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The Silicon Valley of Shit: Nairobi Is Ground Zero for Sanitation Innovation

Social entrepreneurs have flocked to Nairobi to profit from peoples’ excrement.

A Sanergy toilet in Nairobi. See more pictures of toilet technology in Kenya.

A “flying toilet” is a particularly Kenyan device: a small grocery bag used as a toilet and then tossed out the window onto the street. The first encounter is both fascinating and grotesque—was that seriously what I just stepped on?

Granted, finding a decent bathroom facility in a big city is never a fun endeavor. Even in the developed world, you can face an endless search for a public bathroom, perhaps ending with a dip into a Starbucks or McDonalds to purchase a latté and the privilege of a (relatively) clean bathroom for $2.

In Nairobi, $2 is half of many people’s daily income, and nearly half of Kenya’s population lacks access to proper sanitation. Almost 70 percent of everyone else uses the crudest form of “toilet” available—a hole in the ground. There are certainly no Starbucks, and only a handful of overcrowded, unhygienic, and sometimes unsafe public toilets are scattered around the center of the city—most of which have fallen into disrepair and cannot be used.

In the slums, where the majority of residents don’t have toilets in their dwellings, the solution is a small row of wooden shacks (pit latrines) with holes in the floor, built on raised platforms and shared by as many as 400 households. When it rains, there is nothing more than a few pieces of eroded wood stopping disease from floating around the rest of the neighborhood.

It’s been more than 30 years since the Kenyan government invested in urban public sanitation facilities, and what little infrastructure remained from the early era of independence has fallen into horrendous disrepair.

Yet while the government lacks funds, initiative, and directive for innovation in sanitation, a unique blend of social entrepreneurs have flocked to Nairobi, all seeking one noble goal: Profiting from peoples’ excrement.

Sanergy: Poo, Energy, and Fertilizer

“Nairobi’s become the Silicon Valley of shit,” says Ani Vallabhaneni, co-founder of Sanergy, a company recently launched by young graduates from MIT's Sloan School of Business that is one of several trying to revolutionize, and profit from, the flailing Kenyan sanitation industry.

Sanergy ("sanitation" plus "energy") began in a Massachusetts classroom as an idea to decentralize waste collection and processing, then blossomed into a practical way of bringing toilets to Kenya’s slums while improving sanitation, energy, and even the agriculture industry across Kenya. The company recently won $100,000 in a business plan competition at MIT, and is now piloting their model of pay-per-use toilets, branded “Fresh Life,” around the slums of Nairobi. The founders' goal is to create a network of franchised low-cost toilets in slums, owned and operated by local entrepreneurs, while also providing an affordable option for residential toilets.

Yet their business model isn’t simply building toilets. Rather than septic tanks, pit latrines, or sewer systems, Fresh Life toilets collect waste in airtight containers. The biomass will eventually feed a centralized biogas digester, converting it into methane gas to produce electricity and nutrient-rich fertilizer that can be sold on market. Sanergy projects that in 2013 the company will operate 1,000 toilets, generating enough energy to begin selling power directly back into the grid.

Sanergy could have been launched anywhere in the world, but Ani says that Nairobi made sense because when it comes to sanitation in Kenya, consumers seem to be “hacking together solutions like flying toilets.” That showcases a market opportunity for solutions. Contrary to what many people may think of when they imagine African slums, businesses are thriving. Customers are more than willing to pay for services if they are affordable and available. And with fertilizer prices in Kenya twice the global average because of a lack of domestic production and an ever-growing demand for energy, Sanergy won’t be hard-pressed to find customers for its secondary products.

PeePoople: Just A Bag?

PeePoople, a social enterprise from Sweden, is also making a (waterless) splash in Nairobi’s slums. The company recently received a 1.6 million-Euro grant to pilot the sales of small single-use hygienic bags called "PeePoos," which turn human waste into fertilizer.

