanitation, enrollment and attendance at the schools spiked by 20 percent by the next semester, which “shows that providing good toilets is attractive to parents about where they send their kids,” Auerbach said.
Since then, Sanergy has caught the attention of the Ministry of Education and plans “to roll out a significant pilot with them which if all goes well, could become a national policy,” he said.
Overall, in the last two-and-a-half years, Sanergy has opened 415 Fresh Life Toilets offering almost 20,000 people access to affordable, clean sanitation, and has created approximately 500 jobs in the process.
Recycling into fertilizer
The waste from the Fresh Life Toilets is removed daily and then aggregated at a centralized facility, where it’s converted mostly into organic fertilizer, Auerbach said. From there, Sanergy sells the fertilizer to local Kenyan farms. “We are upfront with the farms we work with” about the source of the fertilizer, and the “reactions are extremely positive,” Auerbach said. Due to the high costs of fertilizer in East Africa, Sanergy’s fertilizer offers organic fertilizer to farmers at a far more reasonable price. Every batch of fertilizer provided is pathogen-free and certified to ensure compliance with World Health Organization standards.
Along with Vallabhaneni and Stradley, the other co-founders of the company are Nathan Cooke and Joel Veenstra.
The bottom line: while it’s still just a startup, what Sanergy has created is a potential answer to a major affliction affecting the lives of more than a billion people.
Kareya Saleh is a freelance writer living in the Boston area. She is currently working on a master's degree in journalism from Northeastern University. She has previously interned with the Washington Business Journal and Al-Jazeera English.
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