It’s easy to take something as ubiquitous as a toilet for granted when you live in a developed nation like the US.
But for many people around the world, lack of proper waste disposal and sanitation systems can cause widespread disease and even death.
To help solve this problem, Andrew Foote and Emily Woods started Sanivation — No. 55 on the BI 100: The Creators — a sanitation startup that installs in-home toilets in East Africa and turns the waste into briquettes of sustainable, environmentally friendly fuel.
Foote and Woods came up with the idea for turning waste into fuel as undergraduate students at Georgia Tech University in 2011. The pair developed a thermal treatment system for human faeces as a research project and later entered their work into Start-Up Chile, a business accelerator in South America.
While in Chile, they explored the sanitation space, encountering several startling statistics about developing countries, including the fact that 90% of waste is disposed of without treatment and that diarrhoeal disease is the second-leading cause of death of children under the age of 5. From there, Foote and Woods decided to go all in with the business.
Sanivation set up shop in Naivasha, Kenya, in 2013 with Foote as CEO and Woods as chief technology officer. Today, the company serves 650 people in the community there.
Foote and Woods knew from the beginning that to succeed they’d need to cover the entire system from start to finish. The lack of existing infrastructure in some parts of Kenya means that providing toilets or a treatment system wouldn’t make much of a difference; both must exist to effect systemic change.
So instead of providing one component of the waste-treatment business, Sanivation operates an end-to-end service. It installs private, container-based toilets in homes, and they are maintained for a $7 monthly fee. The waste collected from the toilets is taken to a processing plant, where it’s turned into fuel briquettes that work as an alternative to charcoal. This full-circle model takes a necessary system and elevates it into something sustainable and useful.
“People always joke that we’re running not one business but 10 businesses,” Woods says. “As a startup, it’s complicated, it’s logistically difficult. But we haven’t found anyone to reliably source any one component of this to. Right now, if we want it done right, we have to do it ourselves.”
Getting toilets into homes
The concept of in-home toilets was a hard sell to locals, much less an entire system.
“How do you market something that people feel uncomfortable talking about?” Woods says.
In Naivasha, where outdoor pit latrines are the norm, the mention of an in-home toilet led many to immediately picture an open latrine inside their home — not a preferable alternative to the outdoor version. So Sanivation branded their version as “blue boxes” to dispel the negative connotations potential people had with the word “toilet.”
On top of that, Sanivation had to convince clients, many of whom can’t count on a steady monthly paycheck, that paying the monthly fee for the toilet was a worthwhile expense.
Training customer-service representatives and maintaining communication with clients proved to be another challenge, especially once the team realised that many homes in Naivasha don’t have addresses. Undeterred, they developed an address system themselves.
In the end, these bumps in the road, and a host of others, helped Sanivation improve its product. The company thrives on client feedback, constantly seeking constructive criticism directly from their customers.
“If we’re not doing a good job, our client is not going to pay the next month,” Foote explains. “By being beholden to our clients and delivering quality services to them, we always learn that keeping good, open communication channels is really important.”
From faeces to fuel: how it works
No existing toilet system meant that no existing treatment plant existed in Naivasha, so Sanivation designed and built one from the ground up. Led by Woods as CTO, the team developed a parabolic mirror treatment system themselves, harnessing the natural energy from the sun to heat up waste and kill germs.
Sanivation combines two waste streams in a metal bucket — human excrement and carbonized agricultural biomass waste, which comes from things like sugarcane gas, corn cobs, rose farms, and rice husks — and heats it to a temperature that neutralizes harmful pathogens and allows the waste to be transformed into a briquette of fuel.
The briquettes have been a hit with local businesses, which purchase them directly from the Sanivation team.
“Our charcoal briquettes outperform traditional charcoal,” Foote says. “So we’re actually selling them at a higher price than traditional charcoal per kilogram, and we’re saving our clients money because they burn longer and have less smoke.”
Sanivation sells 7,000 kilograms, or 15,400 pounds, of the alternative fuel each month and consistently empties its stock.
“We need more poop to be able to keep up with demand,” Woods says.
The entire treatment process demonstrates a core aspect of Sanivation’s business model: relentless innovation. With no outside infrastructure to rely on, Woods and Foote must adapt and change almost daily to meet needs and advance their mission.
Looking to the future
Going forward, Sanivation’s biggest goal is also its biggest hurdle: scaling the company.
Sanivation operates 100 toilets in Naivasha and plans to expand to more than 500 by the end of 2016. The company is also working with refugee camps to build customised systems and train residents to operate them on their own.
Though a few other businesses are attempting similar container-based sanitation systems, none have reached a large scale yet, which leaves the space open for innovation and growth.
Woods says the company is going to have to change to be able to reach the scale it wants.
Sanivation may still be small, but it’s already affecting people’s lives. Foote recalls an older customer coming up to him one day and bending over with her hands pressed together in a salute of gratitude.
“You could just see that the toilet had so much more impact than as a public-health thing,” he says. “This lady typically had to squat over some faeces and urine-laced slab, and now she had a nice, comfortable way to go to the bathroom. And she was so thankful for that.”
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