by Archana Apte
Sanitation, as many readers know, is a huge global health and safety issue. Access to hygienic toilets and hand-washing facilities prevents deadly waterborne diseases, increases privacy and safety for women and girls, and improves people’s overall quality of life. And as our world grows increasingly urbanized, more people lack proper sanitation facilities as governments struggle to meet the demands of these growing populations. It can be nearly impossible to achieve universal sewer coverage, for instance, in slums and informal settlements, due to infrastructure and expense obstacles.
Enter Sanergy. This for-profit social enterprise brings carefully designed portable toilet
units to disadvantaged people in urban slums, particularly Nairobi, Kenya. SEI had the pleasure of bringing in Sanergy’s co-founder and CEO, David Auerbach, to speak at Northeastern. Introducing portable, waterless toilets is not the innovative part of Sanergy. What’s unique is their funding and upkeep system, and their ability to scale up quite rapidly. Sanergy offers three different strategies for financing the toilet units. In commercial operation, a local businessman or businesswoman charges a small fee for each use, which is standard practice in many cities. The residential model has a landlord install units for 24/7 use by his/her clients. Finally, Sanergy units can be placed in schools, where school operators leave the bathroom open for use during school hours. Sanergy also teaches the owners safe cleaning habits for the units. The business model’s flexibility lets Sanergy cater to many different markets in a community.When a unit is full, the waste is transported by local employees to a nearby treatment facility. There, Sanergy converts the waste into compost after six months, when is sold to local farmers. Sanergy has taken advantage of the moneymaking potential of their fertilizer, including raising Black Soldier Flies for use in livestock feed. The animal feed brings in the most revenue for Sanergy, even though Mr. Auerbach didn’t expect the feed to be so popular!
A few additional features merit covering. Each unit comes equipped with soap or sanitizer and menstrual product disposal bins. This attention to hygiene has brought a 20% increase in attendance at schools where the units are installed, presumably due to menstruating girls being able to stay in school during their periods. In addition, a pilot conversion of the waste into biogas is underway. Biogas would power the waste transport trucks, helping to cut operational costs and move away from fossil fuels. The company is not without minor flaws. Sanergy toilets originally came with solar lights, but these were removed from the model when local franchisers did not use them. This reliance on local franchisers’ needs may compromise the needs of users; many local owners close the units during the night, and the lack of lighting may compromise users’ safety, especially at night. There is also the issue of access still being restricted to those who can pay for each toilet use. To combat this, CEO David Auerbach has pushed for the landlord-based model which is free of charge for tenants. Finally, Mr. Auerbach remarked that expansion can be slow when the company must navigate political and legal challenges.
Despite these issues, Sanergy is a great success. The units are very popular in Nairobi, and Sanergy has been endorsed by the World Bank. With the sanitation crisis still a major problem in growing cities around the world, perhaps these thoughtful and sustainable portable
toilets are one solution.
(Photo courtesy of Sanergy)