The bags sanitize the waste shortly after defecation, preventing it from contaminating the surrounding environment. After just a few weeks, the bags convert the waste into a nutrient-rich fertilizer. The PeePoo bags, which sell at a PeePoople-subsidized cost of three Kenyan shillings each (about three cents) are used at home, then returned to one of two "dropoff" points where customers get a 1-shilling incentive refund for returning the bags.

While some may protest the idea of using nothing more than a chemically treated doggy bag as a "sanitation solution," consider the alternatives: The “flying toilets” and communal pit latrines leave much to be desired. Peepoople Co-founder Camilla Wirseen claims the bags have “a nice touch, nice feeling, and they don’t smell after you're done,” adding that the PeePoo is one of the few solutions that meets all of the requirements for the World Health Organization's guiding principles for "sanitation.” With no running water and little space to build proper toilets, the PeePoo is certainly an innovative, if not entirely attractive, personal option.

Ecotact: A Homegrown Solution

It’s not just international entrepreneurs hawking new toilets in Kenya. The first company to privatize the fledging sanitation sector in 2006 was Ecotact, a homegrown social enterprise that set out to bring clean, affordable, pay-per-use toilets and showers to Kenya’s urban centers.

In five years, the company has installed more than 40 “Ikotoilet” facilities across the country, all running profitably and collectively serving more than 30,000 people a day. “We invest in innovations,” says founder and CEO David Kuria, a former architect with an MBA and a passion for social solutions. When Ecotact came about, “urban public sanitation was a nightmare... so we started with the toilet because we felt it was the most complex thing.” Originally, the company intended to simply pilot innovative santiation models before letting other private companies or the government scale them, but demand was so high that they simply couldn’t abandon them

The Ikotoilet runs on a unique build-operate-transfer model that depends on participation, and ultimate ownership, of government municipalities, which must lease public land to Ecotact at no cost. Ecotact then agrees to build and run an Ikotoilet facility for five years or until the company has recouped its costs; at the end of the contract, the company gives the government the option of renewing the lease or taking over the Ikotoilet themselves. The hope is that the government takes these facilities over.

In Kuria’s view, public sanitation is about creating social equity for the poor by giving everyone the choice of a clean, private space to go to the bathroom or shower. It’s the basic right of sanitation that, in many instances, governments aren’t providing.

In Kawangware, a slum 15 kilometers outside of Nairobi, Jane Wangu is the head cashier of an Ikotoilet facility, and has worked there since it opened nearly a year ago. Wangu, a widowed mother of three, sees her job as “community work” that has a big impact on her neighbors' lives. She even cites instances of residents in surrounding neighborhoods instructing their guests to use the Ikotoilet instead of their own rudimentary facilities at home.

The Ikotoliet in the Central Business District of Nairobi, directly in front of the National Archives, even has an M-Pesa (mobile money) agent station and a shoe-shine service. The community atmosphere surrounding the Ikotoilets—along with Ecotact’s efforts to promote sanitation in schools, leverage celebrity endorsements, and produce an “eco-digest” magazine—demonstrates how the company is thinking “beyond the toilet” to pursue a shift in public attitudes toward sanitation.

More Choice Than Number One or Number Two

These projects aren’t only important to Kenyans. Some 2.6 billion people around the world lack access to proper sanitation. This Saturday, November 19, is World Toliet Day, an event meant to turn the world’s attention to a problem that isn’t talked about enough.

There is incredible potential in a toilet. Beyond offering a sense of dignity and major public health advantages to citizens, a toilet can create energy for a city, fertilizer for farms, and employment for young and disadvantaged citizens. Thanks to these three social business, Kenyans can pay just five shillings (about six cents)—the price of piece of candy on the street—for something they didn't have before: a choice in sanitation. Whether it’s a bag, a box, or a clean facility with a personal shower or bathroom, having that choice makes a big difference.

Published in partnership with Dowser.

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Kalan.

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