Five students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology founded Sanergy, which sells Fresh Life toilets to Kenyan entrepreneurs in areas where poor sanitation kills thousands. Meanwhile, Sanergy is profiting from selling the waste for fertilizer. Jackie Storer reports
For 28-year-old Alex Wekesa the death of his neighbour’s 14-month-old son was the moment he realized he had to do something to prevent more children dying from a lack of basic sanitation.
The little boy had been doing what toddlers do – crawling around in a field, picking things up. But that bare ground doubled as an open pit latrine, where locals dumped “flying toilets” – plastic bags filled with waste. To add to the dangers, the area was a gathering point for criminals dealing in drugs.
“My neighbour’s boy became very ill, very quickly,” said Wekesa, a micro-entrepreneur who lives in Mukuru, a slum of 500,000 residents near Nairobi’s industrial area. “He got diarrhoea and never recovered – and all because of a lack of good sanitation. It was a turning point for me. I decided I never wanted to see another child ill or dying again.”
Now Wekesa is the proud owner of two of Sanergy’s Fresh Life toilets – brightly coloured concrete constructions placed in the heart of Mukuru. Each one contains soap and water to clean hands.
Wekesa charges four Kenyan shillings (0.03p, 0.05 US cents) for adults to use the facilities and two shillings (0.01p, 0.02 US cents) per child. And instead of the waste being strewn across the streets in plastic bags, it is taken away daily in sealed 30-litre cartridges to a processing site, where it is converted into organic fertilizer.
“Before people were throwing bags everywhere – it was a dangerous place for children to play,” said Wekesa. “But now the streets are so much cleaner and it’s creating jobs for people from my community.”
The toilets are made by Sanergy, a Kenyan-based social business that aims to provide sustainable and affordable sanitation in Nairobi’s urban slums. They are the brainchild of five graduates from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wanted to find a business solution to the problem.
Risk of rape
Some 2.5 billion people in the developing world do not have access to a hygienic toilet, resulting in the deaths of over 500,000 children each year from disease. Having to go out under the cover of darkness also puts women at risk of rape and assault. According to a report by Amnesty International, the shortage of toilets and places to wash in the slums heightens the risk of gender-based violence. In May this year, two teenage girls were gang-raped and killed in India after they went outdoors to the toilet.
‘People in low income communities in Kenya are willing to pay for sanitation facilities, so that presents a market opportunity for our network of entrepreneurs,’ Sanergy co-founder David Auerbach
In the Nairobi slum of Mathare, a mother-of-two contracted HIV after she was attacked en route to a field latrine. “We’re hearing that people feel much safer because the Fresh Life toilets are much closer to the community,” said Sanergy co-founder David Auerbach. “And research suggests that having access to a clean toilet reduces the incidence of diarrhoea by 40%.”
The toilets are sold to entrepreneurial locals for US$600, which includes business advice, marketing assistance and supplies such as a mop, bucket and solar lantern. While the outlay is high, for a community whose average earnings are around US$10 (£6) a month, many are using Sanergy partners Kiva, a non-profit group that facilitates micro-lending, to help operators invest in Fresh Life.
“People in low income communities in Kenya are willing to pay for sanitation facilities, so that presents a market opportunity for our network of entrepreneurs,” said Auerbach. “The facilities are owned and operated by people from the community so they’re investing their own money into them and that’s a very different approach to a company coming in, fitting the toilets and expecting the community to change.
“Instead they are champions for what we’re doing and are reaping the benefits too because they are keeping all the revenue from charging people to use the toilet, so they’re incentivised to ensure they’re providing clean toilets, good opening hours in convenient locations and a service the customer wants.”
Sanergy employs 220 Fresh Life entrepreneurs, who in turn have hired 80 attendants to clean and run their business. The 170-strong Sanergy team, who construct the toilets, sell them, work in marketing, communications and government relations are 93% Kenyan.
Alex Wekesa’s business is going so well he employs a single mother to keep his toilets clean, to record payments and to attract new customers, leaving him enough savings to stock his boutique with second hand clothes. Other Fresh Life owners set up small kiosks next to their toilets to sell nappies, toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, washing powder, soap and petroleum jelly to make extra cash.
From 50 customers a day when he opened his first toilet in July, 2012 – just two months’ after his neighbour’s death – Wekesa, who holds a certificate in analytical chemistry from Eldoret Polytechnic, now has 150 customers on weekdays and up to 180 on weekends.
And if people cannot pay now, Wekesa allows them to settle up later. “The best thing about informal settlements is people can always earn money doing casual jobs like washing clothes, selling soap and flour, which means they can pay Alex weekly or even monthly, according to how they get the money,” said Sanergy communications fellow Esther Njeri.
Fertilizer drives revenue
But for Sanergy, it is the waste-to-fertilizer side of the business that is the “real driver of revenue”. “While farmers are very keen on organic fertilizer, virtually none is produced domestically in Kenya – instead it is imported,” said David Auerbach. “We’re working with a variety of farms, from wheat to vegetables, tea and coffee, and all our trials are showing increased crop yields and much healthier soil – the farmers have been really enthusiastic about what they have seen. So to be able to provide a nutrient rich, pathogen-free fertilizer as a compliment to the imported, synthetic variety is a great opportunity for us.”
‘We’re hearing that people feel much safer because the Fresh Life toilets are much closer to the community,’ Sanergy co-founder David Auerbach
And Sanergy is now exploring further uses for the material. “At a pilot level we’re experimenting with extracting gas from the waste which naturally produces methane. Kenya has regular power shortages so there’s a case for independent producers selling electricity to the grid.”
So far Sanergy has 425 facilities in the network around Mukuru, serving 18,000 users a day – but Auerbach admits Sanergy needs to collect the waste from 1,000 outlets, serving 50,000 people, to break even, which he expects it will do by 2016.
The company’s annual budget is propped up by a mix of capital support, private investment and grants from foundations and governments. Auerbach says it is Sanergy’s entire sanitation value chain – which encompasses toilets, waste collection and reuse – that is a particularly attractive model to potential funders. “People are very interested in the business approach to solving a social challenge,” he said.
Sanergy is now working in partnership with Oxfam to introduce Fresh Life toilets to 15 schools in the Mukuru area. The move has already increased attendance and enrolment rates by 20%, especially among girls. “Parents are choosing these schools because of the facilities that are on offer,” said Auerbach.
But while there is always pressure to expand its offering to other countries and disaster zones, Auerbach says there is sufficient need for adequate sanitation in Kenya to keep Sanergy going for some time. After all, the project has already succeeded in reaping some unexpected rewards for the locals who run and use the facilities in Mukuru. Agnes Kwamboka used to earn her living making and selling an illicit brew – but spending more money paying bribes to police than she ever took home. “My children had to steal for the family to get by,” she said.
But since opening her business in February 2012, she has not only been able to provide for her family, she is using the profits to learn to read and write so she is able to keep her own records. “Since I started running a Fresh Life toilet, my life has changed. I’m paying off my debts – I have inner peace – I am not constantly worrying that the police are coming to search my house,” she said. “While having hygienic sanitation is very important on its own, hearing the amazing stories that have come out of this makes me very happy.”