Some non-profits and some social entrepreneurs have looked at ways of solving the problem by providing sanitation solutions to the poor. A team of engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found a way make a business venture out of the human waste. Instead of selling inexpensive toilets to the poor, they have found away to convert the waste into energy that can be sold back into the grid.
From Forbes Magazine blogs, writer Elmira Bayrasli introduces us to Sanergy founded by MIT grads David Auerbach and Ani Vallabhaneni.
Auerbach and Vallabhaneni knew what they didn’t know. What they didn’t know was that they couldn’t draft up a sanitation solution in Boston – without the insights and input of those in the developing world. Committed to launching a start-up that would truly work for the poor, the two, along with a team of MIT classmates traveled to Kenya for the answers. Kenya, with eight million without access to proper sanitation but a university filled with bright and eager minds to help solve the problem, was an ideal testing ground. In January 2010 the team, in collaboration with the University of Nairobi, conducted a user survey among Kenya’s urban poor, inquiring about their lives. “It was important to us that we found a solution that fit into their lives, not our imagination of their lives,” Auerbach says.
What they found was that Kenya’s poor were interested in having compact stalls that could fit into the tight spaces of their usually one-room homes, rather than large community outhouses. They wanted a “permanent” feel to the stalls rather than the flimsy feel of a porta-potty. As a result, Auerbach, Vallabhaneni and their Sanergy team that includes engineers, architects and designers drew up plans for a 3×5 toilet made out of thin shell cement that is locally produced for $200 per unit. Each toilet is designed for a 100 uses per day. They are units, which also collect waste in double-sealed 30L containers, rather than pits, or septic tanks “that are then drained into waterways.” It is this waste collection that is key.
More than where to go to the bathroom, how to dispose of human waste is, as Auerbach points out, a primary reason that no one touches the issue of toilets. That was Sanergy’s opportunity. Recognizing that, though “messy,” human waste can be converted through anaerobic digestion to produce fertilizer or electricity. It is also where the Sanergy team recognized that it could generate revenue.
Sanergy produces toilets that are franchised to local operators who charge around $0.06 per use. Currently the company has two toilets serving approximately 150 each day. One is at Bridge International school (a for-profit school supported by the Omidyar Network), the other in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum. These local operators keep all revenues. That, Auerbach says, is an incentive for them to clean, maintain and “market” the toilets. The operators then work with groups who collect the waste daily and bring it to facilities where it is converted to energy. “The waste from each toilet generates Sanergy revenues of $1250 per year.” The waste from 10 million creates a potential market of $178 million per year. Brown gold.